The Future of Books in Cuba

From a past Cuba International Book Fair / Photo: Sadiel Mederos

By Carlos Avila Villamar  (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – In February 2020, after visiting the International Book Fair, I remember publishing an article about the dangers of precipitating the transition to eBooks in Cuba at a time when there wasn’t any paper, but when there also wasn’t widespread access for electronic readers, on cellphones or personal computers.

Before the pandemic and the economic crisis got worse, the book situation in Cuba was already a cause for concern: limited plans, small print runs, scarce or zero promotion of book titles and authors, empty bookstores. Two years later, things have only gotten worse.

It’s worth taking a quick look at the economic structure first. Books are a subsidized product in Cuba, relying on two ministries, the Ministry of Culture (which takes care of publishers) and the Ministry of Industries (printing is classified as a “graphic art” within the Light Industry department). The Ministry of Culture’s budgets aren’t normally a problem because writers and publishers are paid in Cuban pesos. However, the Ministry of Industries needs foreign currency to import raw materials, and it’s natural for other pressing products to be given priority amidst shortages.

The book industry has been hit hard by this division, because while it’s true that it isn’t a profitable business right now, even if it were, it would still have its hands tied behind its back: its revenue is completely disconnected from the opportunity to reinvest in printing. Book printing has been hijacked in administrative terms by chances to produce soap and toilet paper. It’s as if Cuba’s music industry depended on the arbitration of the Ministry of Transport, and no matter how much organization goes into a concert, an engine breaking down could paralyze everything; or like film and TV sharing the same budget as the National Institute of Sports, Physical Culture and Recreation, and poor revenue from baseball stadiums would delay filming for a TV series by a year.

I’m not that person who demands the book industry be pushed and shoved into raking a profit. I think it’s fair and obvious for books to be subsidized. I’m rather talking about how resources available are being administrated: the State paying for books isn’t bad, but the ideal situation is that books don’t solely depend upon the State. That’s because when there is an economic crisis, like now, the sector grinds to a complete halt, and I’ll go one step further and say it’s in danger of dying or of suffering irreversible damage.

What was being printed in Cuba before the COVID-19 pandemic? How many copies? The 2020 Book Fair was not only a sad affair because of the books that weren’t printed, but because of the books that were in fact printed: priority was given to give a huge pat on the back to the guest country (because of geopolitical reasons), readers weren’t the priority.

If books solely depending upon State subsidies is terrible, it’s even more terrible that it depends upon a single event that is done in haste and is Carnival-like, that leaves publishing life barren the rest of the year: the Book Fair. The idea behind the Book Fair is backward and disdainful in essence: Cuban readers only buy books once a year, so we put on a great big event to get it all over and done with.

You might argue that it’s not exactly the Book Fair’s fault, that the objective is that the Fair continues to be held, but that there is also life for publishers the rest of the year; but anyone who had managed a budget (including a child who gets pocket money) knows that you often have to choose between one thing and another. You must choose between having one big event per year in the entire country and fluid publishing activity the rest of the year, at least until the budget is doubled (which isn’t going to happen).

In practical terms, what does this boil down to? Well, for starters, publishing plans are drawn up yearly and revolve around the Book Fair. While in other countries, the time it takes for a writer to hand in a manuscript to publish and this book reaching bookstore shelves is four or five months, it takes years in Cuba. Such a slow “metabolism” that can never satisfy consumer demands. Writers are unable to follow the rhythm of their readers, and vice-versa.

Hotels are built faster in Cuba than a finished book reaching its reader’s hands. The other thing is that highly sought-after books by the public (which they literally wait years for) are sold out at the Book Fair, and there are no hopes that it will be reprinted in the mid-term (courtesy of this dependence upon Light Industry), and only the books that nobody wants make it to bookstores.

