Why Indonesians Have Failed to Embrace E-Books

Matthew Hanzel Avatar

This morning, Michael Kozlowski of Goodereader.com published an article, “Indonesians have failed to embrace e-books”. In that short article, he talked about the Indonesians’ apparent lack of interest in electronic books.

That is true, except that I was hoping to see a different set of explanation.

Being an Indonesian myself, and an avid reader of electronic books, let me give you my take on this issue.

Format confusion

True, PDF or “print replica” (to borrow Amazon’s moniker) are still e-books, by definition. But that is not why people buy e-books in the first place. I’ve seen people that reason why they buy and use e-books and e-book readers, and one of the strongest of all is that e-books have flowing format in which you can totally customize the way it looks and behaves, from font sizes to the font faces, margins and line spacing, and sometimes more.

If we use that as the criteria for e-books we are talking about, then that barely exists in Indonesia. Even when there are some e-book retailers in Indonesia, almost all of them sells a mere PDF or “print replica” edition of the book. In most cases, they are only ideal to be read on large screens (7″+), and with the people mostly relying on smartphones, that is far from ideal.

Lack of marketplace

I think the only real e-book marketplace in Indonesia is Google Play. They do offer some local titles, but that’s not much. They also offer foreign titles, and in most cases, they are cheaper than their printed compatriots.

Google Play does have some flowing e-books, and many are also “print replica” e-books.

Now, I don’t say that that’s the only marketplace for e-books in Indonesia. There are also Wayang, Scoop, Gramediana, and some other smaller stores. But here’s the thing: as I have stated before, they basically sell “print replica” version of the e-books, and reading them is far from ideal.

And sometimes, the segregation of marketplace happens in between publishers. Different publishers have different marketplaces of their choosing. The Kompas Gramedia group, for instance, which is one of Indonesia’s largest (if not the largest) publishing companies in Indonesia, practically exclusively sells its titles on Gramediana, which is its own service. Imagine the chaos if one wants to read e-books from several publishing houses.

Bad apps

For these marketplaces, their apps are not made for reading. As an avid fan of Amazon Kindle, and I have used Kobo in the past, they are committed of making great user experience for reading, which is only proper after you spend a fortune on the e-books. The story is way too different in Indonesia. These marketplaces do make apps, but they are merely apps to sell, not apps to be used for reading. Aside from no customization, in most cases (if not all), readers cannot make annotations (highlights, notes), no access to dictionary, and more.

Method of payment

Kozlowski noted that Google Play offers carrier billing, which is great in idea. Nevertheless, from my experience, the carrier billing system is nothing like the simplicity portrayed. Making the phone to be able to utilize your SIM card as a payment method is unreliable. If you are using wi-fi and disconnect your mobile data (sketchy in quality in Indonesia), the carrier billing option will usually disappear. And don’t make me start about the refund process: Extraordinarily ugly.


In defense of the publishers, though, Indonesia is not known for its protection of intellectual property rights. Piracy is a rampant problem in Indonesia, and publishers cannot be blamed to be pessimistic about the prospect of selling e-books and getting pirated easily.

However, I remember what Amazon, and to a certain extent, Apple, have done through the years. Amazon believed in selling DRM-ed e-books, and for the time being, they are doing quite fine. Meanwhile, I also remember what Apple believes in: If you sell content at a good price, legally, and provide the market for that, people will stop (or at least do less) pirating, and “that’s good karma”, to quote the late Steve Jobs.

I am not a DRM supporter myself, but there are ways to make sure contents can be sold legally and in volumes, even in a piracy-rampant country. If that’s a reason, even, probably China will not open its own e-book stores such as Duokan (I’ve seen the catalog once, and it was quite robust).

Lack of titles

Piracy leads to distrust, and publishers are not willing to provide their full collection of titles to the market. I’ve tried multiple times to find the books that I love to read across all marketplaces and publishers, and I can find none.


Firstly, there is no single dedicated e-book reader in Indonesia. A few years ago, a failed startup, Papataka, tried to create an e-book market in Indonesia, while also selling a version of iriver e-book reader. However, the price of the e-book reader itself is way too expensive to justify a purchase (if I am not mistaken, with that price, people could have bought a new Chinese smartphone instead). Will a cheaper dedicated device work? Probably, if priced under $30 (with the minimum wage of just around $200 monthly, spending $30 for a dedicated device will be difficult).

However, I think there is another side to the story: Indonesians do not like to use dedicated devices. This is not scientific, mind you, but I think Indonesians stick only to their smartphones, and use no other devices. If the iPod was quite some trend a decade ago, it is no longer such today. Multipurpose devices, such as smartphones or tables, are the norm in Indonesia today.

And since smartphones and tablets rely on apps, as I told you before, the lack of good apps makes things much difficult for the market to grow.

Lack of promotion

Another thing. Even if there are marketplaces for e-books, publishers do not seem to be interested in promoting their stores. It is left for the readers to find out themselves if the stores do exist, and that is bad for both the publishers and the readers. They should consider better marketing if they want better discovery from the readers.


So yes, they are just some of the factors that I think contribute to the slow growth (if any) of electronic books in Indonesia. The list is not exhaustive, though. I think there are other explanations to this lackluster interest in this piece of technology. That’s a shame, because I really wish that Indonesia has a robust and exciting e-book market. I have experienced the convenience of reading e-books, and I think many should experience the same. Nevertheless, unless publishers (mainly) do something to push growth, nothing else matters.

One response

  1. Nugi Sasono

    Hi, i’m a Graphic designer & Technical developer from indonesia.. i hate to admit it but yeah it’s true…
    i think the biggest problem in my country to embrace E-books is the lack of promotion… how come the readers to find out themselves for what are we publish…

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