The Havana Book Fair
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining a group of American book professionals (booksellers, publishers, distributors) visiting the Havana Book Fair in Cuba as part of the first US Publishing Mission (created by PublishersWeekly, the Combined Book Exhibit and PubMatch).
The Havana Book Fair is a giant open-air book festival that takes place annually in the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana. There is music everywhere! Publishers exhibit in old prison cells (now turned into booths); authors launch new books and give talks to crowds of readers. It is a once-a-year opportunity to see the entire publishing market of Cuba in one place.
"Many families only buy books once a year," says Zuleica Romay Guerra, President of the Book Institute of the Cuban Ministry of Culture. "You see families saving for months to go to the book fair and buy as many books as they can." (from Calvin Reid’s During Panels, Realities of Cuban Publishing Market Laid Bare)
The Conference Itself
Cuba is a country with a 97% literacy rate but only 5% internet connectivity. The professionals we spoke with immediately identified the opportunity that digital presents, both in the Cuban publishing industry and in bringing Cuban works to the broader global community.
"Digital...all this market will have a very promising future in Cuba. Hold a dialogue with the world on the basis of new realities.”
—Edel Morales Fuentes, Book Institute of Cuba
Their vision, and their commitment to it, is truly inspiring. As I told Porter Anderson and Publishing Perspectives, what I saw in Cuba was a highly literate people ready to have a deep conversation with which I think we should engage.
The Cuban Book Business
The Cuban book business, being largely run and subsidized by the government, is extremely different from our own industry. A few examples (at least as I understood them):
The whole business is run through government subsidies
Every year, each publisher gives the government the publishing plan
The government pays for printing and runs the printing presses
The government pays the royalties to the authors, the government pays the employees
Distribution is based on population, so each region obtains their population ratio of the distribution of a new title
Books are typically only printed in paperback
A book typically costs less than a dollar
Some numbers as supplied by the Instituto Cubano del Libro:
11.3 million people in Cuba
313 bookstores (mostly used)
300 public libraries
This is an industry undergoing major change right now, and they recognize that it will likely take a generation to turn over to a different business model, but they are excited about the future.
“I know you will take this work seriously. And I can promise you that we will also be serious about it.”
— Zuleica Romay Guerra, Book Institute of Cuba
Literacy + Digital + Cuba
One of the challenges in Cuba is the availability and the cost of books. Fuentes says that while about 70% of Cubans are used to reading digitally, there is a shortage of digital reading devices available in Cuba. As their connectivity improves in the coming months and years, it will mean greater access to ebooks and digital reading.
"We have started but not as fast as our readers. Readers are actually ahead of us. It is one of our challenges."
— Zuleica Romay Guerra, Book Institute of Cuba
As part of the final panel of the conference, we talked about what the digital transformation has looked like in the U.S. and what that has meant for our industry. In my presentation at the book fair, I highlighted that what is particularly relevant for the Cuban industry right now are what I called the 5 major outcomes of ebooks:
- The Self-Publishing Boom
- Lots more content = the challenge of discovery
- Development of mobile
- The global opportunity
- The development of new business models
One of the things I highlighted in my talk (as I have in other talks elsewhere) was the persistence and importance of print. As we know, in the US, we are part of an additive transformation, with ebooks and physical books co-existing in the ecosystem rather than ebooks replacing physical books. We also know that different categories of books behave differently with respect to ebooks. And that in our market, the ebooks revolution was driven by women who are also the key purchasers of books in Cuba. I covered a lot of these points as part of the final panel of the conference.
I’ve posted the full presentation to Slideshare.
For more about this Cuban book journey, please see:
The Cuban Book Embargo Petition
This morning President Obama is in Cuba. Over the weekend The New York Times had a fascinating photo-essay which may give you a sense of Cuba today.
Publishers Weekly and many in the book publishing industry (including Sourcebooks) have urged an end to the Cuban book embargo. You can read about that in the Publishing Perspectives article on the background of the petition, and the content of the petition itself which was started by Publishers Weekly.
One Last Word
I was surprised by how much Cuba touched me—the people, the culture, the sense of change (both the excitement and the fear). I’ll leave you with my favorite picture of Cuba, which I took on the very first day.
P.S. A huge thank you to Cevin, Jon, Janet, and the many new friends we made in Cuba!