Sunday August 13, 2006
Low volume reason for high book prices
Stories by HARIATI AZIZAN and TAN EE-LOO
Unless books become more affordable, the number of readers will continue to be low. This is grim news for the local book industry.
LAW King Hui has a dream. “A boy runs up to his father to ask about a natural phenomenon. Unable to answer, the red-faced father snaps back: 'Ah! You don't need to know!' Suddenly a voice in the background echoes 'Do you want your son to grow up to be like you – ignorant and narrow-minded?'“
“We need to shock parents and get them to ask themselves when was the last time they read or bought a book or even walked into a bookshop,” opines the Malaysian Book Publisher's Association (Mabopa) president.
Law's concern is understandable as the outlook for the local book industry seems pretty grim.
It says a lot about Malaysia when in a population of 25 million, the local book industry can only print 1,000 to 3,000 copies per general title, he highlights.
“In a developed society, book publishing activities should be at 0.01% of the population; as such in 2020, a total publication of 30,000 books is estimated for Malaysia.”
With the current production still stalling at 7,000 per annum, things do not look bright for the local book industry.
High cost of reading
The statistics on Malaysians' poor reading habit have ceased to shock.
A survey conducted in 1996 showed that Malaysians read an average of two books a year.
The results of a survey in 2005 show that things have not improved at all – many still read only two books a year. About 98% of 10-year olds read only two books a year, with 60.4% citing other interests and 28.7% lack of time as the reason.
Price is a deterrent factor cited by those who do not read.
“I love reading but I am not able to buy many books to read because they are expensive. A novel costs about RM35 and specialised books cost from RM90 to RM300,” student Corrie Liew says.
Hence, when Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, in partnership with the Education Ministry and the National Library, announced that the government is looking at making books more affordable, he received a mixed response.
“We believe people would read more if they could afford to,” Dr Rais was quoted.
“Unfortunately, books are very expensive. When it comes to imported books, we cannot do anything about the exchange rate, but we must investigate duty issues.
“For books printed locally, we will look into the cost of imported paper, printing machines and other matters in the industry.”
He points out that books are comparatively expensive in Malaysia.
”If you take a look at the cost of living in most developed countries such as the United Kingdom, a book costs only a fraction of their wages. Comparatively, it is cheap. For example a cinema ticket cost approximately £10 (RM69.64) while a paperback only costs about £5.99 (RM41.72).
“If young Malaysians are to compare the price of books to the price of other activities such as watching a movie, which only costs RM8 to RM10, it is no surprise that many will opt for the cheaper movie ticket.”
In order to get youngsters hooked on reading, we must make books more competitively priced, he stresses.
DBP director-general Datuk Dr Firdaus Abdullah agrees, “Parents should not complain about prices of books when they are willing to spend more on fast food and other things.
Lacking the reading habit
Mabopa feels that the problem should not be generalised.
“It is a complex issue. Affordability does play a big role but the reading habit is a bigger influence,” Law says, adding that many not only have no interest in reading but also no inkling of what to buy, how to read or what to read.”
Academic books are cheaper due to the printing volume, which could touch 10,000. For the less popular novels and non-fiction, however, the low demand has pushed up the prices.
“We can only publish on average 1,000 to 3,000, so we lose out on printing costs,” he says.
The biggest cost, he stresses, is the cost of printing paper, which is subject to a huge import tax.
“It will really help if the government cancels the tax which was introduced around 2004.”
Cheah believes market forces will influence the price of books.
“It's self-regulating – if books are priced too high, readers will not buy.”
A publisher that has no volume problem is Alaf 21, which publishes Malay novels that are very popular with teens.
“As far as Malay fiction is concerned, we are number one in the market. We appeal to the young readers by cultivating a young image.
“Our books are colourful with up-to date designs and fonts, even the pseudonyms of our writers sound young. Most of our stories are about them or about people surrounding them,” shares Alaf 21 general manager Norden Mohamed.
Norden admits that pricing affects sales.
“Of course, it does. We try to price it below RM20. Since we spend heavily on marketing, promotion and PR, our books are in demand. Thus we can print in a larger volume and bring the price down.
“The budget for an average reader is between RM50 to RM100. Put the price higher and they will buy fewer books.”
Parent Radiant Khong says cost is a major deterrent to parents.
“A children’s book can cost about RM30 these days. People are hesitant to spend so much on a book. I feel bringing down the price will help create a strong reading culture,” says Khong.
Malaysian Book Exporters and Importers Association president Kevin Sugumaran meanwhile stresses that publishers should be allowed to reprint titles to reduce the cost.
“Of course, there needs to be volume to make it worthwhile. They are hampered by the tax on paper, so it will help if the government looks into it.
Another problem he highlights is piracy. “One is the reprinted local work. Another is photocopying. In colleges and universities especially, many just photocopy textbooks they need.
“There are laws to protect the works but there is no enforcement.”
The crux of the problem is the low demand for books, which is caused by Malaysians' reading habit or the lack of it, says Cheah.
“And it can't be instilled in a night or two.
“Many don't read, even graduates. Students read only what they need to pass their exams,” he adds.
Hence, the government’s decision to extend the reading campaign to five years instead of the usual one-month has been lauded by all in the industry.
The campaign will last throughout the Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006-2010) and RM40mil to RM50mil has been allocated for the entire period.
DBP, which is in the planning committee, will cooperate with state libraries to promote the reading habit.
Says Dr Firdaus, “The reading campaign has been going on for very long and now it has intensified. Promoting reading is not revolutionary, it doesn't work in the sense that you organise a campaign today and the public will storm bookshops in droves to buy books.”
Another way is to give school, state and district libraries more funds to fill their shelves with current and more interesting books.
Law says that the authorities need to come up with more unorthodox ideas.
“Book fairs can create an awareness especially for those who are not interested in going to bookshops.”
A book fair once a year is not enough; Sugumaran says they should be organised two to three times a year.
He believes the government needs to be more proactive on the ground by getting all book industry players together for a big sale to promote the reading habit.
“If we all work together, the book fair will expose young children to books and will encourage them to read.”
Law concurs, reiterating the importance of influencing parents on the need to cultivate the reading habit.
“True, you have to begin with children but we must not forget that parents are the decision makers on what to buy and where to go.
“So campaigns must target them too.
“Even if they don't become readers, they must make their children aware of the importance of reading. Once you pick up the habit you will know how to pick up books.”
My Little Impian Playhouse kindergarten teacher Aqilah Mohd Amin says she likes to reward the children by taking them to bookstores.
“We regularly bring children to bookstores because it not only helps create a strong reading culture, we can also use books as a reward for doing well in class,” she says.