Covid-19 Exclusives: The Troubled Malaysian Book Trade and its Possible Recovery

2020 WAS SUPPOSED to be a robust year for the Malaysian book trade, but that is not to be. The Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair (KLIBF) was postponed by several months as Covid-19 cases mounted. Just a week after the announcement, events that were scheduled to commemorate KL’s designation as UNESCO’s World Book Capital were halted by the Movement Control Order (MCO)2.

Malaysia’s book trade is an ecosystem that depends on the interaction of each of its individual components. At first glance, it seems to be a simple transaction between the author and the reader. But behind this is a web of publishers, booksellers, distributors and printers. There is a fragile network of business arrangements, logistical considerations, market gambles, as well as social and political realities. Every book is a product of a set of interdependent factors.

Existing Difficulties

Above all, the Malaysian book trade is fragmented. The post-May 13 Asas Kebudayaan Kebangsaan, or the National Culture Policy,3 declared that only works written in the Malay language could be considered part of the national canon, meaning that government bodies such as Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) focused on the development of those works and on their writers.

Since works in languages such as English, Chinese and Tamil were thus excluded, a division between “official” and “non-official” literature developed. Books written in these languages became part of smaller independent networks and subcultures. Repressive policies such as the Universities and University Colleges Act in 1971 and the Printing Presses and Publications Act of (fittingly) 1984 worsened the problem, especially for English-language publishers.4

Although the recent rise of independent publishers has lent new life to the Malaysian book trade, linguistic, class, racial and economic factors have kept it divided.5

As early as the KLIBF in 2019, the Malaysian Book Publishers Association (MABOPA) announced that decreased spending power and the increasing costs of production meant that the book industry was valued at less than RM1bil, far below its usual RM1.5bil-RM2bil range.6 Despite the fact that there were bestsellers, such as Buku Fixi’s novels and exposés such as The Sarawak Report, many independent publishers were already struggling. The radical publisher Thukul Cetak, which started during the rise of the independent publishing movement, closed in February after six years in operation, while Silverfish shifted from publishing new titles to focus on existing historical manuscripts instead.

Although it may be easy to blame government agencies such as DBP for not doing enough, local author Lokman Hakim offers a more nuanced view.7 As with institutions like the National Library and the Malaysian Institute of Translation & Books (ITBM), they are limited in their capacity to support the literary ecosystem.

“One thing I notice is that criticisms of these institutions rarely consider their actual restrictions and scope… we need a political will in the form of financial aid to increase the infrastructure to support writers. This depends on the awareness of the ministers in charge of the relevant portfolios. Assuming our government fails to see the importance of saving the book trade, the institutions will be hampered in their attempts to support local writers.”8

Like the independent publishers, DBP still suffers from inadequate distribution despite having recently increased the quality of their output, and are still making inroads into reaching out to mass audiences, with whom they lack a close relationship.9 Therefore, they are unable to provide sufficient support to most of their writers, meaning that writing must always be a side gig.

Under the MCO

The KLIBF is historically a major event for publishers, especially those specialising in Malay-language titles. However, its postponement required a major shift in business strategies, and the announcement of the MCO necessitated new working habits, especially since companies operating in the book trade were deemed non-essential services.

Although some work could still be carried out remotely (editing, typesetting and correspondence could continue at mostly normal levels), other aspects such as online sales and delivery services required staff to be physically present. Restricted mobility hit bookshops hard, since a lot of them depended on foot traffic and live events to boost sales. Shops like Tintabudi and Kedai Fixi temporarily moved operations online10 – in the case of Lit Books in Petaling Jaya, this required moving their entire inventory online within the space of several days.

