Arya was 12 when she received her first book, a pirated copy of Andrea Hirata’s 2005 novel Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops), which in 2008 was adapted into a blockbuster movie. It started his love affair with reading and the 25-year-old translator’s passion for collecting books.
But as the internet and e-books became more common, Arya’s habit of buying books declined. Unless it was a particularly âcollectableâ title, he would choose to purchase the e-book version through the Amazon Kindle e-reader gadget. It comes down to the practicality; e-books were cheaper and wouldn’t take up physical space.
Besides the nostalgia, there was simply less compelling reason to keep spending money on physical books. The design and layout of most physical books was straightforward, so why pay more just to pick up the dust? With e-books, poor presentation mattered less. After all, it was all about content, not the collection factor.
Editor Runi Cholid, also an avid reader, expressed such sentiments.
“I prefer to read [books] digitally if I don’t like the presentation. Buying books can be a hefty investment, it better not be an eyesore.
While a somewhat informal Twitter survey by the Communications and Information Ministry in 2020 showed that the presence of e-books did not spark people’s interest in purchasing physical books, an article from the Indonesian Publishers Association (IKAPI) from May this year points out that local publications have seen their sales drop by more than 50% due to COVID-19.
But a handful of independent publishers felt uncomfortable with the local book industry long before the pandemic. They wonder if the real threat isn’t digitization or a killer virus, but a stagnant ecosystem that lacks creative drive and diversity.
Far from being an eyesore, Indonesian independent publications emphasize the depths of design, interweaving literature with eye-catching presentations to question how books can be viewed and appreciated.
Unique appearance: The Banda Journal offers an intricate design. (Jordan, Jordan Edition. / Courtesy of Jordan Marzuki)
Thirst for exploration
In 2019, Jordan Marzuki, a Jakarta-based designer and editor of Jordan, Jordan Edition, was fed up with his ideas being ignored by traditional publishing houses whose market-driven approach left little room for exploration.
âI was like, ‘Why not publish your own work? This way you can also design [the book] freely without restrictive instructions, âJordan said Jakarta Post.
Popular for his eccentric and non-conforming presentation (he is also a visual artist and director of short films / music-video), Jordan admitted that he always dreamed of “having my own [publishing house] who doesn’t follow trends and can collaborate with people who have all these crazy ideas. Jordan, Jordan Edition has published three books: Jordan’s own War, astronaut, death, violence, floating mountain and Roman soldiers (2020); Erotic Fantasy (2020), and Muhammad Fadli and Fatris MF The Banda Journal (2021).
Its design principles are an integral part of book architecture, which goes beyond the traditional hardcover or paperback design. To take The Banda Journal, whose construction for Switzerland is playful with bold colors and textures in reference to Bandana nutmeg, or Erotic Fantasy, whose cover surprises with its red and glitter combo.
“I always encourage visual contexts that may escape my comfort zone, so that our products can be exploratory and independent of narrow conventions and genres.”
For Kelana Wisnu, editor-in-chief of Bandung-based Pustaka Pias, independent publications can be an alternative platform that highlights the unspoken, as their books show. Komitmen Sosial dalam Sastra dan Seni: Sejarah Lekra (Social engagement in literature and the arts: the story of Lekra) and FINKS: Bagaimana CIA Mengelabui Para Penulis Besar Dunia (Finks: How the CIA Fooled the World’s Best Writers).
Kelana has found solace in initiatives such as book clubs or pop-up libraries and believes independent publications can harbor a wider discourse. âTo a certain extent, we are trapped in these Eurocentric ideas that shape and limit our view of the world. In this context, we created Pustaka Pias, âhe writes.
The publication launched books with striking aesthetics, such as earthy tones and delicate prints on the covers. âInteractive visuals are essential for us. For example, the book FINKS has an implicit message, as the author said: ‘When democracy dies, it glows in the dark,’ âKelana said, referring to FINKScover, which lights up in the dark.
At Komitmen Sosial dalam Sastra dan Seni. . ., the relief cover illustration (by graphic designer Sidney Islam) mimics a work of art on wood (âCukil Kayuâ, 1964) by Arifin, an artist who used his works to make political statements.
The illustration says a lot about Indonesia’s multifaceted history, according to Kelana: â[history] it is not only writing the past, but also an arena to imagine the future. And I think many are ready to accept alternative narratives about our world today.
Read more: The launch of âFurther Reading Print No. 2â at Grammars Hall. (Further reading / Courtesy of Januar Rianto)
Design as a method
While the subject of design is often associated with – or reduced to – marketing strategy, alternative publishers who perceive design as their discipline ask to differ.
Going further, a Bandung-based publisher has embraced this practice since its inception in 2017. âIt is ‘design’ criticism that has become our guiding force. [Design] was and still is too simplified. “Graphic design” isn’t just about branding, in the same way that “publishing” isn’t just about printing or launching things online, “said Januar Rianto, editor-in-chief of the publication. and founder of the design company Each Other Company. “It’s a way of seeing [â¦] we see design as our way of working rather than as a result.
In addition to functioning as a publishing platform, Further Reading regularly organizes and initiates design-focused exhibitions and workshops (including their London-based collateral design exhibition “Ways of Reading” in 2019). Today, their publications, known for their application of risographic printing, have reached more than 10 countries in Asia, Australia, Europe and America.
âPrint publications need to be both timely and timeless to be sustainable,â Januar said. That’s exactly what we do: use design to get people to read more. I think it has worked so far.
The future is imprinted
Independent publishing houses occupy a unique place in the literary industry. For much of their history, alternative publications have operated at their own pace, outside of traditional bestseller lists. Their role has now shifted to introducing a new kind of perspective on books to a mainstream audience.
âI’m so excited to see many micro-publications bringing more daring topics to the table. They also combine storytelling, graphics and print processing very well, âsaid Ardo Ardhana of Bandung-based Norrm Press and the recently established Grammars bookstore / gift shop, where books by the aforementioned publishers and local creators can be spotted.
Beauty in relief: cover design of “Cukil Kayu”. (Pustaka Nias / Courtesy of Pustaka Pias.)
Like his publishing friends, Ardo is fond of the design subculture he owes to his memories of Bandung from the 1990s. âGrammars’ small victory exceeds my expectations. Many young readers are coming back! This indicates that there will always be a place for physical books on the market.
This enthusiasm is felt by Danny Wicaksono, architect and initiator of the literary initiative Inisiatif Scriptura. âIt’s not cheap to publish books. Fortunately, more independent publishers have managed to sidestep this situation to publish books with interesting content and design, âshared Danny, who observed that the younger millennials and Generation Z were more receptive to change and tasteful design.
âBooks will be around for a long time, this kind of knowledge preservation has stood the test of time. After all, reading books is just more tactile and human.