By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
24 October 2015
Philippine Daily Inquirer

By this time, the intrepid team of seven publishers that made possible the Philippines’ first-ever collective stand at the 67th Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF or Buchmesse) would have returned home, energized by the initial foray in the international market and encouraged by the number of inquiries from rights buyers.

To give one an idea why the Buchmesse boasts of being the world’s largest, it is housed in six buildings (called halls) featuring, among others, the Antiquarian Book Fair; an Education Center featuring current issues in education; Comics; International Publishers where the Philippines’ stand was, along with those of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia; the guest of honor in a separate pavilion; Children’s & Young Adult; Fiction and Non-Fiction; Art Books/Gifts/Design; Religion; Tourism; Academic Publishing; and Stationery & Gifts, a very popular Calendar Gallery. Think of SMEX 6-10 times over. One needed a map to check out the areas one wanted to visit, and the all-day shuttles were a big help.

In our same hall was Iran, whose large exhibition space was starkly empty—an expression of boycott because of its displeasure that Salman Rushdie was invited to the Buchmesse opening press conference. No author-sighting for me, especially of Isabel Allende; I only have memories of my Paulo Coelho encounter last year.

Each day had a packed schedule of forums on a wide range of topics. One of the sessions featured a member of the Philippine Team Frankfurt delegation, Jorge Abiva Garcia of Abiva Publishing House Inc., who gave an introduction to Philippine textbook publishing. He was the only featured Filipino speaker.

The Buchmesse is not a consumer or retail fair in the way our September Manila International Book Fair (MIBF) was. The books on display were only available for sale in the last three hours of Sunday, the final day. It was open to the public only in the last two days, when the book-buying public came in droves along with a horde of cosplayers, showing just how much characters from sci-fi, comics, or anime are loved and seriously studied. In the trains on those days was the typical sight of adolescents in full regalia, complete with makeup and wigs, carrying homemade signs, hammers, swords, lasers and appropriate accessories.

If not the general public, who is the main audience of the Buchmesse? The first three days were restricted to trade visitors, representatives of book publishing and multimedia companies from all over the world to negotiate international publishing rights and licensing fees.

The Buchmesse is a revered tradition in Germany, and all roads literally led to it for the week. Even the German Embassy in San Francisco, where I had to apply for a visa, waived the fee after I explained my circumstances. Initially they said it was not possible for a temporary visitor like me to secure one, but later they said they were happy that the Philippines would be represented. Similar sentiments were aired by the German visa personnel at the Frankfurt airport.

Many actually expressed surprise and relief to find the stand of the Philippines at the Buchmesse. Too long in coming, said Buchmesse official Claudia Kaiser. But it would be inaccurate to say it was a first time for everyone in the team, for some of our leading publishers—Karina Bolasco of Anvil, Ani Almario of Adarna, Jun Matias of Lampara/Precious Pages—have been to the fair, as individual participants, though not annually. Rex Group of Companies and the Philippine Educational Publishers Association led by Dominador Buhain and Sonia Santiago have been a constant presence. Visprint Inc. had its own complimentary stall for two successive years under the Buchmesse’s international training program for young publishers-trainees (Nida Ramirez and Kyra Ballesteros).

One could see how those efforts are now reaping benefits and goodwill. When foreign publishers dropped by, they were better known and sought. A good number were primarily interested in selling their book rights to the Philippine market, the usual starting point for a business relationship. I could not resist asking for a reciprocal relationship. Others wanted books in English to expose foreign children to stories from Asia. Others wanted books originally written in Filipino. It was fortunate that UST Publishing House’s Jack Wigley was present, because foreign universities and libraries wanted materials for Southeast Asian studies.

The recurring comment was: But where do we find your books aside from the stray titles that find their way to Amazon? The team tried to address this with a catalogue of Philippine publishers which included even the nonparticipating publishers.

National Artist Virgilio S. Almario, who heads the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, paid us a visit as he wound up a previously scheduled personal visit to Berlin. His presence was fortunate as he could join us for a meeting to which we were invited with Buchmesse CEO Juergen Boos, who especially welcomed the Philippines as a first-timer.

All in all, it was good for the Philippines to be found. Lirio Sandoval and Ani Almario of the Book Development Association of the Philippines (who also initiated the MIBF three decades ago) and National Book Development Board executive director Graciela Cayton deserve all the credit for this endeavor.

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.