During this time, institutions such as MABOPA and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry carried out virtual meetings with and sent surveys to publishers in order to gauge the impact of the crisis on their work. One major company did not survive. The magazine publisher Blu Inc Media, already facing stiff competition from digital media, folded abruptly at the end of April and left creative professionals unemployed.11

Book distributors are also an important part of the ecosystem, but they do not receive nearly as much attention. Serving as the middlemen between the booksellers and publishers, they operate in a secretive and competitive line of work, and Covid-19 caused increased strain.12 On top of dealing with issues such as pirated books, blowout sales featuring otherwise inaccessible foreign titles and hegemonic platforms like Amazon, the move to two months of online shopping cut further into their profits. Distributors work in highly specialised environments, but customers are often unaware about the amount of time, money and effort that goes into getting each new title to the shops.

Although the government issued financial support for enterprises during the MCO, these can realistically only serve as short-term measures. Complex systems can fail very easily and quickly – systems that run the gamut from the environment to the stock market – and the book trade is a good example.

Underlining this problem is the fact that readers, hampered by retrenchments and wage cuts, had decreased purchasing power. Without support from readers, a domino effect begins. Inventory is liquidated, jobs are lost and component businesses close. There is a return to the margins for writers themselves, who would need to focus abroad once again, thus worsening the existing “brain drain” in the creative sector.

If there is any consolation, there was still a keen interest in reading during the MCO. After two months, Lit Books noticed that books which provided a sense of adventure and self-care did particularly well, with Jeanne Cuisinier’s Radio Paris lectures, What I Saw in Malaya, emerging as a bestselling Malaysian title. Lokman Hakim viewed reading as a form of escapism from the uncertainty of restricted mobility in a time of illness.

Business in the New Normal

In Penang Institute’s series of crisis assessments on Covid-19, the ISSUES “A Critical Time for Penang’s Fragile Creative Ecosystem”13 is particularly pertinent. Researcher Pan Yi Chieh highlights the challenges faced by the local creative arts scene, including the book trade, which is broadly applicable on a national level.

Although generally less understood compared to other economic sectors, the arts depend heavily on state-linked bodies. However, an increased move towards digitisation could potentially mitigate losses and allow for further innovation. Any funding could potentially be channeled towards either compensation for immediate losses, or to encourage capacity building to modernise with the times – the latter being a more sustainable option.

In the immediate post-MCO period, the Ministry of Finance’s PENJANA plan (Pelan Jana Semula Ekonomi Negara) laid out a variety of short-term economic recovery measures.14Particularly welcome were the loans and grants which were to be distributed through MyCreative Ventures and CEN DANA, meant explicitly to help a broad range of industries that included the “arts, culture, entertainment, events and exhibitions sector”, although it is still too early to see any effects for the book trade.

Meanwhile, MABOPA continues to notify publishers about opportunities such as initiatives by the National Library, while the KLIBF proceeded virtually in collaboration with the online sales platform Shopee from June to July (although this was more of an extended online sale).But for now, publishing work has slowed down tremendously. Gerakbudaya’s new releases are a fraction of the pre-MCO output. There is room for innovation though – Fixi was able to navigate the MCO without retrenchments and pay cuts, and its online sales and digital presence have remained robust.

With regard to booksellers, one of the most visible changes in the post-MCO period is the steady disappearance of large chain bookshops. After reopening, the MPH Group closed several of its major outlets. The closures were ostensibly part of its move to digital platforms, which required shutting down poorly performing outlets, inadvertently leaving behind a physical void in many urban areas.15 Meanwhile BookXcess, which carved a niche in reselling remaindered books, was forced to reconsider their initial plans for inperson sales, and shift to a larger digital presence instead.16 All this means fiercer competition among surviving outlets.

The survival of the book trade depends on wholesale changes to encourage sustainability, evolution and innovation. There will always be top-down measures in terms of government support, but publishers, booksellers and distributors must find ways to stay relevant.

There are some options. E-books still have less traction domestically compared to traditional printed books, but several publishers are further exploring this option. Printon- demand models can be adopted if local printers are able to offer competitive rates; patronage models. There is also increased attention on the “materiality” of books, in terms of details such as paper quality and layout design.

But for now, the state of the book trade remains uncertain.

