Publishing Consultant Emma House Interviews Members Of The PublisHer Community.

Laura Prinsloo is the chair of the Indonesian National Book Committee and director of Kesaint Blanc Publishing and Printing, based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She is from New Zealand, but left a career in finance there to become an entrepreneur, starting new businesses in public transport, logistics and food and beverages.

Laura is part of the Indonesian Chambers of Commerce and involved in the Indonesian Publishers Association. In 2016, she was appointed Chair of the Indonesian National Book Committee, which was established by the Ministry of Education and Culture following Indonesia’s success as the guest of honour country at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair.

Laura also led the organizing committee for Indonesia as the London Book Fair 2019 Market Focus country. Currently, under the new 17,000 Pulau Imaji (17,000 Islands of Imagination) Foundation, she is working closely with the Jakarta government on multiple projects.

You came to the publishing industry after a career in finance. What drew you to publishing?

I think what made me make this risky move to shift my career from finance to a completely different sector was I had become too comfortable in my position for my young age, and I wanted a new challenge. Before joining the publishing scene in Indonesia, I worked for New Zealand’s biggest bank at that time. There were a handful of us in the corporate strategy department and we had the responsibility to report to the NZ Reserve Bank and the CEO. Work became too comfortable and I felt the more I climbed the ladder the further away I would go from my dream of starting my own business.

“The more I climbed the ladder, the further away I would go from my dream of starting my own business.”

At the same time, in 2009, my father called asking me to return to Indonesia and take over his publishing and printing business, or he would sell it. He hadn’t been involved in it for a while and wanted to focus on other things. My father started the business in 1979 and I remember growing up around printing machines, book fairs, and editors. However, I didn’t have a specific passion for the industry. I had many good memories and admired his passion for books, which also rubbed off on me. I believed that while we were still young this could be the best time to change the direction of our life to become entrepreneurs. I liked the idea of moving to Jakarta because the city felt more vibrant than Auckland and because Indonesia is an emerging market, we saw a lot of business opportunities there. After discussing this with my husband, to my surprise he agreed, and we resigned from our jobs to move to Indonesia and revive my family business. The first day at the job was an eye-opener because I was like a fish out of water. I had to learn fast; I read many books, joined the Indonesian Publishers Association, went to many book fairs, seminars, workshops, and built a publishing network. I was on a steep learning curve and I think it was just in my genes, the more time I spent in reviving the publishing business, the more my passion grew for the industry.

Over the last four years Indonesian publishing has been in the spotlight: Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair and Market Focus at the London Book Fair, with you heading the National Book Committee organizing these events. How did you find this experience?

It was such an honour to be trusted to head the National Book Committee. I would never imagine myself – a triple minority (at 33 the youngest person there, a woman and a non-Muslim), entrusted to lead a government entity in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Even though the NBC was set up by the Minister of Education and Culture (MoEC), we started with no programme, no allocated budget, and no acknowledgement. No one took us seriously, especially because the Indonesian Book Council was closed by the President in 2014. We had to make sure this rare opportunity for the book industry given by the government was not wasted. We had to come up with everything, the organizational structure, collaborate with all book stakeholders and come up with programmes that could benefit the country for the long term and look for funding from various sources without relying too much on the MoEC budget.

“Our presence in Frankfurt was a huge success, over 200 Indonesians writers, publishers, artists and creative players.”

Luckily, NBC was established largely due to the guest of the honour programme at Frankfurt Book Fair. We believe that our presence in Frankfurt was a huge success, over 200 Indonesians writers, publishers, artists and creative players participated in yearlong events. It was very much a collective effort that united all the book stakeholders together, which was also a first. NBC therefore got off to a good start, but we wanted to focus not only on international outreach but also improving literacy in our country. We came up with programmes that were new to our country, such as a translation funding programme, writers’ residency programme, literary action festivals, an industry database and also the Market Focus Country at the London Book Fair in 2019. The NBC has now been discontinued, but under a newly established foundation we are continuing programmes that were initiated during NBC periods, including the Jakarta Content Festival – a partnership programme with the Frankfurt Book Fair, a 5,000 square-metre book park and intellectual exchange hub in central Jakarta, the first literature museum and many more. For me it has been important that everything we have worked on over the last five years was continued, especially during this difficult pandemic situation.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced in your career and how have you overcome them?

