Wednesday, May 6, 2009

All In The Name Of Reading

* This is alarming. No byline came from the forwarded email, but it's from a reputable e-group I subscribe to. Besides, I have friends and connections in the publishing industry and all have bewailed the sad state of taxing imported books.

In the last few months, the importation of books into the Philippines
has virtually stopped. (To those of you who frequent bookstores, I
don't know if you've noticed.) The reason why is explained in this
article by Robin Hemley, a University of Iowa creative writing
professor currently on a fellowship in the Philippines.

If you have no time to read the article, the essence is that because
the Bureau of Customs has decided to impose duties on the importation
of books into the Philippines.

This, despite the 1950 Florence Agreement on the Importation of
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials (which you can see
here), which the Philippines ratified in 1979. The preamble of the
agreement states: "Considering that the free exchange of ideas and
knowledge and, in general, the widest possible dissemination of the
diverse forms of self-expression used by civilizations are vitally
important both for intellectual progress and international
understanding, and consequently for the maintenance of world
peace...", an indisputable proposition.

Here's an excerpt from Robin Hemley's article (i shortened it a bit.
better if you can read the whole thing.) -

...Over coffee one afternoon, a book-industry professional (whom I can't
identify) told me that for the past two months virtually no imported
books had entered the country, in part because of the success of one
book, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. The book, an international best
seller, had apparently attracted the attention of customs officials.
When an examiner named Rene Agulan opened a shipment of books, he
demanded that duty be paid on it.

The importer of Twilight made a mistake and paid the duty requested. A
mistake because such duty flies in the face of the Florence Agreement,
a U.N. treaty that was signed by the Philippines in 1952, guaranteeing
the free flow of "educational, scientific, and cultural materials"
between countries and declaring that imported books should be
duty-free. Mr. Agulan told the importer that because the books were
not educational( i.e., textbooks) they were subject to duty. Perhaps
they aren't educational, I might have argued, but aren't they
No matter. With this one success under their belt, customs curtailed
all air shipments of books entering the country. Weeks went by as
booksellers tried to get their books out of storage and started
intense negotiations with various government officials.

What doubly frustrated booksellers and importers was that the
explanations they received from various officials made no sense. It
was clear that, for whatever reasonâ€"perhaps the 30-billion-peso
($625 million) shortfall in projected customs revenueâ€"customs would
go through the motions of having a reasonable argument while in fact
having none at all.

Customs Undersecretary Espele Sales explained the government's
position to a group of frustrated booksellers and importers in an
Orwellian PowerPoint presentation, at which she reinterpreted the
Florence Agreement as well as Philippine law RA 8047, providing for
"the tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be
used in book publishing." For lack of a comma after the word "books,"
the undersecretary argued that only books "used in book publishing"
(her underlining) were tax-exempt.

"What kind of book is that?" one publisher asked me afterward. "A book
used in book publishing." And she laughed ruefully.

I thought about it. Maybe I should start writing a few. Harry the
Cultural and Educational Potter and His Fondness for Baskerville Type.

Likewise, with the Florence Agreement, she argued that only
educational books could be considered protected by the U.N. treaty.
Customs would henceforth be the arbiter of what was and wasn't

"For 50 years, everyone has misinterpreted the treaty and now you
alone have interpreted it correctly?" she was asked.

"Yes," she told the stunned booksellers.

Throughout February and March, bookstores seemed on the verge of
getting their books releasedâ€"all their documents were in order, but
the rules kept changing. Now they were told that all books would be
taxed: 1 percent for educational books and 5 percent for
noneducational books. A nightmare scenario for the distributors; they
imagined each shipment being held for months as an examiner sorted
through the books. Obviously, most would simply pay the higher tax to
avoid the hassle.

Distributors told me they weren't "capitulating" but merely paying
under protest. After all, customs was violating an international
treaty that had been abided by for over 50 years. Meanwhile,
booksellers had to pay enormous storage fees. Those couldn't be
waived, they were told, because the storage facilities were privately
owned (by customs officials, a bookstore owner suggested ruefully).
One bookstore had to pay $4,000 on a $10,000 shipment.

The day after the first shipment of books was released, an internal
memo circulated in customs congratulating themselves for finally
levying a duty on books, though no mention was made of their pride in
breaking an international treaty...

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