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What you should know about "The Great Book Blockade of 2009"

UPDATE (May 7th): In response to responses on his article, particularly Charles Tan's series of two essays about the issue ["Clarifying the Great Book Blockade of 2009" and "More The Great Philippine Book Blockade of 2009 Fallacies"], Robin Hemley has made further clarifications and reveals more details about what happened. Click here to read his letter to Charles.

Some of you might remember an issue we previously hinted at regarding the availability of the Twilight books a couple of months ago. We mentioned something about taxes, but couldn't reveal the full extent of what we knew because we actually didn't have enough details to present a balanced story.

Recently, though, the issue has apparently made it to the media, and more details have come to light. Robin Hemley, an author who is in the Philippines on a Fellowship grant, wrote a piece on the McSweeney's website entitled The Great Book Blockade of 2009. Inquirer columnist Manuel L. Quezon III summarizes what happened thus:

According to Hemley, the situation developed this way. Stephenie Meyer’s novel “Twilight” apparently did so well in the bookstores that the number of copies being imported attracted the attention of a Customs official. Examiner Rene Agulan decreed that duties be paid. It seems that the importer of the book reacted in a manner familiar to most book lovers in the country: to eliminate the hassle, the importer complied with the Customs levy on the title.

Hemley says surrendering to the authorities was a mistake because the Philippines, back in 1952, became a signatory to the Florence Agreement, a United Nations treaty that mandates the tax-free importation of books in order to facilitate the free flow of “educational, scientific, and cultural materials.” The importer’s submission to the whims of Customs whetted the Bureau’s appetite; they put a squeeze on all book importations by air. The result? For two months virtually no imported books entered the country.

This happened during the time we posted this availability update. So now you all know what we were vaguely talking about. :p

Apparently, all along, imported books were pretty much tax-free, which is why they are actually quite affordable, especially the Twilight books. However, despite the protests of the book sellers and distributors, as well as 50 years of accepted interpretations of the Florence Agreement, the Bureau of Customs will now impose taxes on imported books. Robin Hemley writes:

Customs (Finance) 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 educational.

"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.

What does that mean? The imported books you buy in the stores would now be about 100 pesos or so more expensive, maybe even more than that, even if these books are not supposed to be taxable, based on the Agreement.

On a small scale, this just means we have to save up even more to buy books. On a grander scale, this shows us just how messed up some people in Government can be, and how important things, like promoting literacy and making sure most people can afford to educate themselves through reading, can easily be shoved in the back seat in the pursuit of money and power.

One more thing you should know: since all this hoopla originated with the importation of a lot of Twilight books, we'll tell you right now that the haters will blame Twilight for this. It has already happened. Don't hate on these people right back. Educate yourself about the issue and educate them. That's the only way we will all be able to understand what's really happening and to put up a united front as book lovers.

EDUCATE YOURSELF! "The Great Book Blockade of 2009" by Robin Hemley | Inquirer's Manuel L. Quezon III's opinion column discussing the issue | Republic Act 8047 - The Book Publishing Industry Development Act | The Florence Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Materials

We want to know what you think about this issue. Please post your opinions or relevant experiences in the comments. But before you do, please at least read Robin Hemley's and Manuel Quezon III's columns. We request that people not curse, and to word their opinions in a tactful, respectful, and logical manner. Thanks.


  1. lexaprone said...

    I followed Rome's link and promptly read and printed the article. I was alarmed because we have started to import textbooks for the first time from Cambridge via Singapore, and the books are expensive enough without the impending threat of added taxes. What does one have to do to get it through the thick skulls of Customs officials--that this country and its youth badly need quality, affordable books? Cultural, educational, whatever genre you put them in--books are the last bastion of sanity and integrity in this crumbling country? Customs, and its evil twin DepEd, ought to be guillotined for murdering literacy in this country.
    To those who miss the point, stop blaming the Twilight books for this fiasco. It isn't the author's, nor its readers' fault that the series' popularity has excited the drooling, money-grabbing imaginations of the Customs officials mentioned in the article. I agree that people should know about this, and the deeper roots of the problem, by reading the entire article. Tomorrow, this will be the reading material of 50 teachers who are in-training with us this year. This is as relevant as the virus formerly known as swine flu, and even more worthy of critical analysis than the Juday-Ryan nuptials. Peace.

  2. Anonymous said...

    i have to review my notes on statutory construction and ask my dad who is part of the legal profession. i'm not 100% sure but if i remember correctly, shouldn't we interpret the laws such as these as loosely construed.and not as strict as what the said customs official did. aside from educating ourselves, we can educate others by disseminating information to other people like people in the education and media sector since they are directly affected by this event.personally, i do believe books should be tax-exempted. fight the greed of the customs. i recently got a package of goods i ordered online and they literally asked for an arm and a leg so that i can get my items. geez! and they wonder why a lot of people think they are the most corrupt branch of the government.

  3. Jerica said...

    Ha! I knew it is because of twilight. Everyone wants to gain everything, money, fame and twilight is the easiest way.

