Interview with Dee Lestari: Celebrating World Book and Copyright Day

Updated: Mar 15

The world of books is not free from the Covid-19 pandemic turmoil. Writers, editors, everyone involved in the publishing industry are experiencing many challenges, including psychological pressure that causes productivity to decline. Physical bookshops were closing, sales were declining; many publishers are now shifting to online distribution, meanwhile also dealing with massive piracy that haunts the sales; and many more problems.

We discussed these various issues and challenges with Dee Lestari. From devising new strategies, adapting to the situation, and most importantly, survive the crisis. As we still believe, during a crisis there are usually new solutions that emerge.

(Literasia Creativa)

To rival the rate of piracy, is it possible for the authors to work with publishers to distribute their scripts for free and legally? For example for books that are no longer printed. Or even books that do not yet have a digital script.

I felt that the proposal was very doable. Especially for manuscripts that are already rare or in the classical category and are decades old. Because actually, the point is how we reproduce content, which is of high quality, has elements of education and entertainment. The content can come from various ages. It doesn't have to be new works.

So for works that are past their productive period, this is the time for publishers to expand their catalogs and capture new readers.

But for manuscripts that are still productive, it would seem to be unfair to the author.

Books can also be distributed by other means. For example, I like the IPUSNAS app (online app from the National Library of Indonesia), where people can read without difficulties or incur extra costs. I think this is a breakthrough that we should explore further. Where the manuscript is still legal, but not economically burdensome to the reader.

In a crisis like this. Several publishers have temporarily closed production, many bookstores have also closed and switched to online. The publishing industry in Indonesia is not large. Most publishers are surviving month after month. So what form of incentive can be proposed to the government to help the publishing industry in Indonesia to survive? Ranging from writers, publishers to printing?

We cannot generalize this, and assume all were the same, right? Because the needs of each line were different, even in the same industry. I read the recommendations from IKAPI - one of the recommendations of IKAPI to the Government is that the procurement of books (education) is still ongoing.

But that request has more impact on the publisher, not necessarily on the author. Especially writers outside of educational books, such as fiction writers for example. I think an achievable solution for all is a tax solution. Because when we talk about cash assistance, not all writers would need cash assistance. The benchmark is not based on the profession, but rather to the income-wise.

So what I think is fair is tax relaxation. Whether it's possible Pph (income tax) this year will be abolished or reduced. Or an incentive to tackle piracy or paper subsidies. But the latter would be more applicable to printed books, whereas now it is safer to move to digital books.

Indeed there has not been a single focused and coherent action for the publishing industry. But maybe this tax proposal could be a solution that reaches all.

Jeff Bezos once predicted that the eBook would be a huge hit when he introduced the Kindle. But in reality, at least in Indonesia, printed books still dominated until before Covid-19 hit. I’ve been informed that in Gramedia, the number of digital book sales has risen to 10%. Is this the right time to switch to digital books /e-books? Can this trend be sustainable?

Theoretically, this should be the momentum for digital books to steal the market. And the current conditions force people to move to the new platforms. From offline meetings to online meetings. I think the books have the same momentum. Just for some reason, Indonesia is unique in my opinion, our adaptation to the digital medium in terms of the book is not as fast as we are in music. It seems there is a sentimental factor, which makes us very attached to physical books. Physical books are also still in demand in the online marketplaces.

I also don't know whether we need more time to adapt, but indeed the obstacles so far are difficult for us to produce new books. Maybe now is the right time to release a digital book, but maybe not the right time to release a new book.

Are there fellow writers who have to delay publishing their books because of this pandemic? Or, yourself maybe? If so, how long will they delay the publication date? Or is there another strategy? Given that in Indonesia, books are not one of the main priorities to buy - especially with this pandemic, what is the strategy for catching up with this?

As far as I know, there are some, with myself is also a victim of delay. I have a plan to publish a manuscript in May, a collaboration with a foundation that happened to have a birthday in May. But with the current condition, setbacks automatically occur. I do not know until when. We all still wait and see.

I also know that a friend of mine released a book when the pandemic started. He also experienced a drop in PO (pre-order). The drop is very significant. It’s so uncertain. We want to continue with the promotion, but given the situation, the narrative is contradictory to the mood of the people around us. So awry.

In my opinion, now is not the right time for production. But this is the right time for engagement. This is a suggestion for the brand, right? Many are laying low, or start collapsing. For them to stay afloat, how they can still communicate and do their branding, but not to promote something, but rather to convey messages that are more sympathetic to its customers.

So maybe the writers and publishers can also establish communication with readers. I see many publishers who have major discounts. Or release a quote from the author, which is lighter and more entertaining. So this is indeed the time for engagement.

