By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
Saturday, October 10, 2015
Philippine Daily Inquirer

When the Frankfurt Book Fair (or Frankfurter Buchmesse), the world’s largest annual trade fair for books, opens on Oct. 14, for the very first time in the fair’s more than 500-year history the Philippines will have its own exhibitor stand with the proud theme “Best source of content in Asia.”

Representatives of seven publishing houses, two associations and the National Book Development Board (NBDB) make up the official delegation: Jorge Garcia, Abiva Publishing House Inc.; Ani Almario, Adarna House; Karina Bolasco, Anvil Publishing Inc.; Jose Maria T. Policarpio, Diwa Learning Systems Inc.; Jun Matias, Lampara Publishing House Inc., Precious Pages Corp.; Melanie Esguerra, Black Ink; Dominador Buhain and Breezy Santiago, Rex Group of Companies (also for Philippine Educational Publishers Association); John Jack Wigley, University of Santo Tomas Publishing House; and Graciela M. Cayton and myself, NBDB.

The Book Development Association of the Philippines (BDAP) headed by Lirio Sandoval which spearheaded this ambitious initiative along with NBDB’s Cayton gathered this delegation of representative publishers.

At the June board meeting of NBDB, then Education Undersecretary (and NBDB vice chair) Francisco Varela emphasized that the board is supporting the Philippine delegation in the spirit of true partnership toward the development of the book publishing industry. (Varela has since passed away.)

It is lamentable that BDAP’s Sandoval, a well-known personality in the industry responsible for the Manila International Book Fair that is patronized by many today, is recuperating from illness and will be unable to join us. Adarna House’s Almario is BDAP acting president.

Just getting a Philippine delegation to Frankfurt is a major milestone considering how many times in the past the need for an international presence for our excellent books has been discussed. It was easy to believe then that it would be extremely difficult for the Philippines to participate in a trade fair of international publishing rights and licensing fees. For one, the costs involved would be prohibitive, especially in the absence of government support. (When will books and reading ever be a national priority? It angers me to even have to raise this question.) For another, for Philippine visibility to make any impression, a one-time exhibition would be forgettable. The presence must be sustained for a number of years. One just has to take a deep breath and make the plunge, reckless as it sounds.

To complicate the issue, why go beyond our shores when our books have not even reached all of our islands, when a large Philippine market has yet to be tapped, and when the state of readership in the country has yet to be confronted head-on? Given these all-too-familiar concerns, the Buchmesse statistics of 7,000 exhibitors from 100+ countries and 286,000 visitors no longer sound that impressive.

However, there were encouraging signs and support along the way—all paving the way to Frankfurt. Several years back, in discussions with Adrian “Che” S. Cristobal, then director general of the Intellectual Property Office and now trade undersecretary for industry development and trade policy and managing head of the Board of Investments (BOI), the logical course of action seemed to be the marketing of Philippine books as an industry. If trade expos abroad feature fashion, furniture, food, etc., why not the books in which we can certainly take pride? Even then Cristobal issued the assurance that when the publishing industry speaks with one voice regarding its action plan over a five-year period, the Department of Trade and Industry and BOI will talk business. Needless to say, even convening the representatives of the industry was an initial arduous first step.

Minister and Consul Adrian Elmer Cruz of the Philippine Embassy in the Federal Republic of Germany met with us to seriously ask: When will the Philippines be present as a country in the Buchmesse? The embassy itself was interested in a project that would disseminate Philippine titles to German universities.

Another voice that could not be ignored was that of Claudia Kaiser, Buchmesse vice president for business development who, aware of the high quality of Philippine publications, came to Manila early last year to make a strong case for a country stand. She knew the state of our finances, the absence of government support except through NBDB’s limited budget, and the need for publishing-industry representatives to reach a consensus. She made sure NBDB came to the 2014 Buchmesse for a hands-on experience and offered the most generous discounts for this first-timer country. BDAP and Sandoval took on the challenge.

The news last year that our Asean neighbor Indonesia would be the 2015 guest of honor at the 2015 Buchmesse was a wake-up call of sorts. The fair was truly coming close, so close, to home. The featured country is the focus of interest in the fair: There is a special literary program, a prominent exhibition hall, and the presence of the country’s major publishing houses. Indonesia’s theme is “17,000 islands of imagination meet a world between myths, mysticism and modernity.”

May the Philippines’ debut at the 2015 Buchmesse lead to promising possibilities for the industry, as we also pay tribute to Johannes Gutenberg whose invention of the movable printing press in 1439 inspired the first book fair by local booksellers.

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.