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The Learning curve

Of book fairs and a poem to cap a meal

International book fair enthusiasts know that it is London in February, Bologna in March, Kuala Lumpur in May,  Beijing in August, Jakarta in September, Frankfurt in October, both Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and Shanghai in November, and Chiang Mai in December. Oh, for the National Book Development Board to have the generous budget to be represented in all these events. And, as I have acknowledged time and again, the major feat of having a yearly Philippine collective stand since 2015 at Frankfurter Buchmesse, the largest book fair in the world—after a long hiatus—has only been made possible through Sen. Loren Legarda.

As it was, we were in attendance at last week’s Beijing International Book Fair at the invitation of Kota Buku’s Hasri Hasan to launch a longtime dream collaboration of his, the Asia Content Platform, with five initial founding members—Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. This was a significant step toward Asean countries’ resolve to be “noticed” at those huge international book fairs where the world’s top publishing countries dominate the scene.

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Making one’s presence, nay, even one’s existence, felt matters there, because these are predominantly rights fairs where rights are bought for translations and other editions between countries. That is truly the ideal stepping stone for Philippine titles to be known beyond our shores—something I also recognize as a challenge in  itself.  The exhibition only opens to the general public on the last two days, when visitors can purchase the books on display.

Now weary of not being noticed enough, Hasri thought it was time to consolidate and be viewed as an Asean bloc. It makes our geographical group of 10 countries a more forceful presence, and also easier to talk business with.  As Hasri has long realized, “It is better to speak as a region rather than as individual countries.”

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Our initial foray as an Asean bloc was at last week’s 25th Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF), where we met and dined with executives of China’s big publishing houses. The Chinese market is so large that the BIBF has two major sections: those publishing in Mandarin and all the other international publishers.

Initial discussions were made with the Anhui Educational Publishing House, Guangxi Normal University Press, Guangzhou Publishing, and Phoenix Media, among them. The ideal initial publishing contract should be one of reciprocity, with both parties expressing interest in each other’s titles. But, alas, that is often not the case, and the road to any contract takes much time and patience. Initial talks are within the duration of the fair; the inked contract only becomes real long after the fair.

An initial agreement in the works is the translation of a current bestselling YA novel from Mandarin to each of the Asean languages. It is hoped that with this trial venture, the Chinese market will begin to take interest in titles from Asean countries.

To me, there were two major highlights that were not at the BIBF, but merely BIBF-related. I was green with envy visiting the multistory Beijing Books Building in the heart of town. A prominent sculpture of a pile of books in happy disarray welcomed one to the premises. It was a Monday midmorning in August during the school summer holidays, and the different floors of this huge bookstore/library teemed with readers of all ages.

Every floor was devoted to specific genres, and there were serious readers everywhere. Every seat in the ground floor coffee shop was taken, and the readers looked like they would stay all day, so that I felt guilty when the coffee shop attendant requested a group to vacate a table for the three of us first-time visitors.

But what can beat this surprise at another one of our sumptuous meals with our Chinese hosts? At the end of the meal, the restaurant manager read us a poem and then presented the scroll to our host. A practice for special guests, he said.

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

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