Electronic books, or “e-books” have been around for 40 years, without posing much of a threat to printed books.
But with the growing popularity of dedicated e-book readers like the Amazon Kindle, and the buzz surrounding Apple’s enigmatic iPad, one wonders if that will ensure e-books’ appeal amid Blackberry-hungry Indonesians, and thus the tragic death of traditional publishing.
While all kinds of e-books are freely available via the Internet, official e-book content in Indonesia remains limited. That could change dramatically within the next two years, as Kompas-Gramedia, the country’s largest media conglomerate, is formulating its digital content strategy.
“We are developing Kompas Gramedia Digital. We are focusing on developing e-book content, not a gadget,” says Rio Eka Putra, head of IT & Research at Gramedia, adding they were open to creating content for both the Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad.
Rio describes Gramedia’s approach as a “wait-and-see” one, as the technology is “so new”, and there remain many questions associated with widespread digital content, especially preventing piracy and getting authors on board.
“We are trying to explain to the writers about e-publishing, some still don’t understand what it is, what their rights are,” says Anastasia Mustika, fiction editor at PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama.
Young adult author Andrei Aksana, who agrees to his content being digitized, says “e-books are the future of reading” due to convenience and environmental benefits.
“There are now around 30 million Internet users in Indonesia if I’m not mistaken … and the numbers are growing very quickly, after India and China. So, e-books have enormous potential. E-books mean we can read any time, anywhere [with internet-ready devices] such as Blackberry, iPhone, although it’s a pity these [devices] are mostly only enjoyed by the middle class.”
Clara Ng, author of the MetroPop series and children’s story books, also accepts digitisation, as it would allow more to access her books.
“As a reader, I am happy with e-books because they are cheaper [than conventional books].”
Writer Sitta Karina, however, remains sceptical about e-books, preferring “holding the physical form of the book, savoring the paper smell of each page”. While she appreciates the potential environmental benefits, she has not yet agreed to content digitization.
“Not in this short period. I’m still worried about book piracy. Even most internet hackers now could break through ‘m-book’ coding,” she says referring to Gramedia’s collaboration with Telkomsel to offer m-books, fiction through mobile phones.
Available since last year, the 100 or so m-books are mainly young adult fiction and cookbooks, which Telkomsel customers can purchase chapter by chapter.
Anastasia says the m-books scheme was profitable and would continue, although Rio felt reading on handphones was not the way forward, due to the small screens.
“It’s not comfortable to read on [handphones and Blackberrys]. We must go to the gadgets.”
While Gramedia is adopting a cautious attitude to the novel technology, Lontar, a publisher specialising in Indonesian literature-in-translation, is leaping head-first into digital publishing, finding it a solution to existing challenges.
“Until print-on-demand technology came in Lontar has always been hobbled by the fact that the cost of shipping is so exorbitant that it’s impossible to make any money on the sale of books,” says John McGlynn, Lontar’s co-founder and director.
With print-on-demand, digital content can be uploaded to servers and then printed in response to orders, anywhere in the world through the associated printer, circumventing shipping costs.
“It’ll be a year before we actually find the results. But starting this year we’ll be putting 28 books in print-on-demand format,” says McGlynn, adding that previously Lontar had only been able to annually release a handful of books.
As well as widening Lontar’s titles, and hopefully profit margins, McGlynn says print-on-demand could facilitate the distribution of textbooks around the archipelago, a flow of information that could indirectly enhance national literacy.
“You look at education in Indonesia… and especially in Eastern Indonesia and elsewhere, where publishers do not send books there. Gramedia is one of the few that has bookstores in the country. But even there and in Papua… they are only two or three in the whole province. If, for example, there was a print-on-demand operation in Papua, and Indonesian books were already digitized, they could print them immediately.”
Matthew Schafer, media specialist at Jakarta International School (JIS), also saw the educational potential in electronic content, specifically through the Kindle, if they were fully compatible in Indonesia and adapted for schools.
“I’d love to have 30 of these and start checking them out. Whenever the next Twilight comes out, I don’t have to ship them, and have them ready on the day… click and buy until there’s a nice rotation… or when a kid wants to order something unusual. It would be a great service to provide,” says Schafer, who has been using a Kindle since last year.
“The amount we spend on shipping to get books here is through the roof… in a perfect digital world, we’ve save a lot of money.”
Schafer adds e-book readers would also be a convenient way of giving students all their books for the year, and that the Kindle’s functions, like text-to-speech, inbuilt dictionary and translation would be useful for those who did not speak English as their native tongue.
“That part’s awesome from a teaching standpoint.”
Librarian and author Sylvia L’Namira agrees that e-books could encourage and facilitate literacy in youth.
“But that of course depends on the librarian who runs the library – and the board who give the library budget – whether they think it’s important to collect e-books or not. I have noticed that readers are starting to look for e-books rather than buying books. Maybe because e-books can be downloaded for free from the internet, while you have to spend some money to get the book.”
Aspiring novelist and part-time translator Melissa Chandra vouches for the educational benefits of e-books.
Melissa, who has been completely blind since adolescence, first encountered e-books in her final year of high school, which, with the aid of a screen-reader, expanded her literary world.
“Before, the only way for me to read was through my mother to reading me, or the audio library in one of the blind communities I have been active in since the start of senior high school. I prefer e-books, as I do not get sleepy – as opposed to listening to audio books – and it was much more practical too.”
However, Amang Suramang from Good Reads Indonesia, reserves short-term expectations for both e-books and print-on-demand technology, noting that most Indonesians still do not comprehend the concept, although he expects that eventually e-books will prevail, without completely displacing printed books.
“I see e-books and books like a horse and a car. When you’re on a horse, you enjoy the emotional journey… but you’ll be challenged to find people using a horse to go to the office, they use a car. E-books are a car. But we need time,” he says adding the price point of the Kindle and other such e-book readers (US$259 and upwards) was still too expensive to be accessible for Indonesians.
Considering the multitude of possibilities and already proven benefits, it’s safe to say that the reign of digital publishing is nigh. But it also appears printed books aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Like Gramedia, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.