The lengthy history of books in the Philippines may come as a surprise to some. Literacy in our archipelago preceded the arrival of the Spanish and many communities possessed their own languages and systems of writing. When the Spanish arrived, however, so too did that most revolutionary of inventions – printing. This isn’t to say that it was the Spanish that brought the necessary technology – it was predominantly the Chinese (with notable exceptions such as Tomas Pinpin) in the country that served as the earliest printers. Xylography, or wood block printing, had been practiced in China long before the invention of the Gutenberg press. But it was the needs of the Spanish, particularly those of its Catholic missionaries, that drove the printing of the earliest books.

The first books printed in the country were made in the service of evangelization, the two earliest being released in 1593: the Doctrina Christiana, en Lengua Española y Tagala and the Bian Zhengjiao Zhenchuan Shilu, the former aimed at those who read Tagalog and the latter at those who read Chinese. By the time the first book was printed in the United States in the 1640s, there had been many dozens already made in the Philippines.

Of course, the number of books printed here does not tell the whole story. These early books were not written by Filipinos, nor made with the interest of Filipinos at the forefront, nor meant to give a voice to the experiences of Filipinos. The Spanish officials in the Philippines kept a tight grip on what books were made in the islands, prohibiting the printing or sale of books without specific licenses.

Thankfully, the book industry in the country has come a long way since those early days. As November is Philippine Book Development Month, now is the perfect time to celebrate Philippine books as well as understand the work that must yet be done.

As of the 2019 Philippine Book Publishing Industry report of the National Book Development Board, there were over 70 establishments with over 3,600 employees in the publishing industry in 2016, with 670 bookstores as of 2015 and 1,455 NLP-affiliated public libraries. As of 2016, amongst the book industry entities and individuals registered with the NBDB were 187 publishers, 144 distributors and 1,692 printers, with some 9,000 books being (traditionally) published in print annually. Filipinos have also embraced the digital realm, and on the popular Wattpad site, hundreds of thousands of story chapters have been uploaded by Filipino authors and seen by Filipino readers.

Problems and inequities, however, still remain. A 2017 readership survey pointed out that few Filipinos borrow books from libraries, and that a vast majority are not even aware of whether there is a library near their homes. Even if there are a significant number of libraries in the country, if they are concentrated in a few locations or inaccessible to walk-in visitors (such as school libraries), then the vast majority will remain unable to benefit from them.

There also remains a wide gap between the number of books that we produce and export as against the number we import and consume. The 2019 report showed that while P3.6 billion was spent for the importation of books, the exportation of books only amounted to P236.33 million worth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also hit the industry hard. A column last year by former NBDB chairperson Neni Sta. Romana Cruz focused on a survey released by the Book Development Association of the Philippines, revealed how the industry was struggling – 32 percent of the members who responded had needed to completely close during the early quarantine period. The quarantine protocols, change in academic calendar, lack of physical events/stores and shift to online channels brought many challenges to the industry… and not all the closures brought about by the pandemic will be temporary, nor will all changes be reversed. The publishing industry, like much of the world after the advent of COVID-19, must adapt to new and unanticipated realities.

I believe that our writers and creators will be more than up to the challenge. More than ever before, they are aware of the need to tell stories that only they can tell, to represent our nation and culture in the kinds of stories they grew up reading. We have seen robust and continuing growth in fields such as children’s books, romance and graphic fiction. There is a stronger push for selling rights to our books abroad as seen by the consistent presence of the Philippines at events such as the Frankfurt Book Fair.

But there is still more that must be done: creators (particularly new ones) must be educated about the rights they possess and how to best exercise and retain those rights; the registration of intellectual property rights must be made easier for creators; distribution and availability of books outside the major metropolitan areas (whether through stores or libraries) should be improved; the basic needs of workers in the industry – many of whom are freelancers – must be given due course in a manner similar to those of regular employees. There are many instances where the creators of characters that achieve immense popularity are left with merely token payments while corporations exploit those creations for billions.

In the transition period we are experiencing for the book industry, let us take care to make a space where the rights and needs of its most essential workers are placed at the forefront. As I’ve written before, books are bridges for the self. They give us the ability to reach beyond our selves, to connect across time and space. And books that come from our own culture and community are of the utmost importance.

Philippine books are a way for our people to represent ourselves in the tapestry of human stories, so that when our children discover new heroes and heroines, new authors and storytellers – they will recognize themselves, and what they are capable of.

This month, whether it be buying from the store (or at the online Manila International Book Fair that starts tomorrow) or telling someone about an old favorite, let us do our part to support Philippine books.