By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Saturday, October 18th, 2014

With the leisurely way I browse in bookstores, it was a real dilemma. How would I manage to cover the 7,300-plus book displays of exhibitors from more than 100 countries spread out in cavernous halls at the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF) that ended on Oct. 12? But because National Book Development Board (NBDB) executive director Graciela Cayton and I had been invited by Claudia Kaiser, FBF vice president for business development, viewing this as our orientation for a planned first-time participation of the Philippines next year, we resolved to cover as much ground as humanly possible.

The rule of thumb is not to be overly ambitious by attempting to visit all the exhibits. But we happily broke that rule and thus went to the five buildings that housed the English-speaking publishers, the comics and children’s books, YA, the nonfiction, the arts section, the antiquarian books, the stationery and gifts section, and the products showing what today’s digital publishing can do.

Because the exhibition halls were huge (think of SMX 10 times over), shuttle vehicles and even “velo-taxis,” the state-of-the-art German version of our good old tricycles, were available.

The coverage did become manageable because the majority of the titles was in German and other foreign languages. It was, after all, a trade show more than a regular book fair where one could shop for books for one’s reading pleasure. On the first three days the atmosphere was strictly hard-nosed business, but it turned carnival-like in the weekend when the book fair was opened to the general public. And how the city’s book lovers and cosplayers thronged to purchase the titles on sale.

Why the sudden interest in having the Philippines participate in the FBF with a country booth representing the best in our publishing? Aside from the country finally shedding its tarnished image during this administration, the progress that the Philippine publishing industry has made is similarly worthy of note. These are not mere motherhood statements; there are the National Book Awards of the Manila Critics Circle over the past 33 years as well as the National Children’s Book Awards as tangible proof. This is something the rest of the world has to see, this is something worth crowing about.

Even during his previous assignment with the Intellectual Property Office, Trade Undersecretary Adrian “Che” Cristobal, who is governor of the NBDB, had been seriously discussing the urgent need to promote Philippine publishing as an industry to showcase, the way other Philippine products are.

A special feature of the FBF is to train the spotlight on a guest of honor, a country whose book tradition, current book titles, and culture and tradition are given prominence. The country of honor’s booth is expectedly the most visually attractive and the busiest in terms of guests and special programs. This year Finland was the country of honor, and its slogan was catchy and memorable: “Finland. Cool.” The large Finnish delegation during the formal, by-invitation-only opening ceremony was led by President Sauli Niinisto himself, education scholar and current Harvard professor Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, and writer Sofie Oksanen—statement enough of how the Finnish government supports the country’s reading culture. I could not help but sigh deeply in total envy.

And the true wake-up call for the NBDB to have the Philippines visible in the FBF is that the next country of honor is our neighbor, Indonesia, the very first in Asean to be awarded that distinction. Our participation in 2015 should be timely, with the Asean Economic Community upon us.

Already, the Philippines’ absence at the FBF was noteworthy, given the exhibit booths of our Asean neighbors such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, and Vietnam.

There has been only token participation of Philippine publishers in the FBF, understandably because of the costs involved. Dominador Buhain of REX has been a constant presence over the years, also representing the Philippine Educational Publishers Association of the Philippines. Karina Bolasco of Anvil was invited to join a modest booth shared by publishers from Malaysia, Vietnam and India. Nida Ramirez of Visprint of Bob Ong and Trese fame got a complimentary exhibitor’s booth as grantee of a publishing fellowship she qualified to attend days before the FBF. Former NBDB executive director Andrea Pasion Flores was in the hall for the Jacaranda Literary Agency. And, yes, there was definite interest from foreign publishers for translation rights for Philippine titles and even printing jobs in the country.

What would publishers gain from joining a shared Philippine exhibit truly representative of the industry? Aside from international exposure, their selected display titles, if in English, can be bought as such by English-speaking publishers or translated into other languages. Another bonus is to see, appreciate and learn from what the rest of the world is producing. The numerous discussions and forums offered are excellent ways to be in touch with what’s new, what’s hot, and what’s cool in the different facets of publishing.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( nenisrcruz@gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.