September 18, 2019


Rumah Pembaca: “Our Publishers Seem to be Playing Eenie Meenie Miney Mo”

by: Raka Ibrahim

Cap cip cup, kembang kuncup!

The line from an Indonesian children’s rhyme, roughly similar to ‘eenie meenie miney mo’ is part of many people’s collective memory. However, the Indonesian literary scene is apparently too enthusiastic in adopting a thinking pattern similar to that rhyme.

“Books are published without proper research. Its as if (the publishers) are playing the ‘cap cip cup’ game – trying things out. Publishers would release eight books each month and experiment with them– see which one will go on and stop publishing the ones that don’t sell.

But a book’s importance cannot be determined on whether it sells or not. For instance, a book about the history of the Prambanan temple is important for us. However, it does not sell as well as motivational books. In the end, it is rendered as not important.”

Damar Juniarto voiced this opinion. Damar is the founder of Rumah Pembaca, a website aiming to go against this logic. Rumah Pembaca, established in 2013, is a space in which Indonesian readers can review, discuss and reccomend books. This website also records how much a book haS been read. It maps the readers and the tasteS of these readers.

“We were inspired to create a database to record the reading tracks of Rumah Pembaca members. This provides us with details about what people are reading. We will also have a record of where the books are distributed and which have the biggest influence in Indonesia. It provides us with comparative data to present to the public. This sort of analysis can provide us with a proper map to discover what is really going on in our book scene,” Damar said.

According to him, idea of establishing a house for the readers is rooted in the Ethical Politics era in Indonesia. In 1872, a group of priyayi (Javanese male aristocrats) readers was formed in Karesidenan Tegal. They contributed five gulden each month, and the pooled money was used to buy books to be stored in their library. Therefore, it is quite safe to say that the concept of Indonesia’s reading community was shaped that year.

“That was 130 years ago. Unfortunately, we do not have any detailed records on what they read. That is actually important. We may have records of their movements and groups, but not about what they read. That can contribute a lot, so that we know what sort of reading materials move people, what sort inspires people to change things. The data compiling should be book-based – Title, publisher, year of publishing, and access to the books. What did Soekarno read? What did Hatta and Tan Malaka read? We did not inherit those tracks,” Damar said.

Damar’s experience as a moderator for – a website similar to Rumah Pembaca – for three years, assured him of the power of data in the world of books.

“Before Goodreads’ data-collection results were closed because of the acquisition, the data could be used to convince local publishers that there were  quite a lot of fans of historical fiction. Now, we can hold interesting events. I can do that because of my position as the  moderator of Goodreads Indonesia,” he said.

This way, the publishers’ method of measuring a books’ success by using its sales in the book store becomes irrelevant.

“Publishers always say poetry books should not be published because they don’t sell much. It became a dogma among them.  Because of this, there was a vacuum period when there were no publishers publsihing poetry books. This is a disaster for the book world, because it decreases the variety,” Damar said.

His experience has taught him that one can employ other factors to measure a book’s success.

“In East Timor, where book distribution is limited, the number of books is low, and its focused on books in urban areas only. One book can be read by 3-4 people. In that case, we no longer measure the book sales but how much a book is read instead. That is far more important to record than the number of books sold. “

Therefore, data needs to be accessible. Both readers and publishers looking to publish a new genre can benefit from such a data collecting and presenting system in the Indonesian publishing scene. It will allow them to know the amount of potential readers for a certain genre. Since publishers do not have enough data to determine whether a book will be welcomed by the markets or not, this system will be a great help.

“This is a competitive era. Everything has to sell. But we have to have a smart way to convince publishers that they cannot be like that. They have to try other ways and other books. And what’s the basis for this? Documenting,” Damar said.

This is Rumah Pembaca’s mission. Indonesians and stakeholders in the Indonesian book scene can benefit from the website’s data. So far, two publishers: Mizan and Mokabuku, have used the data gathered by Rumah Pembaca.

“Our cooperation with Mokabuku and Mizan began with personal relationships with their editors and marketing teams, not because of Rumah Pembaca’s reputation,” Arman Dhani, one of Rumah Pembaca’s administrators, said.

“When we first met Mizan, we asked them to promote via Rumah Pembaca. I explained to them what it was, and they were satisfied, because they didn’t know that there was something like Goodreads for Indonesian books. We worked with them a few times, to review the Divergent book series, for example. That garnered a huge response and we did not expect that. Once we opened up and got a lot of activities, it all became possible. Rumah Pembaca was actually taken seriously by publishers, and that’s a positive signal,” he said.

Writers can also benefit from Rumah Pembaca.

“We think writers are in a weak position,” Damar said, “When they correspond with publishers, the latter cannot show them where their books are read. Publishers can only give monthly reports saying that this book sells this much, this book brings this much royalty, but not other forms of appreciation. Writers have to go to meetings, carrying their banners, and carry out active selling campaigns. Publishers can only get feedback from interaction in social media. But Rumah Pembaca allows more interactions.”

Even competitions and awards can benefit from Rumah Pembaca’s data.

“Khatulistiwa Literary Awards (now known as Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa) usually sends letters to publishers, asking them to send books deemed by the publishers as fit to enter the competition. That’s a terrible method! That means that no documenting, and the publishers do not think that is important. There could be a very important title yet deemed unimportant. This documenting can at least give equal opportunity for all writers from old or new publishers. They will have equal strength in competitions.”

This became the foundation for Rumah Pembaca’s argument. Data allows the Indonesian book scene to move further beyond the cold economic logic, which ruins literary diversity.

“Our publishers are experimenting. We gather data for them,” Damar said. “At least they are experimenting with genres that weren’t in the foreground last year. Indonesian publishers are starting to give room for local writers to experiment and localize those genres. More ‘serious’ literature is apparently being produced by new publishers, and that’s a good thing to take note of. New publishers are sprouting up in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, and they pay ample attention to literature. This is different from last year, when everything was dominated by big publishers.”

“Rumah Pembaca is a platform that tries to read into the eras,” Damar said. And, indeed, every reading begins and ends with documentation.

You can visit and participate in Rumah Pembaca through this link

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