Representatives of the Cuban publishing industry and a U.S. publishing mission to the 25th Feria Internacional del Libro de La Habana Cuba (Havana Book Fair) pledged to work together to establish normal business relations.
The mission—the first official American publishing presence at the fair in its history—was in Havana from February 10 to 16, and was organized by PW and Combined Book Exhibit. It featured an exhibition of American titles at the Havana Book Fair, plus two days of professional panels off-site discussing the Cuban and American publishing industries. The publishing mission culminated with the signing of a memorandum of understanding by PW and CBE and the Cuban Book Institute, which oversees the state-run Cuban publishing industry and organizes the Havana Book Fair, to continue to work “to promote cooperation and understanding between the United States of America and Cuba in the publishing field.” Commenting on the ability of the two countries to work together, Zuleica Romay Guerra, president of the Cuban Book Institute, observed, “We made a lot of progress. We’ve shown we can climb over or circumvent barriers so that they no longer separate us.”
In the short term, the pact means a continuing official American presence at the Havana Book Fair in the years to come, as well as visits by Cuban book publishing figures to BookExpo America in 2016. (BEA has donated exhibit space to the Cuban Book Institute at this year’s show in Chicago.) More ambitiously, Guerra’s remarks point to the need to lift the long-running American trade embargo on Cuba, the legal barrier to any kind of commercial activity by American publishers on the island.
In fact, Smashwords CEO Mark Coker, who was part of the mission, has started the initial efforts to organize the American publishing industry to support a petition that calls for lifting the trade embargo—or at least the ban on books and cultural products. Coker hopes to start the petition drive in the next few weeks.
For her part, Guerra said more proposals for collaboration with her new partners will be exchanged with representatives of PW and Combined Book Exhibit. And a meeting is planned for May in New York City, in an effort to “create the conditions for the projects we want to carry out.”
By any measure, the mission to Cuba was a rousing success, and a key first step toward normalizing publishing relations between the two countries. First conceived around last year’s BEA and organized by PW executive v-p and publisher Cevin Bryerman and CBE president Jon Malinowski, the groundbreaking project brought 37 American publishers (and distributors) to the book fair, displaying 600 books of all kinds, including novels, educational materials, children’s books, graphic novels, works of history, and academic, professional and STEM titles.
The Havana Book Fair featured roughly 63 foreign and 81 Cuba exhibitors, including publishers and related vendors. (The American Books Exposition featured the 37 U.S. publishers.) Over the course of the show’s first week (it ends Feb. 21), PW’s Spanish correspondent Leylha Ahuile moderated panels on the U.S. and Cuban book markets, social media, and self-publishing. Bryerman and Malinowski were interviewed by the Cuban media, including a live interview on Havana Radio and a video feed streamed live over the Web.
The publishers involved in the mission also praised the effort and cited its historical, professional, and, just as often, personal significance. World Book International director Kristin Norell said, “We have made new friends, fostered business relationships, have fantastic memories, and were a part of history that will forever be a chapter in the publishing industry.” Quarto USA president and CEO Ken Fund called the mission a “rare and extremely important moment” that started the industry “on a path with our Cuban counterparts that can only bring a positive impact to bringing Cuban authors to the U.S. and U.S. authors to Cuba.” John Sinclair, Thomson-Shore regional sales manager, offered a list of high points that included “eye-opening cultural awareness, valuable contacts made, immediate opportunities,” calling the event a “career and personal milestone.”
The trip included a number of Cuba-born Americans—among them celebrated Miami bookseller Raquel Rogue and People en Espanol editor-in-chief Armando Correa—returning to Cuba for the first time in decades. On the professional side, Cecilia de la Campa, director of subsidiary rights at the literary agency Writer’s House, said the visit allowed her to “meet both Americans and Cubans that inform the decisions we make around our authors.” De la Campa’s parents are Cubans who were airlifted to the U.S. as children following Castro’s seizure of power. She described an emotional visit to the Havana home of her father’s aunt, which is now run as a B and B by a caretaker who knew her father and his family.
In her presentation during the two days of professional panels, Guerra was clear about her goals for the future of the relationship between Cuban and American publishers: “We are very interested in the U.S. markets. We know the classics of American literature,” she said, “but later writers over the last 50 years have not been published in Cuba.” Most importantly, she emphasized to the gathering of Cuban and American publishing professionals, “We want Cuban classics translated into English. We want the best of American literature, and we want the best of Cuban literature to be visible and known in the U.S.”