An obituary for the book industry?

  • The Bowerbird Writes
  • Monday, 29 Apr 2019

MANY writers certainly aspire to be J.K. Rowling, one of the most commercially successful novelists in the world today. She is said to be worth RM4bil.

There are perhaps others as successful as she is. But the story of how she wrote her first novel is the stuff of legends.

In this country, writing in Bahasa Malaysia, with a print-run of 3,000 copies and enjoying a royalty of 10%, one can never be rich.

None of our 13 Literary Laureates so far even come close to living comfortably from their royalties.

The idea of a reasonably successful novelist in this country is one who gets 100,000 copies of any title printed. In most cases, the genre is novel picisan (popular novel).

Book publishing is not for the weak-hearted.

Publishers are shying away from publishing general books and creative works. The money is in textbooks and workbooks.

Only the likes of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) and Institut Ter­je­mahan Buku Malaysia (ITBM) are continuing the tradition of publishing serious literary works.

The DBP published 450 titles last year, more than 50% are textbooks for the Education Ministry.

For the open market, they can only sell RM20mil worth of books.

General books are hard to sell. Serious creative works are even harder to sell.

At one point, the DBP had in its stores books worth more than RM70mil. We expect them to publish good books but these books don’t sell. Period.

Most other publishers are targeting less serious readers.

The so-called “independent publishers” were mushrooming at one point. There were more than 43 such publishers a few years ago.

Popular novels or romance was the craze. Publishers were churning “light and easy” novels at breakneck speed.

Language purists were alarmed at the kind of books published.

The “free-for-all” literary style and the decimation of Bahasa Ma­­lay­sia in these works, as one scholar observed, were shocking the literary world.

Even the former chairman of DBP raised his concern about the quality of language in many of these hit-and-run bestsellers.

The heyday of novel picisan is over. Many of these publishers are facing problems now.

According to journalist Zainal Rashid Ahmad who has been following the “indie phenomenon” for some time, out of 43 such publishers, hardly nine survived.

Are books dead?

The irony is we are in fact reading more “materials” now than ever before.

Our appetite to read “whatever” on the Internet is voracious.

We spend hours on social media, hopping from one stuff to another.

The touch-and-go technique is uniquely recent – with the introduction of the Internet.

Ironically too, the book industry is not dead, at least not yet.

Television has not killed books. Internet too, so far, has not been able to footnote the old-fashioned creation – books.

It is heartening to know that a book is born every 30 seconds, according to Gabriel Zaid in So Many Books.

A million titles are published the world over every year.

Since the invention of the printing machine in the 15th century, 50 million titles have been published.

You need 250,000 years to read every title published so far.

The good news is there are 167 titles per million inhabitants of the planet now, compared to 0.2 in 1450s and 100 in the 1950s.

But books sold does not reflect books read.

For publishers and booksellers, why should they care what you do with books after you bought it?

But books need to be read.

Unread books are a nuisance to the intellectual endeavour.

I still believe in the power of books. It challenges, it provokes, it disturbs, it enlightens.

Reading is a lonely intellectual process that helped mould a human and nurtured a civilisation.

Perhaps people like me are dinosaurs in today’s world. Who needs books? Why read books if you can read trash masquerading as facts and news on social media.

We have perfected the art of sharing from the bowels of civilisation using our latest apparatuses.

We are a “Forward Generation” in the sense that we are forwarding everything forwarded to us.

The problem is not about making writers like me as rich as Rowling.

It is about ensuring a healthy book industry for the country.

The truth is we have not been reading nor buying books as we should.

Some 20 years ago, the National Book Council came out with a shocking revelation that Malaysians read half a page of book a year.

That was then! Internet was still in its infancy and social media was still unknown.

The US has a RM105bil book industry, China RM105bil and the UK and Japan each slightly more than RM30bil.

Ours is hardly RM1.5bil.

Shamefully, our chicken broiler industry is worth double that.

Kuala Lumpur has been named the World Book Capital in 2020 by Unesco. But with a minuscule 15,000 titles published a year, we ought to think hard what good is that declaration for us.

For a start, let’s take a break from our gadgets and go back to reading books!

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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