A Frankfurt Debut: ASEAN Forum Highlights Publishing in Southeast Asia

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In its inaugural outing at Frankfurt Book Fair next week, the ASEAN Forum looks at both successes and challenges in a 10-market region comprising 600 million people.

On Kasturi Walk near the central market in Kuala Lumpur, named by UNESCO as its 2020 World Book Capital. Malaysia is one of the countries featured in Frankfurter Buchmesse’s new ASEAN Forum, October 10-12. Image – iStockphoto: Grace Thang

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

ASEAN Forum: 10 Countries, 20 Events
New to the busy programming at the Frankfurter Buchmesse this year is its ASEAN Forum event space and its full slate of activity, sponsored primarily by the Philippines’ Rex Group and set in Hall 4.0 (B106).

The forum—here’s a PDF download of the full program—includes some 20 events staged on October 10, 11, and 12—this year’s trade visitor days at Frankfurt—all with an eye to examining the publishing and content industries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ markets.

Holding special presence in the programming are markets of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines, in addition to information on areas including children’s and YA literature; academic publishing; religious publishing; and the creative industries overall. One of the key element of the program’s design is a focus on selling rights into ASEAN markets.

And there’s special energy around Malaysia in particular, as Kuala Lumpur has been designated by UNESCO to follow Sharjah as its 2020 World Book Capital.

Publishing Perspectives has had a chance to put some questions to Dominador Buhain, president of the ASEAN Book Publishers Association and the chair of the sponsoring Rex Group. We are particularly interested in the issues of the ASEAN markets, of course, in part because Publishing Perspectives participates annually in the Frankfurter Buchmesse’s producing work with StoryDrive Asia Singapore, this year scheduled for November 19 and 20.

We begin our exchange with Buhain by asking about some of the specific strengths of the ASEAN region in publishing.

‘Approximately 600 Million People’

Publishing Perspectives: Can you give us some of the outstanding advantages of publishing in the ASEAN region today?

Dominador Buhain

Dominador Buhain: With pleasure. As you know we have approximately 600 million people in the ASEAN region, which comprises 10 countries:

  • Indonesia
  • Singapore
  • Malaysia
  • Thailand
  • Vietnam
  • Myanmar
  • The Philippines
  • Brunei
  • Cambodia
  • Laos

While in some countries like Vietnam, the aging society is an issue, in most countries we have a very young, tech-savvy population hungry for knowledge.

So education plays a very important role in our region, and most publishers work in the genre of education and children’s publications. That means, of course, for those interested in our region, that this is a huge area of opportunity.

On the other hand, even though we are very tech-savvy, we haven’t been able to make digital work for us very well. For example, we find that ebooks aren’t in much demand as yet, and even audiobooks are a slow sell.

We’re very dynamic rights buyers, however, and that’s interesting for foreign publishers, of course, as is the interesting content we have to offer to the world.

PP: And by contrast, what are some of the chief challenges faced this year by ASEAN publishers?

DB: One of the reasons ebooks aren’t working so well is our copyright situation. We still see a lot of piracy in the region, and that makes it hard for the digital stuff to grow.

Another challenge is that some countries don’t have a strong reading culture. For instance in Indonesia, people need to be taught the benefits of reading, while in Vietnam and in Myanmar and also in the Philippines, reading is a favorite pastime.

Translations and rights trading within ASEAN is another challenge: While in the Philippines we’re in a good position in that most of our publications are in English, we have huge trouble translating, lets say, Vietnamese into English or Indonesian, and the same is true for Myanmar. So that’s something we need to tackle.

‘More and More Exchange Between Professionals’

PP: Do publishers in different countries in the ASEAN region frequently communicate with each other? Or is that something that needs to be developed?

“While in some countries like Vietnam, the aging society is an issue, in most countries we have a very young, tech-savvy population hungry for knowledge.”Dominador Buhain

DB: That’s a good question. We have the ASEAN Book Publishers Association of which I’m president, of course, and we communicate more and more about common problems or plans we have, just as we’re doing in our ASEAN Forum at Frankfurt, of course.

What’s more, we all have our respective book fairs and we travel to those, so there is more and more exchange between the professionals, which is a very good thing.

PP: We understand that there will be matchmaking sessions available at the forum for children’s, literary, and university press publishers. What other specific events and/or programming elements are in place at the ASEAN Forum?

DB: For the ASEAN Forum, what we’ve done is put together 20 sessions for professionals who are interested in the markets of Southeast Asia. These include looks at new formats we’re implementing in the region, including VR and AR.

We also have a session which gives tips and advice on how to sell into our region, and we think this will be one of the forum’s strongest draws, of course.

We also talk about the creative industries in the ASEAN countries and what the consumers in our region are looking for.

As you know, Kuala Lumpur will be World Book Capital in 2020, and that’s expected to highlight the whole region of Southeast Asia, of course. And as for matchmaking, we’re featuring a matchmaking session for the Philippines on Wednesday (October 10) at 3:15 p.m. in Frankfurt’s Business Club (Hall 4.0).

PP: Lastly, what are the main outcomes you hope to see come out of the new ASEAN Forum at Frankfurt? What are the desired results?

DB: We want to create more attention for the markets in ASEAN and hope we can facilitate business between the international publishing and content industries and the members of our ASEAN region.

We also hope to raise new interest with publishers who haven’t looked at this region so far, so that our markets become even more diverse.

And last but not least, we also want to show the enormous wealth of content we have here.


More from Publishing Perspectives on ASEAN and its publishing industries is here, and more on the Frankfurter Buchmesse is here.

And our pre-Frankfurt magazine is ready for your free download.

It’s themed on politics and publishing and includes our extensive preview of the Frankfurter Buchmesse. Download the PDF here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.

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