Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Feature: Brief Points on A Post-Book Blockade Philippines

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

To Tax or Not To Tax?

Personally, I'm not against taxing books per se. However, Undersecretary Sales' implementation leaves much to be desired such as:

1) Failing to comply to international law, in this case the Florence Treaty. Tax books, fine, but our government shouldn't claim that it's honoring--at the very least--the spirit of the Florence Treaty. Opt out of the treaty, at least there's no hypocrisy that way.

2) Due process of passing "new" laws. There's a complex system for proposing new laws and Undersecretary Sales is free to propose the taxation of books. Let's at least honor our own legal system. Otherwise, why have our existing government set-up in the first place if due process is just going to be arbitrarily bypassed, whether it's Undersecretary Sales or someone else?

3) Lack of coordination between the various departments. Department of Education might want to promote reading but Department of Finance creates a policy that undermines that goal.

Books are not Educational.

For me, the problem is determining which books are educational, scientific, or cultural. It's as precarious as determining genres. Books are art and unfortunately, there's no empirical way (i.e. something that can be consistently proven) to judge them. For example, we have George Orwell's Animal Farm. It's a fantasy novel (and there are those who would argue that it's a "novel" period and shouldn't have the fantasy label attached to it). When the book initially got released, does it qualify as educational? For the sake of argument, let's say no. And then later on, due to the various reactions, it became this literary icon for anti-communism and several schools included it as part of its curriculum. It may not have been classified as educational originally but for certain schools and universities, it did become educational. So there's no real fixed standard to these things and honestly, a university's syllabus will be in constant flux. There's no empirical way to determine whether a book is "educational," unless Undersecretary Sales really means "text books," in which case I think the original law would simply have mentioned text books.

And if what's "educational" is already in a precarious situation of being defined, how much more a looser term such as "cultural?"

What's even scarier is who gets to unanimously claim which books fall under which category (or rather exclude them from, say, being cultural). It may not be direct censorship, but it's a policy that discourages specific titles (which is fine if we're not claiming to be a "free" and democratic country).

It's fine to tax -insert type of book here- but we should make exemptions on -insert type of book here-

The problem here is who gets to determine which books should be exempt and which shouldn't? Or why should Book X be taxed but Book Y not? Those looking for such a policy is only interesting in furthering their own agenda rather than everyone's. (For example, I'm sure the Church would love to tax books like Da Vinci Code and make exemptions on books like The Bible. But why should we give preference to the Church as opposed to everyone else?)

Also, see the previous point.

And not to rant, but other mediums such as comics have been proven to be educational/cultural, such as Art Spiegelman's Maus. Or magazines such as Playboy have featured literary fiction from authors like John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemmingway, and Jack Keruoac, despite what others might think of the rest of its content.

The new law is good for local book publishing.

Wrong again.

First off, some local publishers have their books printed (publishing isn't simply about printing the books) outside of the country. They will be taxed.

Second, some companies are in the business of importing/distributing foreign books for local consumption. Local business, foreign materials. They will be taxed.

Third, if you think Filipinos will buy more local books because a) import books are more expensive or because b) there's suddenly less import books on the shelves (honesty an unlikely possibility), then you're working on a wrong assumption. (Granted, this isn't a fact and can be argued against, but when was the last time you bought a local book because you couldn't purchase an import?)

Fourth, if you think this will encourage local publishers to acquire the rights to reprint foreign titles and print them locally, that's also an unlikely scenario. Local publishers don't do that in the first place because there's usually an expensive licensing fee to do so--thus making the local reprint expensive as well even if the publisher could afford it. There are some exemptions of course (i.e. Ang Munting Prinsipe) but they're the exception rather than the norm. Acquiring local reprint rights for a mid-list author might cost $500~$1,000, which in the case of the Philippines translates to a publisher's entire marketing budget for the year, or the actual cost for the book's initial print run.

Fifth, a lot of the people involved in local publishing read foreign books too. Unless you want to encourage a stagnation in creativity where the only books people read are those written by fellow Filipinos.

Local books are being sold at a high profit margin because they retail for less than their US counterparts.

First off, honestly, the only way to determine the profit margin of any business is to get a look at their accounting books. I'm not privy to those details.

