In an online live forum held on 30 September 2021, The Emdash Show, organized by Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia, four top guns in the Malaysian book industry took center stage, discussing the challenges and the future of the industry. The panelists are Mutalib Uthman, CEO of Perbadanan Kota Buku; Arief Hakim Sani, President of the Malaysian Book Publishers Association (MABOPA); Keith Thong, President of the Malaysian Booksellers Association; and Dr. Rashidah Bolhassan, President of the Librarians Association of Malaysia.
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The signs and the market uncertainties
Despite the vibrant literary scene and a wide range of publications in various forms and languages, the Malaysian book industry has been going through turbulent times. Of recent, the book and publishing fraternities have been adversely affected in many ways with the closure of bookshops, drop in sales and publishers ceasing operation.
The signs can be seen on all fronts. According to Arief Hakim Sani, almost 30 bookstores closed shop in 2020. In 2021, 22 shops have already ceased operating, while a dozen have announced impending closure. MABOPA membership has also been shrinking by almost 20%, down from over 220 members.
The COVID-19 pandemic that brought the country to almost a standstill has accelerated the decline. Due to the movement restriction, Malaysia’s biggest publishing event, the Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair, shifted to online mode. For many publishers and booksellers, the physical fair is the largest revenue contributor, and the absence of major economic activities has pushed them into a volatile situation.
In the Twelfth Malaysia Plan (2021-2025), no signs of revampings that would directly benefit the book industry can be seen. The industry has also been grieving from the fiscal policy changes that worked well before, such as the RM1,000 book-purchase tax relief and the book vouchers. The stakes are high for the powers-that-be to Squid Game the industry.
Mutalib Uthman opined that without more innovative approaches, the Malaysian book industry would continue to be marginalized. One of Perbadanan Kota Buku’s efforts is creating a “super app” called Boca.my, which acts as a one-stop center as an e-commerce platform, publishing event calendars, an e-book distribution platform, and a marketplace for publishing-related jobs.
To digitalize or not?
Digital and e-book publishing have been showing some healthy growth in recent times, both in global and local scenes. Based on a recent case study involving the National Library and the Sarawak State Library, usage of digital content went up a massive 5,000% compared to the situation three years ago.
Keith Thong shared that most of the association’s 100-odd members operate in a hybrid model. Many had to shift to digital and online mode for quite some time since bookstores were listed outside of essential business during the pandemic-induced movement control order (MCO). Going online and establishing e-commerce requires considerable technical and monetary investment, and many traditional booksellers made the hesitant transition to digital operation.
Another rampant issue affecting many industries in Malaysia is privacy. And publishing industry is no exception. Digital privacy remains a painful challenge, with no end near in sight. Many publishers have suffered from unscrupulous parties illegally copying and publicly distributing copyrighted content, seemingly oblivious to the legal consequences.
Down but not out
However, all is not lost. On the one hand, global book sales continue to plummet. On the other, global reports indicate that reading interest among the public has increased, while good titles continue to be grabbed. Book loans are on the rise. Mutalib asserted that publishers should focus on identifying targeted audiences rather than increasing the number of titles. Establishing the audience will allow a publisher to publish titles high in demand.
According to Dr. Rashidah Bolhassan, libraries continue to attract users, but the advent of digital publishing has changed the way people interact with library products and infrastructure. Malaysian libraries began the digitalization initiative two decades ago, but it is only in recent years that things have picked up at an accelerated pace. University libraries are now experiencing active digital access, with increasing usage demand from students and researchers. Libraries also continue to innovate to make them home to the “third place” for research and community space.
In 2020, Kuala Lumpur was chosen as the World Book Capital, emphasizing its commitment to nation-building through various literary programs and reading advocacy campaigns. Winning the trust took many years of thoughtful planning, which signifies the industry’s pledge to inculcate love for knowledge.
The challenges faced by the Malaysian book industry are something that all relevant stakeholders should not take lightly. Proactively looking for ways to turn things around is critical as the country is strengthening its efforts towards being a developed nation. Undertaking these steps is vital as Malaysia aims to become an up-and-coming destination for students, researchers, academics, and professionals to gain knowledge and experience.
Industry players are also waiting in anticipation of the release of the National Book Policy (Dasar Buku Negara). More importantly, they want to know what the policy entails and how it can help rejuvenate the book industry and the publishing ecosystem.
Amidst all adversities, there is hope. But as they say, hope is not a strategy. Will the phoenix finally rise from the ashes? Only time will tell.
Note: The Emdash Show is a brand extension of Emdash.my, Penerbit USM’s official e-commerce platform.