For me, when dealing with many stakeholders to produce an international programme, managing egos was a challenge. In every decision made, it was important for me to have a good consensus, to be inclusive and make sure it could benefit the whole industry. Having good and transparent communication was key. Of course, we couldn’t please everyone, but I had learnt to accept that. Two other things that we are facing in Indonesia are improving the reading culture and fighting against book piracy. These two contradict each other, on one hand, we have a low reading habit but at the same time piracy is increasing. Both problems contribute to the decline of our industry and both problems are what our programmes in the foundation have been focused on.

“In every decision made, it was important to have a good consensus, to be inclusive and make sure it could benefit the whole industry.”

How have you found the role of women in your career in finance versus your career in the publishing industry? What is the Indonesian publishing scene like for female leaders and entrepreneurs like yourself?

In my financial career, I rarely saw women on top management level. I could say the same for the publishing industry, especially in Indonesia. The editorial department would be filled with women but for positions that require longer hours and higher commitment, most are led by men, which, as a woman, a wife and a mother, I can understand – even though growing up I never felt I was unable to do things because of my gender, and in New Zealand we had a female prime minister. But living in Indonesia I face more challenges from the community. Women are expected to manage the household and the children more than men. My biggest struggle has been fighting that stigma. For my position, I have to travel a lot and leave my family for weeks, and there were even times when I had to fly to Europe twice in a month. The problems came not from my husband (who is extremely supportive) but from the society around me that believes mothers should allocate most of their time to taking care of the family, and work/career should come second. In higher positions, juggling this can be very challenging as companies have targets to be delivered and you are competing with men, where for them it is expected that they work longer hours to provide for the family. And in a cultural communal environment such as Indonesia, people can be extremely judgmental and tend to mind other people’s business.

Have there been any women that have inspired you in your career in general and in your publishing career?

As far as role models go, there have been several inspirational women in my life. I admire these women, not necessarily because of their position but because of their character and their perseverance and compassion. From Indonesia, it’s Susi Pudjiastuti, former Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, the first tattooed female minister, and whom never completed high school education. She is known for her aggressive anti-illegal fishing policies. Another figure I admire is Angela Merkel, from her faith to her bold decisions, and she is also an activist of freedom of speech.

What are the proudest moments of your career? And what motivates you now?

When Indonesian books are published overseas, which most people probably won’t have heard of before. Since we started four years ago, the National Book Committee has recorded more than 1,500 titles sold to foreign publishers. In a way, it has proven that Indonesian content can compete in the global market. Another proudest moment was being able to give the welcoming speech at the Market Focus reception at London Book Fair. That moment symbolized an accomplishment that I would say is close to a miracle – being the Market Focus Country. I don’t want to spill the beans on our struggles, but I witnessed everyone in the committee putting in 110% effort to make it happen. What motivated me from both these moments is the fact that what we do changes our nation for the better.

In Indonesia are there any programmes to specifically support women in publishing?

Unfortunately, I haven’t heard of one. To be frank, the NBC did not put a large focus on gender but rather on the quality of work. Some of our best-selling rights for Indonesian works came from inspiring Indonesian women and that was seen at many events that we did.

Our foundation is currently developing a programme to nurture literacy skills among women, especially mothers. I think mothers have an important role in early literacy. From providing what to read, helping kids to read, as role models for young readers and help to develop their love of books. By equipping mothers with these skills, she could impact the entire family.

“Some of our best-selling rights for Indonesian works came from inspiring Indonesian women.”

What do you think of the global PublisHer network and how do you think it can support women in publishing moving forward?

It’s a great initiative and should include more women from the local markets. Maybe this initiative can be even more inclusive by creating satellite networks like PublisHer Asia or PublisHer Africa…just a thought.

Where does your career take you next?

In our publishing company, we are focusing on improving our online platform where we want to reinvent a new publishing process. We want to move towards various media formats while improving the engagement of our content rather than to rely on conventional ways. But for the industry, under the 17,000 Pulau Imaji foundation (17,000 Islands of Imagination), we are continuing our efforts on improving literacy in Indonesia through various programmes. One of them is in partnership with Frankfurt Book Fair on setting up a book and creative content hub in Jakarta for the Asia Pacific market. Our first event will be launched this November and it’s called Jakarta Content Week.

This article was prepared for and is reproduced here with kind permission.