If you have followed me on Twitter or Facebook, you know I had the honor and opportunity to attend and participate in the first US Publishing Mission to Cuba, which was sponsored by Publishers Weekly and was conducted in cooperation with The Havana Book Fair and the Instituto Cubano del Libro.
The Cuban media called this an historic event and in many ways it was. Here are some of my impressions from my time there of both the publishing business and Havana itself.
Cubans really love books. No, I mean they really love books.
I read a statistic that Cuba is nearly 100% literate and one million people attend the Havana Book Fair. Judging by the lines and crowds, I would say those numbers are probably accurate. The Book Fair was held at The Fort, which overlooks the city. Stands were packed with Cubans looking to buy books. Many of them were remainders imported from other countries so the prices were quite low relative to standard retail pricing in the US, but there were bags of books being sold.
The demand for English language books is going to increase dramatically.
Spanish is the native language, but English is a high priority, especially for the younger Cubans. So the demand for English language books is going to increase. I had two young men, who were university students who served as my translators at the fair. Both had been regular attendees at the fair and over the years had purchased a number of English language books including dictionaries. Both are working on a thesis for graduation that focuses on English language. One is doing a project on The New York Times and the other on the book, Pilgrim’s Progress. Very different projects, but both focused on English language.
There is definite interest in self-publishing.
One of the opportunities I had while attending the Havana Book Fair was serving on a panel about self-publishing. The room was filled with a variety of people including publishers, authors and students. Mark Coker from Smashwords was also on the panel, which was helpful because it provided a clear contrast between a DIY self service platform like Smashwords and supported self-publishing. I had versions of the 4 Paths to Publishing in both English and Spanish available and every copy was taken. As usual, that whitepaper provided a helpful framework for authors to understand their options for publishing today.
Self-publishing has some barriers to overcome before it grows.
It seems the government may be softening its stance on publishing which could open the door for self-published authors, but the biggest barrier appears to be payment methods and currency. Right now there are no banking relationships that would easily facilitate payment by or to authors by US based companies. In addition, there is no infrastructure for credit card processing. Both will likely be available in due time and that will facilitate the growth of self publishing.
A few personal observations about life in Havana.
Life in Havana is very interesting and tough in many ways.
- There are lots of old cars as you may have heard.
- Most of the buildings, including apartments have not been maintained on the outside, which leads me to believe they are pretty rugged on the inside.
- Airline travel is interesting. Lines at US airports are extremely long because virtually everyone traveling to Cuba is taking a pile of consumer goods, including televisions, baby strollers and coffee makers. Departure is not as long, but still plan for a couple of hours for your exit.
- The bus and taxi system works to some degree, but you need to know how it works, because there is not any easily visible public information.
- While there are public restrooms, none of them have soap, paper towels or even toilet paper, which obviously leads to some sanitation challenges.
- Cubans generally love life and the arts. Music, dance, reading and art are a natural part of everyday life.
- Amazing reunions are likely happening every day. I suspect many people are returning to Cuba having left many years ago and are now reuniting with family they have not seen for decades. I am pretty sure on my flight there was an older man who was coming back to Cuba for the first time since he had left as a boy. When he cleared customs, there was a man his age waiting for him with a group of people. When their eyes met, they immediately began to weep and then hugged each other with the force of missed years. I don’t know if it was his brother or cousin or friend, but no matter who it was, the reunion was sweet to behold.