It’s expensive to love books | Inquirer Opinion

It’s expensive to love books

In that terse statement, National Book Development Board (NBDB) deputy executive director Anna Katarina Rodriguez summed up an important facet of literacy in the country today. Cleverly using the Filipino word “mahal,” one familiar to some of our Asean neighbors, she highlighted its two important meanings: “expensive” and “beloved.”

Rodriguez was a panelist in a session with speakers from Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam that provided updates on the state of publishing and readership in the participating countries. The session was held during the recent Kuala Lumpur Trade and Copyright Centre (KLTCC) fair, which coincided with the Asean Book Publishers Association executive meeting to which the NBDB was formally invited for the first time.


A word about the KLTCC fair: It features a consumers’ book fair much like the Manila International Book Fair held every September, and encourages participation by Asean countries by giving every booth exhibitor free air transport and hotel accommodations. (This is the second year that the Philippines is a participant.) That only shows the level of government support it enjoys.

This year, the KLTCC book fair was held on the sprawling campus of its agricultural school, which is quite a distance from the city. The organizers were concerned that it may not draw the crowd that the former downtown venue did. But with the provision of convenient shuttles to the new site—as well as concrete plans to open a train station for it—it was not surprising that faithful book lovers and buyers were present. Again, an enviable show of support by the Malaysian government.


Rodriguez’s discussion on the Philippine situation focused on these main talking points. The Philippines’ archipelagic geography, with our 7,100 islands, makes the transport of books costly. The limited number of libraries makes public access to books a challenge, especially since libraries are more likely to be found in urban areas. There is a high percentage of content creators, yet only a few of them get the chance to be published. And the creative industry does make a significant contribution to the economy.

The statistics cited by Rodriguez validated the discussion. From the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), family expenditure in 2015 for books was P69 per person. For the Department of Education, P167 was spent for every student.

A comparison of public libraries in Metro Manila and in the Davao Region using figures from the PSA and the National Library of the Philippines shows that for Metro Manila’s 12.22-million population, there are 452 libraries, or one for every 27,035 persons. For Davao’s 4.71 million people, there are 32 libraries, or one for every 147,188.

In terms of bookstore density, Metro Manila has 390 bookstores, or one for every 31,333 persons, and Davao has 63 bookstores, or one for every 74,761.

The NBDB has 195 registered authors, while the National Library records 9,480 international serial book numbers issued. The ISBN is the unique code for each published title that is universally recognized.

As it is only in recent years that the NBDB has been strictly monitoring the number of authors, illustrators, publishers, the statistics do not seem very accurate as yet. For instance, what about the many writers who self-publish and do not bother to acquire an ISBN, as many DIY (do it yourself) publications go? Consider the Better Living Through Xeroxography (BLTX) small press expo that encourages self-publication either through handmade booklets or photocopied saddle-stitched magazines.

Many readers and writers have decided to take matters into their hands. Who cares about publishers not being open to their writings when there is Wattpad, which is open to all? Wattpad reports that in 2015, 10 million out of 40 million users are Filipinos, and 13 million out of 150 million uploaded stories are from Filipinos.


A happy development is the resurgence of book reading groups. The most active and the most visible is ReaderCon, which has been convening bloggers, book lovers, writers, and reading advocates for its one-day Filipino Reader Conference since 2011. The day is devoted to talking books and even voting for favorite choices in different genres. Its long-term goal is to promote the reading culture in the country.

Another book club is Flips Flipping Pages, which began as an online book discussion group but has since had personal meetings, and even book-themed social events.

There is also the Every Teacher a Reader community, which knows only too well that for students to discover the delights of reading, they need adult reading models. How does one teach and not be a reader? A nonreader of a teacher is, alas, a true oxymoron.

At the KLTCC fair, no further words needed to be spoken after a video clip was shown of a little boy in a bookstore turning hysterical after his mother told him that she could not buy him the book he wanted. It was a painful, poignant scene that ended Rodriguez’s talk. (And because the NBDB upholds copyright, the parents’ permission was sought before this clip that went viral on social media was shown.)

How sad that around here, loving books remains a luxury. Why must it be so?

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: books, literacy, luxury, National Book Development Board, Reading
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