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Havana Fair: Signs of a Reviving Book Trade
Laura Dail -- 3/9/98
In 1968, when Pablo Armando Fernández delivered the novel that won the prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize, writers of his generation often paid to print their own books and literally gave them away. By the time Fernández won Cuba's National Literary Prize in 1996, the Cuban publishing industry had changed dramatically. And at the VIII International Havana Book Fair, February 4-11, the book business in Cuba seemed to be emerging from crippling financial difficulties and poised for both domestic and international expansion.
Jorge Timossi, v-p of the Cuban Institute of Books and a distinguished writer himself, has been directing Cuba's Literary Agency for 14 years. In a country of 12 million people with a literacy rate of 98% -- one of the highest in the world-the literary landscape is fertile. According to Timossi, in 1989, 60 million books were published in Cuba. But the economic crisis that came after the dissolution of the Soviet Union hit Cuba hard, and last year only 10 million books were printed. Since 1993, though, according to Cuba's Literary magazine, La Revista del Libro Cubano, the number of books published in Cuba has increased by two million per year.

The export of books by Cuban authors to America has been hampered by the U.S. embargo. A non-government publisher, Ediciones Union, however, told Jonathan Wells, president of Circulo de Lectores USA and one of the few Americans attending the fair, that they could easily do business.

Although licensing translation rights is "in theory no problem," Timossi reports that only six or seven titles were licensed for English translation last year. He attributes the small number to a lack of familiarity with Cuban writers by American publishers and readers. Rights deals, like the export of books, are, of course, severely restricted under the 1996 Helms-Burton Bill and the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917.

Business between Cuba and non-U.S. publishers is healthier. Luis García-Cubas, international sales manager of Mexico's Grijalbo-Mondadori, considered the fair a success. Grijalbo-Mondadori d s a significant business exporting copies into Cuba. García-Cubas reported having sold about $10,000 worth of books from his stand to Cuban consumers in one day. Titles by Deepak Chopra and self-help books seemed to sell best.

García-Cubas also strengthened his relationship with Ediciones Cubanas to distribute Grijalbo-Mondadori books. Ediciones Cubanas is the state-run organization in charge of selling books and buying books from abroad. Ediciones Cubanas answers to the Cuban Institute of Books, which in turn belongs to the Ministry of Culture, which in turn, as one bookseller put it, "belongs to the Revolution."

The Havana Book Fair is held every two years. García-Cubas estimated that it had doubled in size since 1996. With exhibitors from over 25 countries-including Mexico (the "Guest of Honor"), Germany, Spain and Libya-business seemed brisk, especially over the weekend when Cuban consumers could attend.

Beyond commerce, there were lectures, panel discussions and presentations to launch new titles. Pablo Armando Fernández implored young writers not to subject their talent to fleeting trends or to be discouraged by difficult economic conditions. "Those things pass," he said. "Literature and art remain."

Dail is a literary agent specializing in Spanish-language and Latin American titles.
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