Sun, 02 Feb 2003


check the date marked in bold below please.

Publisher Eric Oey endures in RI poor reading habits

Lila Fitri Aly Contributor Jakarta

Eric Oey said there was no holiday for a real businessman. Night or day and weekday or weekend are just the same. Meetings are held any time and any place. An employee, on the other hand, can forget his routine job once he gets home from the office.

"If a businessman can enjoy too much spare time, this means his business is not successful. So, it will be better to make your business a hobby as in this way you will never feel bored," said Eric Oey (48), the owner of Java Books, a distributor of imported books, which is later distributed to major book stores in Indonesia like Times, QB, Kinokuniya, Aksara, Maruzen, Gramedia and Gunung Agung.

In 1985, Eric Oey set up Java Books in Jakarta and Bali. He named his book stores after Java Engineering, a Cirebon-based company owned by his father's family. At that time Java Books was just a limited partnership run only by some friends and family members.

Today Java Books employs 200 people and can be found in six places: Medan, Surabaya, Yogyakarta, Bandung, Bali and Jakarta.

At first, Eric sold travel guides published by Singapore-based APA Productions such as Guide to Bali, Guide to Java or Guide to Indonesia. (He is the author and editor of Guide to Indonesia). He sold the books only to hotels as the market segment covered only expatriates in Indonesia.

"In those days I was still studying Indonesian literature and language at the University of California at Berkeley for my master's and doctorate degrees," Eric said.

In the 1970s he used to work at APA Productions and therefore knew the owner well. At that time he was asked to write a Guide to Indonesia. As there was nobody to market the book in Jakarta, Eric was assigned the job.

It was not until 1989 that he could finish his studies. Then he moved to Singapore, where he has lived since then.

Apart from Java Books, he also owns Periplus Editions, a publishing company. Periplus was first set up in the United States, when he was still a student. Then he moved it to Singapore as he began to live there (he began to live in Singapore when, at 10-years old, his parents took him there). In November 2002, he opened a book shop in Kemang, named after his publishing company Periplus.

Eric also has another publishing company, Tuttle Publishing, which was set up by his uncle Charles E. Tuttle in Japan in 1948. Eric merged Periplus and Tuttle in 1996. With offices in Boston, Rutland, Vermont, Singapore, Tokyo and Jakarta, Tuttle has become the largest English-language book publishing and distribution company in Asia.

As a publisher, he finds Singapore a suitable place for a variety of reasons. In Indonesia the price of paper is too high.

Then the banking system, the shipping practices and the quality of color separation are yet to be conducive to a publishing business. Besides, Singapore is also noted as a printing center.

"For the same paper quality, the price in Singapore is lower. Besides, a paper mill in Singapore can allow three months for credit purchases, while in Indonesia every transaction must be paid in cash," said Eric, who has a father from Pekalongan and a mother from the United States. He himself was born in Chattoonooga, Tennessee.

Actually, Indonesia, which is rich in cheap labor resources, can produce exportable printing products, he said.

A printing company in Indonesia finds it difficult to get cheap paper because of monopolistic practices. Automatically, the price of paper becomes unrealistic. Strangely, you can buy paper from Indonesia at a lower price in Singapore. At first, the Indonesian government sought to protect small paper mills to allow them to develop. Later, a giant paper industry owned by Sinar Mas bought these small paper mills and the group now monopolizes the paper market in Indonesia.

"Import duties are also a problem. Unlike in Indonesia, in Singapore or Thailand no duties are imposed on the import and export of paper," he said. If the import duties on paper were zero in Indonesia, he was sure the printing business in Indonesia would develop.

Such problems have stifled the printing business in Indonesia. High paper prices can make the price of books about 25 percent higher, an extra cost that buyers will have to bear.

Meanwhile, to gain access to the international market, a publisher must find a more efficient printing shop so that it can compete, otherwise the books will be too expensive. It is expected, though, that in the next few years all import duties can be eliminated so that a printing shop or a publishing company in Indonesia can make better progress.

It is still very difficult now to promote the business of English books in Indonesia. Compared with Singapore and Malaysia, for example, the market for such books in Indonesia is still small.

In Indonesia, only the educated are in the habit of reading but they are small in number and may not have enough money to buy books. An interest in books is highly dependent on financial capability, education and culture.

"The Indonesian market is very small. It may be comparable to a grain of sand on the beach," said Eric, who can still find time to check writing proposals from all over the world. As a result, English books available in Indonesia are limited. Let's say there are a thousand titles. Java Books must select them very carefully to find those that will sell well in the Indonesian market.

"To avoid incurring losses, we must carefully consider the taste of the Indonesian community," he said. In Singapore, you may have a wider choice because the book market is very big. It may be up to 100 times bigger than the English book market in Indonesia. Understandably, you can have more titles in Singapore.

Of course, a reading interest is closely linked to the local culture. The people with Confucianism as their cultural background, such as those in Japan, Korea and China, like reading very much. In their culture, people can get rich and become respectable if they work for the government.

To get a job in the government is very difficult so there is a saying that to get rich and respectable you must be educated. To be an educated person, you must read and buy books. Clearly, these people have been accustomed to reading since their childhood.

Still, Eric maintains his optimism that the book business in Indonesia will some day develop. In the 1980s, books on Indonesia in English were very few but now there are quite a lot of them.

"Compared with the situation prior to the onset of the monetary crisis, it is true that books on Indonesia were more popular and more in demand than they are now," he said, adding that all this depended on the image of the country. If a country has a good image, books about this country will have a selling point.

There was a time when Japan was at the peak of its glory and books on Japan were in high demand in the world. Later, this situation faced a reversal. Now, the focus is on China as it is gaining popularity. Clearly, the situation of a country influences the selling point of books about this country.

In this respect, Indonesian publishers must be patient to wait for the economic and political recovery of the country.