Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!
The newest fad circulating in the Philippine blogosphere is Robin Hemley's The Great Book Blockade of 2009, which was published in McSweeney's. (To sum it up: customs is charging for the importation of books.) As can be expected, there is much public outcry--and there should be--but there's a lot of misconceptions surrounding the issue. Suddenly, bibliophiles are complaining that bookshelves are overstocked with Twilight, "new" books aren't on the shelves or are only getting released now, and book prices are high.
Let's set the record straight and I'll first start with Hemley's column. There's a few errors (Sales for example is the Undersecratary of Finance, not Customs) but for the most part, he gets it right. Of course readers should note that Hemley is quoting from a source (the anonymous book industry professional) and didn't experience the incident himself. I'm not saying that it didn't happen, but rather there's an exaggeration when Hemley says "virtually no imported books had entered the country." I've been buying books month in and month out for the past few years and I can tell you, imported books did make it into our shores and stocked on bookstore shelves. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that the said book industry professional (limited to representing his or her company) couldn't claim any imported books unless they paid customs. (I'm not ragging on Hemley's case here: I'm a writer so I understand the author's point. However, readers shouldn't interpret the text too literally. Hemley's statement isn't too much of a stretch however, especially if the anonymous book industry professional happens to work for National Bookstore, which dominates the local market.) Edit: Robin Hemley clarifies the situation here (I'm wrong, he's right).
There seems to be a mix-up however between blatant corruption and custom duties. I'll tackle the former first. What typically happens when you're an importer (whether you're the distributor or the bookstore) is that when you go to customs to claim your shipment, you're unaware whether you'll be "taxed" for your shipment or not. In typical Filipino fashion, there are methods to avoid such a scenario, such as bribing custom officials with kindness ("here, have some cupcakes!"), cash, or maintaining a discreet shipment size (a box or two as opposed to a truckload). But there is no absolute guarantee whether you'll be taxed for tomorrow's shipment or not. At least that's how it used to be.
The crime here isn't so much the breaking of the Florence Agreement but the seemingly arbitrary judgment calls. There's no consistency on whether a shipment will be taxed or not. And that's what caught importers off-guard here and to a certain extent, that's the predicament anyone importing products--books or otherwise--typically face. I suspect the case of the Twilight books isn't the first incident, but simply a situation where the importers painted a big bullseye on themselves. Smaller shipments may or may not have been taxed, but these smaller shipments only represented a fraction of the importer's stocks. Twilight, on the other hand, is currently a hot commodity, and because of the volume in which bookstores are importing them, is making a dent in their pockets. Perhaps one reason we haven't complained enough about this kind of corruption is that we're jaded and come to expect this kind of abuse. It takes a foreigner to bring up these injustices, and framed it in a way along the lines of the adage truth is stranger than fiction.
I'd also like to add that such scenarios also applies to packages sent through the mail and yes, even couriers. Small, unobtrusive packages will not be noticed but bigger ones (i.e. boxes) may cost you a hefty tax beyond the P35.00 ($0.70) requirement.
What readers should also be aware is that this has been going on for the past few decades and while Hemley's article is relatively recent, it wasn't written a few days ago but most likely weeks before. He's a writer that needs to make deadlines and his account took place in March (when MV Doulous docked) or April at the latest. Which doesn't make the article any less relevant, but it certainly debunks conclusions by rabid bibliophiles that "this book wasn't stocked in bookstores." Such bibliophiles should have noticed this months ago, not yesterday.
Next are the custom duties which is how Sales' name got thrown into the mix. Now her latest policy, which is supposedly a legal interpretation of the Florence Agreement, is where the legal taxation comes in and shouldn't be confused with the corruption in the previous paragraphs. Kenneth Yu talked to Sales and clarified her statements (you can read it here in the 41st comment; if you have problems finding the comment, blame Multiply for lack of ease of navigation, but it's the ten paragraph comment). To sum it up, educational/cultural books will be taxed 1%. Those that don't fall under that category will be taxed 5%. Another important fact is that this law shouldn't have gone into effect until 15 days after Easter Sunday, or April 27, 2009. Thus before that period, customs had no reason to withhold the books, especially during the February and March months mentioned in Hemley's article. At least that should be the case if Sales is being truthful and if there weren't any embellishments in Hemley's account.
What most likely happened (and this is just a supposition) was that customs corruption got mixed up with customs policies. The former has existed for quite some time, and if there's anyone people should be going after, it's the customs examiner Rene Agulan mentioned in the column. The new customs policy by Sales, on the other hand, is simply too recent (this should be the 2nd week it's being implemented) but if you have complaints about that particular matter, you can duke it out in court. Both might be problems stemming from the same source (i.e. the customs institution) but they are two distinct dilemmas that need to be solved. Even the premature implementation of the new policy can be considered corruption since it's technically illegal to do so. I also suspect that the lack of such legislation is what caused the delays in the first place, and the corrupt customs officials were charging importers more than 1% (or 5%) for their customs duties, treating books as regular imports rather than exemptions.
