One of the goals of the U.S./Cuba Publishing Mission was to facilitate discussion about the cultural ties between U.S. and Cuban publishers. Although the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba has cast a long shadow--commercial trade between U.S. firms and Cuban ones remains illegal--publishers remain optimistic about generating new opportunities.
In one of two panels, Edel Morales Fuentes, v-p of international relations for the Cuban Book Institute, offered some demographic data that gives a big picture look at the country's reading public. Women, he said, buy the majority of books in Cuba, with their purchases being for both themselves and their family. (Cuban women, Fuentes noted, account for 60% of the country's professionals, and they tend to command salaries commensurate with men for the same job.) When it comes to e-readers, Fuentes said 70% of Cubans are accustomed to digital reading but that "we don't have enough digital reading devices."
Other demographic points of interest Fuentes touched on include the fact that Cuban children must attend school through ninth grade, the country has 300 public libraries, and 313 state-run bookstores.
Digging deeper into the Cuban publishing scene, Zuleica Romay Guerra, president of the Book Institute of the Cuban Ministry of culture, said the longstanding trade embargo with the U.S. has made it costly to be in the book business in Cuba. That Cuban publishers are also working within a state-run model--with set budgets--only complicates things further.
Yamila Cohen Valdes, who heads a state-run agency representing Cuban writers called the Cuban Latin American Literary Agency, said she encounters various hurdles in the day-to-day aspects of doing business. "It is difficult and cumbersome to deal with author payments," she explained. "We cannot use U.S. bank transfers. Even non-U.S. publishers use U.S banks and, because of the blockade, we cannot negotiate anything with U.S. currency."
Guerra said Cuban publishing companies also struggle with the need to produce books at low prices. Noting that the Cuban people are poor, she said book are often sold for less than a $1. At the Havana Book Fair, for example, titles were generally priced between $2-$3. Another problem the Cuban publishing industry is dealing with--and one that affects the whole country--is the fractured state of the country's currency system. Currently, the system is split between the peso (predominantly used by Cuban citizens) and CUCs (predominantly used by foreign tourists). Cuba's lack of a unified currency system is, Guerra noted, a "problem for the whole country."
With Cuba in the midst of a major digital transition as well, other problems surface. While the country's young people are increasingly "on the phone, on the computer, watching TV," Guerra said, the older guard is still firmly accustomed to a less technology-driven world. "Our system is conservative and many people still believe a true book is only on paper," she said. And, although the number of "paper readers" is shrinking in Cuba, the lack of e-reading devices means that e-books are not widely read.
Other topics also surfaced during the panel coverage. Tina Jordan v-p at the Association of American Publishers responded to a Cuban panelist's reference to the long-running statistic that translations only account for 3% of the books published in the U.S. Jordan said the statistic is not accurate, but acknowledged that "we do not know what the true number is." She then said that "Cuban authors [and others] need to help [AAP members] find the authors we need to make available to U.S. readers."
In a number of Spanish language panels organized by the Publishing Mission, and moderated by PW's Spanish Correspondent Leylha Ahuile, topics such as marketing, retailing and social media were discussed. Ahuile talked with Cuban-born authors Armando Correa (The German Girl, Atria Nov.) and Racquel Rogue, CEO of Miami's Downtown Book Center. She also hosted a talk with Author Solutions' Keith Ogorek, whose service offers a menu of for-pay services, and Smashwords CEO Mark Coker, whose platform is free to authors.
Ogorek and Coker discussed their own distinct visions of self-publishing. Coker, as he explained, would like to "publish every Cuban writer" through his free services. "This is what Smashwords was founded to do," he said. "The Cuban people have no income, [but] Cuba [produces] incredible literature. Image what [the Cuban people] can share with the world. Books provide cross cultural understanding like nothing else."
While exact figures on attendance at the Havana Book Fair were not available, PW was told that the event attracts more than one million people. Speaking to the importance of the event, Guerra said it demonstrates that the Cuban people are hungry for books and information. Although the country has more than 300 state-run bookstores, she said, many Cuban families wait for the book fair to purchase titles that are likely unavailable the rest of the year. "Many families only buy books once a year," she said. "You see families saving for months to go to the book fair and buy as many books as they can."