Parts of this article have been adapted from Paper & Text, an upcoming collection on Malaysian literature and the book trade from Gerakbudaya.

1 This article is overwhelmingly focused on the English-language market, which actually occupies a very small niche within the broader spectrum of Malaysian writing. While the English language has traditionally been regarded as egalitarian, it really requires social capital to master, which in turn is tied to the interlinked problems of class and race.
2 Anderson, Porter. 2020a. "Coronavirus: Malaysia Cancels Its Kuala Lumpur World Book Capital Opener." Publishing Perspectives. March 31. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://publishingperspectives. com/2020/03/coronavirus-malaysia-cancels-its-kuala-lumpur-worldbook- capital-opener-covid19/.
3 Kementerian Kebudayaan Belia dan Sukan Malaysia. 1973. "Asas Kebudayaan Kebangsaan." Kuala Lumpur: Kementerian Kebudayaan Belia dan Sukan Malaysia.
4 Chuah, Guat Eng. 2015. "How to Talk About Malaysian Novels Without Reading Any". The Star. August-October. Accessed April 13, 2020. without-reading-any/.
5 Sim, Chee Cheang. 2019. "After the Tsunami: Challenges of a Changing Literary Landscape." Asian Studies International Journal 1 (1).
6 The Malaysian Reserve. 2019. "Book industry worth dips below RM1b, says MABOPA." The Malaysian Reserve. April 5. Accessed May 8, 2020. rm1b-says-mabopa/.
7 Lokman Hakim, interview by William Tham. 2020. Soalan Temubual: Lokman Hakim (April 16).
8 (Translation mine. The original text is as follows: “Satu perkara yang saya lihat adalah kritikan ke atas institusi-institusi ini jarang mengambil kira kekangan dan bidang kuasa yang dimiliki institusi-institusi ini … kita memerlukan keazaman politik yang akan diterjemah di dalam bentuk sumbangan kewangan untuk menambah infrastruktur yang akan membantu penulis. Hal ini sangat bersangkut-paut dengan kesedaran menteri yang mengendalikan portfolio berkaitan. Andai kerajaan kita gagal melihat kepentingan menyelamatkan industri buku, institusiinstitusi ini akan jadi teramat pincang dalam usaha menyokong penulispenulis tempatan.”
9 DBP recently regained control of its commercial arm after 12 years. The Malaysian Reserve. 2017. "Breaking Dawn for DBP and Malaysian Publication." March 31. Accessed April 17, 2020. https:// breaking-dawn-for-dbp-and-malaysianpublication/.
10 Toh, Terence. 2020. "So much time to read, but Malaysia's book stores are closed. What now?" The Star. March 21. Accessed May 8, 2020. lifestyle/culture/2020/03/21/covid- 19-so-much-time-to-read-andmalaysia039s- bookstores-closedwhat- next.
11 Hemananthani Sivanandam. 2020. "Magazine publisher BluInc closes down, citing MCO, digital challenges." The Star. April 30. Accessed May 8, 2020. https:// nation/2020/04/30/magazinepublisher- bluinc-closes-down-citingmco- digital-challenges.
12 Interview by William Tham. 2020. Interview Questions: Distributor (April 30).
13 Pan, Yi Chieh. 2020. "Issues: A Critical Time for Penang’s Fragile Creative Ecosystem." Penang Institute. April 18. Accessed May 8, 2020. fragile-creative-ecosystem/.
14 Ministry of Finance. 2020. Penjana: Building the Economy Together: Short-term Economic Recovery Plan June-December 2020. Putrajaya, June 5.
15 Ang, May Vin. 2020. "MPH Reveals The Reason Behind Multiple Closures Of Outlets Across Malaysia." SAYS. June 4. my/news/mph-reveals-the-reason-behind-multiple-closures-of-outletsacross- malaysia.
15 Tan, Zhai Yun. 2020. "What’s next for BookXcess?" The Edge Markets. June 15.

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