Now here's something I want to clear up. Some bibliophiles are complaining that this incident caused Twilight to be stocked rampantly on bookstore shelves. It's funny that they weren't complaining when that was the case with the Harry Potter books (or Neil Gaiman, or Dan Brown for that matter). Heck, I may not like customs, but I can't blame them for bookstores stocking Twilight. In fact, customs is trying to impede their presence, at least without earning a bit from the transaction. If Twilight is all you see in the bookstore, it's because the bookstore chose to acquire them, presumably because it sells. The only time the "but all I see is Twilight" argument works is if the bookstore was forced to leave some books at customs because they couldn't pay the fee for the entire shipment. They had to make a choice whether to salvage Twilight or some indie title. If I were in their place, I'd probably choose the former because that's a certain sale but again, that's the bookstore's choice.
The second argument I want to debunk is the "I don't see any new books on the shelves." Again, that's bullshit. All the bookstores have been putting up new titles on a regular basis (that's twice a month for Fully Booked, and once a month or so for the other bookstores). If you don't see -insert your favorite book here-, it might be because the bookstore didn't order them in the first place. Another factor is the delay. If a book is scheduled to come out in May, there's no guarantee that they'll arrive here in the Philippines in May. Certainly there are books that arrive earlier but that varies from book to book. Or maybe your favorite bookstore imports books at a slow rate (some bookstores tend to import new books as long as two months).
The third argument is that book prices are high. Actually, depending on where you shop, the reality is, they're not. Books in the Philippines are actually being sold at a cheaper rate than their US counterparts, at least if you're buying from one of the mainstream bookstores (yes, indie sellers have it harder, but that's because they don't order in large enough quantities and/or because they're not selling school supplies to subsidize their costs). Because of this recent taxation, prices may eventually go up but if we're just talking about the present, you're just imagining those "expensive" prices. Look at the book's US retail price (it's printed in the book's cover!), multiply it by 50 (the current exchange rate is P48.00 = $1.00), and if it's higher than the local price, you have no right to complain. I just visited Powerbooks yesterday and Twilight, priced at $11.00, was selling for P325 ($7.00). That's not expensive, that's a bargain! Certain books, especially those by independent publishers, might have higher conversion rates but that should give you an estimate if whether the book you're paying for is expensive or not.
What does the new law entail to the regular consumer? Currently, little to no impact at all (which isn't to say you shouldn't be concerned about it). In the future? Bookstores might increase their prices by either 1% (if the said item is determined as educational/cultural) or 5% (if it's not) but that's months ahead when bookstores can factor the new law into their accounting (they'll most likely be raising prices more than 1% or 5%). What is currently affecting us is the corruption, which we've been living with for the past few decades and in my opinion, that's what we should be rallying against. However, if you've been living with it this long, your current situation honestly hasn't changed, despite complaints that events have turned for the worse. The only difference now is that you're less ignorant about it.
Speaking of ignorance, this also isn't the venue to air your grievances against retail stores. For example, one comment I saw mentioned "So a Pinoy gamer can now only purchase these books reliably by Amazon or Ebay." Which is actually false. A lot of game books, at least those published by mainstream publishers (if they were independent games, Amazon wouldn't be able to acquire them either and the poster mentioned "rampant online piracy have caused major publishers to stop selling them in .pdf format" when there's only one major publisher--Wizards of the Coast--who stopped selling PDFs due to such a scenario), can be acquired through local bookstores (Powerbooks, National Bookstore, Fully Booked, and A Different Bookstore if I have to spell them out for you) or comic stores (Comic Quest or Comic Odyssey). The difference is that the said commenter can't be bothered to actually take the time to place an order with the said establishment and make a downpayment. Instead, what they want is for the said store to conveniently stock in on their shelves and they honestly haven't been doing so reliably for the past few years so it's unlikely they'll be doing that in the years to come, new customs policy or otherwise. What they're probably really rallying against is that they're willing to pay the expensive Amazon shipping fees (see last week's essay on why that's not the most economic of methods) but will be taxed when they claim it at their post office--something that's already being done before (albeit unreliably and varying from post office to post office). The poster tries to summon righteous indignation when he says "Right now, all I can do is declare our support on behalf of the UP Hobbygamers' Circle, and to spread the word by blogging about it ourselves." Really, that's all you're going to do? If you really wanted to acquire Dungeons & Dragons RPG books and contribute to the local gaming community, you're better off spreading awareness that such books can actually be ordered from local establishments without resorting to buying them off Amazon and eBay, in addition to helping out local businesses. Check Fully Booked, A Different Bookstore, and Comic Quest. They currently stock RPG books. You can't be bothered to place an order with them, but apparently find it easier to order books from Amazon, pay the expensive shipping fees, and wade through customs or your local post office.
There's also this call to arms in this matter about being "vigilant," which is well and good, but not when your definition of being vigilant is simply "blogosphere-wide outrage" (especially when certain posts or comments are set on "private"). That's about as useful as, well, whining. It's interesting to watch however as the media and lawyers delve into the matter, although ironically it's a regular citizen, Philippine Genre Stories publisher Kenneth Yu, who actually tries to get the side of customs. The repercussions of the matter is huge (what will be taxed next by customs?) and it's a curious legal precedent (can the Philippines actually push through with this law? Is it legal and/or ethical?). But let's focus on what actually took place (it doesn't help that we have several anonymous sources, myself included), rather than simply giving way to nerd rage.