IN encouraging Filipinos to read and in promoting culture, a National Book Development Board (NBDB) project should be appreciated from an economic angle as well. In fact, the public’s view of books should transcend their cultural significance. Books could also be export products; even contributors to economic recovery.

Recently, the NBDB launched its Book Nook project, opening 52 reading centers across the country from Ifugao province in the north to the province of Tawi-Tawi in the south. Those sites complement libraries but are designed to be more accessible. For example, the Book Nook in Bontoc is in a public market. In Samar, the Book Nook is mobile in order to serve various schools on the islands of Zumarraga and Daram. And many of the sites are in conflict areas and indigenous communities.

The project is in line with initiatives of the Department of Education (DepEd), NBDD’s mother agency, to improve the reading proficiencies of Filipino learners. The DepEd has been criticized for the country’s poor showing in PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). They forget though that before the current DepEd leadership, the Philippines had not participated in PISA. The results, although alarming, provide an unbiased assessment of the current problem and offer a basis for crafting new policies.

Launching of the National Book Development Board’s Book Nook project on Nov. 24, 2021. PHOTO FROM NBDB

Since the PISA results came out, the Education department has pivoted toward quality education. Although the NBDB came up with the Book Nook on its own, that project also contributes to similar goals that include developing human capital.

Book Nooks have fiction, nonfiction and even reference books on culture, history, art, values, environment, health science, work, identity, diversity and peace. As much as 70 percent of the titles available were selected for children, but the rest should appeal to adults.

Industry potential

Besides human capital development, the NBDB project helps the book-publishing industry by prioritizing local works. Of course, the agency’s reason for being is to help strengthen that industry, which has been battered by the pandemic just like the rest of the economy.

Even before Covid-19, however, the industry has been declining, underscoring the need for policy interventions and assistance. For one, the costs of raw materials, particularly paper and ink, have skyrocketed over the years. Worse, the absence of local suppliers compels publishers to import those raw materials.

Also, the capital investments required present a high entry barrier to new players. And capital sourcing is restricted because book publishing is lumped with mass media, which is off limits to foreign investors.

Lawmakers should consider tax holidays for paper and ink. Meanwhile, the NBDB has appealed to lawmakers to review the legal opinion preventing local publishers from tapping foreign capital.

Besides growing the market share of locally published books, the book board is also promoting Filipino works abroad. The Philippines imports 24 books for every book that it exports, according to Charisse Aquino-Tugade, the NBDB executive director who came up with the Book Nook concept.

The NBDB hopes to convince policymakers to correct that trade imbalance.

Filipinos can be globally competitive in many fields. And no one else is arguably more suitable to write Philippine stories than Filipinos themselves.

Perhaps the Department of Foreign Affairs can even promote local books as part of its economic diplomacy program. And in developing foreign markets, the NBDB has refined its goal to focus on selling publishing rights at international book fairs.

The local publishing industry deserves a boost because it creates jobs and generates economic value added. The industry is clustered with manufacturing, which contributes 23.25 percent to gross domestic product.

Investments in any manufacturing endeavor are worthwhile because of its high multiplier. In other words, every peso invested in manufacturing offers magnified returns. Imagine that when demand grows for local books, the benefits are enjoyed not only by publishers, but also writers, editors, illustrators, printers and others in downstream sectors. Of course, Book Nook and other NBDB programs were designed to promote culture. But we should learn from other countries, particularly South Korea, that cultivates culture to also generate economic returns and grow their soft power.

With creatives elsewhere prospering, that notion of “starving artists” should be retired for good.