If certain bookstores (i.e. National Bookstore) sell books at a cheaper rate than in the US, it's because they have a system in place that subsidizes the expenses. Such as selling school supplies (and National Bookstore honestly doesn't have to sell books or price them as cheaply--a good chunk of their income is derived from selling school supplies; in The 2000 Philippines Yearbook, Clinton Palanca interviews Socorro Ramos and is quoted for saying "If I didn't sell the pencils, I wouldn't be able to sell the books."). (And if you notice, this is the common trend for the past few decades, such as the case with Goodwill Bookstore.) That's also why in independent bookstores, books are being sold at higher than the US retail price.

Bookstores might be given distributor discount (30%? 60%?) but they have 1) overhead costs, 2) shipping costs, 3) pay its staff, 4) make profits, and 5) pay its taxes (different for custom duties). Anyone who has experience in business will know that a few percent can mean the difference between staying in business or not.

No new books were being imported during the book blockade.

Old news but I want to reiterate this fact: the statement above is false. "...customs curtailed all air shipments of books entering the country." That's air shipments. Books were still being delivered through sea (which is how most bookstores transport their stocks). The new law, however, taxes all shipments, whether via air or by sea.

Having said that, here are some points I want to make:

Undersecratary Sales should not be surprised at the reactions.

According to various sources, people did express their distress when Undersecretary Sales proposed the customs tax. Why she didn't listen to them, I don't know. Did she understimate the public's reaction? Or is simply the type of person who ignores feedback?

The law hurts the lower-income people.

Guys and gals, let's face it. The rich will shop abroad or consider the increase in costs negligible. The slightly-less wealthy buy their books online. Majority of people who buy their books in local brick and mortar stores will be the middle-class and those with lower incomes.

Whether there actually be an increase in book prices.

Honestly, the correct answer here is I don't know. I can only say that the independent bookstores are more likely to increase their prices compared to the mainstream bookstores but that's no guarantee whether they actually will or not. There are a lot of variables in business, such as gas. This new tax is simply another of those variables. Whether it's enough to justify a price increase depends on their business plan and how it relates to the other variables (i.e. when the peso-dollar ratio or gas prices were increasing, not everyone raised the prices of their products). And when bookstores do increase their prices, it won't necessarily just be by 1% or 5%.

It doesn't affect certain businesses that sells books.

Comic shops sell books. In a mailing list, I got into this argument regarding gaming books being sold in hobby shops. They're not affected by this tax mainly because they never declared their inventory as imports falling under the Florence agreement. I talked to a friend who owns a comic shop and they're paying regular import duties for the comics they bring in, which is based on a formula that takes into account the weight of the shipment and its invoice price.

Not enough media exposure.

The fight that book aficionados should fighting right now is that of propaganda. Aside from money, a good motivator for politicians to act is through social pressure and that's usually through the media. (I expected more posturing from politicians, especially with elections coming up soon, and this could be a platform people that their supporters could rally on.)

Unfortunately, right now, despite attempts by personalities like Manuel Quezon III, there's really not a lot of coverage regarding the issue. It's not making the headlines, whether in TV or print (although thankfully there are editorials and columns tackling the issue). I really love the grass-roots campaign that's going on here in the Internet, but I honestly don't think it should end there.

Why not a lot of people are aware of the issue.

Because not everyone who needed to be informed about this new law was actually informed. Sure, Sales may have contacted the booksellers, but they're not the only ones affected by this. There's the local publishers for example. They might have published in the Inquirer the new law but how can the lay man (myself included) understand all that legal jargon? There's also a lot of misconception and ignorance about what the new lay entails. If, for example, I said that tuition will go up by 1~5%, would more citizens be up in arms? (Clearly this won't cause tuition to go up by that much but let's say you're an English Major who needs to read ten [Western] literary books in a semester. Those books will be taxed. Unless the government is encouraging our lack of respect for intellectual property laws via rampant photocopying, even if it is for educational purposes.)

Taking it to court is a long and tedious process.

It's a last resort but right now, I'd bet more on increasing media exposure rather than relying on court of law to reverse the decision.

This policy is embarrassing.

It's honestly embarrassing to the other countries who actually honor the Florence Treaty. And if we're willing to break this treaty, what else are we willing to break? (It doesn't help that piracy and corruption runs rampant in this country.)

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