(The Philippine Star)
July 28, 2019

MANILA, Philippines — Global publishing consultant Rudiger Wischenbart, head of Project BookMap based in Vienna, said at the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair: “Honestly, we don’t know exactly how big overall the international book markets are. Indeed, as globalization progresses in publishing, this factor dogs the industry on the world scale — with so many distinctions from market to market — and on the national scale where, for example, the dominance of online sales for ebooks can mean that analysts must operate without hard sales figures.”

Wischenbart’s report can only estimate that “the worldwide market value at consumer prices was in 2017 at around €122 billion ($143.4 billion). It shows that book publishing is bigger than music, video games, or filmed entertainment, roughly equal to newspaper publishing, yet clearly smaller than in-home video entertainment, which is almost double that size. And while it is not sliding as badly as the newspaper or consumer magazine industry, publishing is certainly not growing either on the world scale as fast as video games, in-home video entertainment, or even cinema.”

Imagine then how much more difficult it is to extrapolate book data from our overall national printing, importation, and sales data. The last data consolidated must have been in our Book Industry Roadmap released in 2014, projecting for 2015-2020. So without hard data, I can only write of how the industry feels about books: It is just bursting with new book energies.

Looking inward, the new K to 12 Curriculum and the Mother Tongue medium of learning for K to Grade 3 children are remarkable new opportunities for textbook publishers to develop a new generation of textbooks and engaging supplementary materials for both public and private schools.

If this nationwide endeavor ends up employing countless creatives and innovators, then our millennials shall soon have intellectually and visually stimulating books across subjects. There have been schools which tried and tested online learning systems and ebooks, but unprepared and quite attached to old teaching methods, have quickly given up. But as we always say, even with technology right in our faces, under our noses, or at our fingertips, different people will respond to the challenge differently.

Looking outward now, as the industry roadmap projected, the Philippine book industry has been present at the world’s largest and oldest book fair, the Frankfurt Book Fair since 2015. Under the leadership of the National Book Development Board and the support of Rep. Loren Legarda, we now have a well-designed stand, not anymore makeshift and of decent size. It is co-participated in, on the average annually, by 10 to 15 publishers led by the Book Development Association of the Philippines.

We have been organizing our own events like talks and panel discussions with ASEAN, and even a Mama Sita cooking demo at the Gourmet Area. Last year, Budjette Tan of the popular Trese series (that will soon be a film on Netflix) took time out of his LEGO job in Billund, Denmark and gave a talk on Philippine comics and graphic novels on the international stage.

The FBF has many such interesting spaces for networking and cultural exchanges in a world fair that is as incorrigibly and richly diverse but together, love the book, and live for it, in as many ways as possible. Kristian Cordero of Ateneo de Naga University Press spoke of translations, crossovers from European languages to Philippine languages other than Filipino so that now Kafka and Borges can be read in Bikol. Unimaginable a decade or so ago.

The Philippines, through the sponsorship of Atty. Dominador Buhain, president of Rex Foundation, Asean Book Publishers Association (ABPA), and Asia Pacific Publishers Association (APPA), hosted an ASEAN forum where together with Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, discussed various common concerns of the regional book industry, fundamental of which is how to build and shape a genuine book trade among us in the region, instead of selling and buying from one another books from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia.

By coming together in a common hall, we see one another’s books, and maybe sooner than later, we will translate again across our own languages, with no need for grants like that major long-term translation project of the Toyota Foundation in the 1960s, which lasted over three decades and completed 400 translations of major award-winning works across ASEAN languages: Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada ‘70 in Thai, Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter, Mochtar Lubis’ Tiger, Tiger and Twilight in Jakarta, K.S. Maniam’s The Return, and Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s The Earth of Mankind, all in Filipino, are only a few in the list. Translators were legendary: Rogelio Sicat, Ruth Elynia Mabanglo, Reynaldo Duque, Thelma Kintanar, Mauro Avena, Rustica Carpio and Lualhati Bautista herself.

It will not be long when there will be a craving for these stories commercially from our neighboring countries just as in the 13th to 15th centuries, when we fiercely traded our products across oceans. Before the Portuguese Magellan sailed to our shores under the Spanish flag, almost 500 years ago, we definitely had a taste for one another’s products.

We must learn to recover not just that liking for one another’s food, textiles, music, dance and stories, but the similarities that bind us and loudly tell we are of this region until our different colonizers came and taught us, more like trained us, actually, to instead like and love their food, their clothing, their music and dance, their stories.

Because books historically have always been foreign and imported, we needed a period to recover our stories and publish them in all genres and categories. We took the last decade of the 20th century and onto the 15 years of the 21st. They come up to a good quarter, and since, we have been ready to show our wares, so to speak. Now, we look outward.

It has helped too that both the global giant publishers like Random House and the small presses are now very interested in writers of Asian ancestry and their stories of migration to North America and Europe.

It is said that while the 20th century belonged to Latin American literature, the 21st is to Asian writing. Haruki Murakami, Han Kang, Tash Aw, Eka Kurniawan, Miguel Syjuco, Mia Alvar, Gina Apostol, Elaine Castillo, and soon Jia Tolentino, the Filipino-American and Filipino writers all from big publishing houses.

And recently, at the Arete in Ateneo, Elda Rotor, vice president and publisher of Penguin Classics at Penguin Random House, shared her work experience repackaging literary masterpieces into modern readers for today’s millennials.

She is the grand niece of legendary fictionist from 82 years ago, Arturo Rotor who was a medical doctor (Rotor Syndrome was named after him), a musician, an orchid breeder (an orchid species was also named after him), and a damn fine writer whose short story collection, The Wound and the Scar, was the initial publication of the Philippine Book Guild in 1937. He also served as Executive Secretary in Quezon’s Commonwealth Government during World War 2, while Quezon was in exile.

And at Elda’s Manila House talk last July 11, she was asked about Arturo Rotor’s Commonwealth papers. Around the same time Elda’s grand uncle lived, Allan Lane founded Penguin Books in 1935. It is therefore not unexpected at all that Elda is responsible for featuring in their Classics line five works by Filipinos: Rizal for Noli and El Fili, Jose Garcia Villa, Nick Joaquin and Carlos Bulosan. All cover designs of these books were by Filipino artists from different parts of the world.

Next year, they will celebrate the 30th year of Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters. A Filipino artist, Patrick Cabral based here, has been commissioned to do art for the Penguin office building in New York.

The biggest and wildest source of our excitement is pushing the bid to be Guest of Honor (GOH) country at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2024. This was Rep. Legarda’s immediate challenge to us when she heard that Indonesia was Guest of Honor in 2015, the first Southeast Asian country to be featured.

The GOH pavilion is not just a showcase for books but for the arts and culture that are front and center of these books, and most importantly are inked in these books. It will not just be an event of the Book Board that is under the Department of Education, but rather it should be an inter-departmental task force that must actually start preparing now, five years back as GOH countries are expected to do.

Laura Prinsloo, young and energetic head of Indonesia’s National organizing committee of their GOH preparation and execution, shared on her last visit that since Indonesia was GOH in 2015, they have sold the rights to 1,600 of their titles. Not bad for a country that traditionally buys translation rights to American and British titles.

The new energies come not just with new and disruptive technologies but also with sudden shifts in politics and the world order, and the urgency of climate change. Books, whether print or digital, will need to be more than what they are now. As Franz Kafka said:

“We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone… we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?” – Karina Africa Bolasco

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Karina Africa Bolasco is the director of the Ateneo University Press.