I’m not talking about the three or four more or less stocked-up bookstores in Old Havana or Vedado. I’m talking about bookstores in the outskirts, in other municipalities, in other provinces; these bookstores that only have books that have been there collecting dust for four, five or ten years, because nobody wants to buy them. I’m talking about the only bookstores that 90% of Cuban readers can access.

Indeed, it wasn’t the Cuban Book Institute that conceived the book fair. There are countless fairs around the world, but they don’t mean that publishing activity is interrupted for the rest of the year. What happens the rest of the year is that bookstores organize readings and presentations by writers a couple of times a week, at least, they bring out new sellers, are welcoming spaces, and sometimes sell coffee and sweets. They are places to socialize. Not to mention effective campaigns on social media to find new customers.

Cuban bookstores (except for a select few exceptions) don’t hold book readings or launches, they don’t have the resources to invest in good bookshelves and lighting, and they have no social media presence. This isn’t the bookstore management’s fault, it’s the structure’s fault. Nor is it exactly bookstores’ fault they are state controlled (I’m not suggesting privatization, which would only lead to these places ultimately shutting down). 

The fault lies in that they belong to a centrally planned and rigid system that looks at books as if they were matchboxes. In a system where books are subsidized in full, bookstores need to also be subsidized by the State, which turns them into boring repositories, museums where the public can see what nobody bought at book fairs in previous years.

Let me say it again: I’m not saying State subsidies on books need to be cut, what I’m saying is that publishers and bookstores should be able to rely on other sources of income. Economic reforms in the past two years have given greater freedom to publishers on the surface, but this freedom continues to be extremely limited: 1) plans are subordinated to the Cuban Book Institute’s own and its great annual event, the Book Fair, and 2) printing continues to be out of its hands, as it answers to a different ministry and the allocation of foreign currency which doesn’t take book sales into account.

The only thing the reforms have done is demand that publishing houses be more profitable, without giving them the tools they need to do this. That’s to say, without letting a publisher decide if it wants to publish a certain book in the next few months, and if it’s a hit, reprint it immediately so it reaches more readers.

This is why there aren’t top sellers in Cuba, because great acclaim from critics and sales are not reflected in reprints and reeditions. If a book wins a literary competition, a thousand copies are printed and then you can’t find it anywhere, ever again. When was the last time a Carpentier Award winner was reprinted? Or a UNEAC Award winner? Or a David Award winner? Or a Calendar Award winner?

It’s clear that only one in two Calendar Award winners deserve to be reprinted, but this opportunity should exist. The framework has been built so that national literature is a mosaic of print runs is a commitment between institutions (UNEAC, AHS, the Cuban Book Institute, UJC…), where publishing houses are only intermediaries. In many cases, Cuban publishing houses are only entities which institutions hire to edit texts they themselves have decided to publish beforehand. Organizations and institutions are doing the publishing management work (via different mechanisms, which are often inefficient), and publishers are only left with syntax and orthographic decisions.

A series of conditions need to be given for the Cuban book industry to flourish. A gradual recovery in other economic sectors isn’t enough. Publishing houses need to have an exchange rate that allows them to import the paper they need. Foreign currency for printing books shouldn’t be a central allocation that ends up in a different ministry, in fact. Publishing houses need to have autonomy in their publishing plans regarding other institutions’ interests, except for specific cases (textbooks, etc.).

Publishing houses and bookstores need to be able to sell certain books at competitive prices on the market (prices run operating bookstores at the end of the day: the ones that work anyway), so they don’t depend upon the benevolence and arbitrariness of subsidies. Bookstores need to be reinvented as spaces and new distribution methods could be explored.

It might seem like this is too much, in very different fields too, but it’s either this or writers and readers sitting and waiting for the Cuban economy to take off that allows subsidies to trickle down and fund new sellers to be printed en masse. The first option is difficult, but the second seems even more far-removed from reality and unlikely. It’s better to fight for something difficult that depends upon our own efforts than wait for an easy solution that depends upon somebody else: this has been the lesson we don’t seem to have learned yet.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

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