We already talked about the eBook. What about audio-books? There used to be a saying that the Indonesian people are more visual. We prefer short texts, reading comics. But does that tendency shift? With the rise of podcasts for example?

This is my theory. If we look at human history, we are the only species that can tell stories. Before the currency took effect, we already knew the exchange of stories. There is one primordial thing, there is something primitive - about how we hear stories.

We used to know radio dramas. You don’t have the visuals, right? We imagine it, ourselves. There must also be people who might be better at listening than reading. But this might just start, like the sun is about to rise, it's been seen but there are no definite signs yet.

I want to try it, only this time is not right. Because people are still prone and choose not to produce.

But really, I think audio books are one of the media that we should explore.

Back to the matter of tax relief discourse. Has anyone voiced to the Government? Dee as a writer, and also a member of Satu Pena. There used to be a KBN (National Book Committee), but now there are no more. Has anyone voiced this to the Government? Because the publishing industry is one of the most heavily affected, especially because most publishers survive from month to month.

What I know is that IKAPI (Indonesia Publishers Association) has issued recommendations. But IKAPI is a publishing association. In Satu Pena there has not been an official appeal to open these waivers or recommendations. But it's not just Satu Pena. There are other associations too.

But I see that in Indonesia there is not yet one leading figure, huh? One figure or organization that could become a large umbrella to be together. You know, there is a big problem, come and sit with us, let's formulate a recommendation.

There aren't any yet. The shareholders are still divided, no one has sat together and focused on a recommendation.

When the pandemic has passed, how can publishing rise? What strategies would need to be taken to catch up and cover losses due to the pandemic?

The first is the discounts. Then it's easy for the reader to get the product. And some publishers already do this. Up to 90% discount, then free shipping. A viable option rather than opting for piled books in a warehouse.

Here the publisher can take over as an outlet. Books don't have to be sold through bookstores. I had thought to make an audiobook - but for now, it seems difficult to promote at this time.

Aspects of the sale must be monitored by the publisher.

What about the community? What role can they encourage to help the community in this stay at home initiative?. Can they collaborate with publishers to distribute books or other active roles?

There’s one key. Whatever you want to do is okay, as long as it is done with the government's recommended corridor. Social distancing for example. The problem is that this community usually moves with gatherings. So there must be another alternative. Starting from increasing the interest in reading, or discussions that are being moved online. I see that many have started.

My publisher, Bentang, has started making many IG Live programs. Starting from the editor, proofreader. Janet Denefee from Ubud will also make an online food festival.

Is it possible for the publisher to ask the government to do bulk buying? To be distributed to reading clubs, communities, or libraries.

I am somewhat torn about this. This is of course a big help for the industry. But during this pandemic, priorities should be in survival, basic needs, food, and logistics. But if the pandemic has passed, it might be considered. Reading can be a healing means.

By the way, we have met several times in the International Book Fairs. Indonesia was actively participating in several major book fairs, including Bologna, London & Frankfurt. Do you have an agent?

I have, but it is still based on per book. I have an agent for my first book, Boat Paper, and Supernova. Finally, the Coffee Philosophy is translated into Japanese, but not through an agent.

I see several writers starting to use agents. Ahmad Fuadi, Laksmi Pamuntjak, and Ayu Utami. From your experience, do you need it?

It's really necessary. Speaking from my experience of taking part in international book fairs, I see that those who have interests are agents and publishers. Sometimes authors came, but only like guests. The real business is between the publisher and the agent.

In my opinion, the agent can only do so much. He must still have material that needs to be sold. Do you agree if I say: One of our problems is: we don't have many agents in Indonesia, and second, the translation. The translation must be good, the editor must also be great, and the services aren’t cheap.

Not only is it not cheap, but capable people are also hard to find. Translation can take one year. Authors can have money, but great translators are only a few. This translation culture needs to be built for years and must be systematic. Because if you don't, this is like a big group that needs to be transported. If transportation is not regular, sometimes there is, sometimes not, we can be stuck. No transport. There must be clear and regular funding. And there must also be coaching, serious regeneration of new translators.

Translators must be an appealing profession. The translation is an international bridge.

Sometimes I'm disappointed. Many people say, why is it so difficult to penetrate this market, why is it not translated into this language? The reality, that is very difficult. We are not only talking about capital, but also human resources. This was supposed to be done decades ago.

But better late than never. We just started when we were the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015. We only started to have serious efforts.

The question is the new Minister (Ministry of Education and Culture), for example, still has the same priority or not? Can this relay be continued? If not, then it’s going to be another stagnated circle.

*This article is republished with the kind permission from the 17000 Pulau Imaji Foundation. The original article can be read here.

In this discussion, Dee also talked about her writing workshop called Kaizen Writing Workshop. For more information on her workshop: