From the wilds of Borneo to the skylines of Singapore, South-East Asia provides a contrast of politics, religion, literature, food, art and architecture, customs, and symbolism. My connection with the region runs deep, having spent my formative years and more there. Every country is unique, with its own distinct history and heritage.

Hence, when an opportunity to establish and build a presence for Penguin Random House in this region presented itself, it was a dream come true. Penguin Random House SEA is thus an extension of my connection with the region and an opportunity for PRH, as a global company, to be part of one of the most promising markets on our side of the world.

The region comprises 10 countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar – and offers the world myriad voices. It has a rich and varied literary background, a great mix of established and aspiring writers, and an evolving publishing ecosystem. As each country is at a different level of economic transformation, these factors also turn them into distinct markets individually.

Singapore, Indonesia and Philippines are comparatively more mature and robust markets. Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand are young and flourishing, while Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Myanmar are at a nascent stage of their development. English is the predominant language of Singapore, Malaysia and Philippines, while vernacular content is more prevalent in the other countries.

Indonesia and Thailand, on the other hand, have created a demand for English language books owing to a high population of expats. Bookstores in Myanmar, Vietnam, Singapore and Philippines sell English language books. Each country supports and advocates a deep culture of reading in its own capacity.

Publishing markets here recognise literary talent, provide platforms for different voices and drive initiatives to promote reading among the population. Every year world-class literary festivals are organized in SEA – such as the Singapore Writers Festival, The Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, George Town Literary Festival, Ubud Writers & Readers Festival and Irrawaddy Literary Festival – and prestigious awards are given out, including the SEA. Write Award, the Singapore Literature Prize, Hadiah Sastera Perdana Malaysia and Palanca Awards. Publishing associations in most of these countries play an important role in strengthening the industry.

A sudden disruption

When the pandemic hit us this year, the book markets were severely affected, bringing sales to a standstill. With countries sealing their borders, national lockdowns and restrictions on movement, retail and supply chains were enormously impacted, making it difficult to print, distribute and sell physical books. This resulted in a huge loss of income for book publishers and retailers. Over the course of the months, as the lockdowns remained in force, sales dwindled because the region was not prepared to transition to online books.

But as soon as the lockdown restrictions eased, the stores pivoted quickly in some regions, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines, and opened online bookstores. During this time, reading remained a popular way to spend time as people remained housebound, and we saw a greater demand for books, reading recommendations and social media conversations.

Governments of more prosperous SEA countries like Singapore and Malaysia provided relief to small local businesses by lending them money and giving rental rebates. For instance, The Malaysian Book Publishers Association received a grant from the government to take its book fair online, while in Singapore, The National Library Board offered e-books on loan to its members with cookbooks and young adult fiction emerging as top borrowed categories.

The Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (PUBAT) took the Bangkok International Book Fair online, even before the government mandated a national lockdown. Even though only 30 per cent of its members were able to join the event, it received great feedback and support from the public.

We have strived to ensure that our books are made available through online channels and have launched digital versions in the market. Even though the SEA market is predominantly print-heavy, due to the restrictions in accessibility brought about by the pandemic, readers in the region have turned to e-books and digital reading. During this time, there has been a surge in downloads of e-books and reading apps in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. For PRH SEA, the launch of e-books was always a matter of time, and this was an opportune moment to make our books available to readers in the most accessible and convenient manner.

Among other issues, the lockdown has hampered the release of new books, which were traditionally launched at public events. Our line-up of new releases has had to be reviewed, and we have adapted our plans to release these books in the absence of on-ground events. Taking a cue from our experience in India, we have had to come up with creative ways to launch books on digital platforms. This is a work-in-progress, and, in conjunction with our authors, we have been identifying platforms and collaborations to bring out new books and move most of our engagement to social and online media.

The story so far

Over time, interest in SEA literature has grown manifold. People are now studying it in colleges; specialised courses focus on the political backgrounds and historical pasts that have shaped the region’s writing. Local writers are gaining global recognition as they put the spotlight on the realities and nuances of their homelands through their political commentaries, books on revolutions and movements, memoirs, poetry, and tranche de vie of their culture. All of this has led to a growing interest in getting to know the region’s literature better.

A popular example is Kevin Kwan, a Singapore novelist whose Crazy Rich Asians trilogy opened the world to the country’s affluent culture and lifestyle. Similarly, Indonesia has been home to many important literary voices such as Pramoedya, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature several times and awarded the PEN Freedom to Write Award in 1988. He is known for his in-depth writing about the country’s colonial history.

Other famous writers with roots in Indonesia are Eka Kurniawan, who made it to the Man Booker International longlist in 2016; Nh Dini, a progressive feminist author; and playwright and poet WS Rendra, among others. Likewise, some remarkable talent has originated from Malaysia – science fiction and fantasy writer Zen Cho; Tan Twan Eng, the first Malaysian recipient of the Man Asian Literary Prize; and award-winning writer Malim Ghozali PK, whose book Tree of Sorrow was listed among the 160 best novels in the world by the International Impac Dublin Literary Award.

Philippines is home to legendary writers too – Jessica Hagedorn, the winner of the American Book Award and a finalist for the National Books Award; Miguel Syjuco, the winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize for his debut novel; and Sionil Jose, winner of the 1980 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Literature, and whose works have been translated into 22 languages. Vietnam also has prolific authors from across genres – such as Bao Ninh, novelist, essayist and short story writer; Ho Anh Thai, one of the best known contemporary writers in the country; and Le Minh Khue, whose works have been translated into English and several other languages.

It is impossible to capture the essence of this vast literary culture and background with just a few examples, given their legacy and history. Each country’s literary landscape has been shaped by a distinct narrative, and this makes SEA a melting pot of talent and storytelling. Therefore, the opportunities to publish in the region are limitless and the journey of discoverability offers a treasure trove of literature.

Getting business going

In November 2018, we established the PRH SEA office in Singapore as the base for publishing in English from the region. The team set up to build this company was tasked with creating a publishing business customised for the region but with the sensibilities of our global vision. We envisioned a “multi-local” company that could gain from the existing insights and experiences of our global practices, with an essential understanding of the region’s specific needs.

Our publishing is driven by Nora Nazerene Abu Bakar, a Singaporean based in Singapore, and our operations are supported from India, thus making for an ideal combination of publishing and operational expertise. Nora joined us with over 12 years of publishing experience in SEA. She plays a key role in building the publishing programme, and managing acquisitions and author relationships with close support from the PRH India team in the other aspects of operations. Our venture has also received support from our colleagues in the US and the Philippines.

With the team and operations set up, we were geared to put together a formidable inaugural catalogue, one that would reflect the spirit of the newly established company and transcend borders and languages to bring different literary worlds closer. We also used this time to understand the kind of books that would resonate with readers and drive our business. There were, after all, over 9000 books being published annually in Singapore alone, and it was necessary for us to create room and demand for our product across the region.

Our inaugural list stemmed from a combination of our existing expertise and careful consideration of reading habits. Reports indicated that Filipinos and Singaporeans were avid and frequent readers. A 2018 survey of the reading habits of adults in Singapore revealed a 25 per cent increase in readership across fiction and non-fiction in the last two years. With titles spanning multiple genres, our catalogue featured a carefully curated mix of new and established, local and international, voices from across English-language adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction categories.

We also took into account the popularity of children’s and young adult literature in the region and ensured that our catalogue gave prominence to our young readers with books for ages between 6 and 12 years covering a variety of stories promoting learning, character building and interaction, school adventures, and more.

While the spotlight was on local authors from the region, works by writers from countries beyond SEA, such as Korea, India, the US and Mongolia, were also published. Interestingly, the book markets in SEA are similar to those of South Asia. Being a price-sensitive market, its target demography behaves like South Asian audiences, with the children’s and young adult genre being the growth segment followed by the non-fiction category. Publishing companies need to be cognisant of the content, quality of books, and price points that would work in this region as price sensitivities vary from country to country.

The pandemic is a global challenge,and the unprecedented nature of the crisis makes it difficult to predict the future. We are taking a cautiously optimistic stand, constantly adapting to the developments and circumstances. We have kick-started publishing our frontlist and continue to acquire and commission new work. Through all this, we believe the future of books and publishing in SEA remains promising, and we will continue to work towards discovering new realms in storytelling.

Gaurav Shrinagesh is CEO, Penguin Random House India and SEA.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.