    I mean look at what happened to Abs Cbn they've posted a hoax about the remake for what? publicity. we all know that we saw it first in their website.

    Now this... they want to use us, fans to gain money.

    they know that we cant resist to buy books that is related to twilight and stephenie meyer.

    but i am not surprised, though
    when the first time i read the post i knew the reason why.

  4. twilightangel2026 said...

    what can we do? some people (particularly those in the gov't., you know the AH ones) will really capitalize on things like this. i am literally dumbstruck by this article. i mean how could they do this? well what is new? i only hope that the money they collect would be placed in programs linked to books, literacy and education, etc. and not just in somebody's pockets.I wouldn't mind paying extra if it is really necessary and with just reason...not just because of some whim they suddenly had. anti-twilighters would really blame the saga for this, but they should keep an open mind. they should not look at twilight books as the enemy. with all due fairness to the series...it raised book awareness specially with the young ones, it made reading cool and it opened up a big door for YA fiction. its only fault was that it became so immensely popular and attracted the greedy eyes of some people.

    trust these "people" to go and ruin it. i hope they're happy.

  5. steeen said...

    This undersecretary lady, i think she's nuts. Is she having an illusion that she's the only one who interpreted the Florence agreement correctly? If for example it is indeed true, that for over 50 years it has been misinterpreted, ano ba itong timing niya. She decided to impose her own interpretation during the time when most people are getting interested to read. I know some people who were not interested in reading books but for some reason, they got interested with Twilight and started reading. That I think is also "promoting literacy." The customs did not impose the said rule even during the HP days when the demand for imported HP books were high too. Why now? Even the customs officials ay nakisabay na rin with Twilight's popularity.

  6. Elsbet said...

    this is too much for promoting reading in the Philippines :P

    In this time when money is hard earned and there is a prevalence of electronic book version of almost every printed material (both legal and not), this is the least that I expected.

    Reading now becomes a luxury.

    I can say that i am an old-fashioned reader, i opt printed materials/books over the ones available online. I prefer thumbing through pages than clicking the mouse.

    This is a major blow.

    just wondering, will the senate and congress create a committee to find the "missing comma" and enlightened us all?

    hmmm...maybe some government officials are desperately in need of additional "source of income" for the coming election, and poor "imported books" came into view. Like a prey walking in the path of a greedy predator.

  7. k said...

    I completely agree with lexaprone.
    Is there anything we can do about this? We can't afford for books to get any more expensive.

  8. Mack said...

    this is absolutely bizarre... the customs officials will really find a way on how to gain profit for themselves.. i think is is a very selfish thing to do..

    i read the article by quezon and i think that the ordinance was very clear on the the statement:

    “the tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing.”;that neither there was a lack of a comma or not, that the law was not pertaining to books used in book publishing. And how stupid does she think people are knowing that there are only a few number of "books used for book publishing" if ever there are.

    In the link to the law included in the post, the terms were defined very clearly that even a high school student would be able to understand the terms.

    The customs should be ashamed of themselves, living on every centavo we pay for the books we buy. Just to remind those holding the seat of power that karma comes fast, soon enough people will also be taking advantage of you, in a way you never would've imagined.

  9. Nacee said...

    Can books get anymore expensive?Well, apparently they could! I am deeply saddened by this. What they did was totally selfish and just plain wrong. I can barely even buy a 'regular' priced book without sacrificing half of my allowance, and now this?

    I can't believe that the customs would reach up to this extent that they are practically stealing money from us. Sheesh, couldn't they be anymore corrupt?

    And they say illiteracy is one of the problems in our society. Well, way to make it worse!

    I was never really into books when I was young, and now, I was just starting to get engrossed with them. If there really is anything we could do about this - campaigns, petitions, etc. - I would faithfully support it and I would even spread this news to people I know.

    This just....arrghh!! I'm really pissed now.

  10. Francis Lim said...

    I suggest looking up Florence Agreement, let's read it in greater detail....

  11. Francis Lim said...

    May i suggest we look up the Florence Agreement, and read this in greater detail...

  12. lexaprone said...

    Here we go, more noise from the blogosphere re: TGBB of 2009:




    Read with an open mind, people.

  13. lexaprone said...

    Eto pa:


    Many thanks to the ladies and gents of Flips Flipping Pages over at Shelfari.

  14. Anonymous said...

    This is ludicrous! I mean, EVERYTHING has tax on it already! I hope that there won't come a time when our country would be like America--where the only thing that doesn't have tax on is the AIR people breathe!

  15. eviveneg said...

    this is now making rounds around the NET. i just attended a workshop and this is what we discuss during the break. our facilitator got this from his email.

  16. TIKisokA said...

    saw this thru a multiply post of my friend, and reposted it in my site too...
    it's quite frustrating
    that people will always look for loopholes just to getaway with corruption...

  17. Anonymous said...

    I suppose it wouldn't be for naught if we try and inundate the Philippine Government's website with messages and e-mails regarding this issue right? I mean, come on, clearly people who are behind this are just trying to MILK money from us readers. Can you say Corruption?

  18. Anonymous said...

    The Philippine Star ran an article about this. It's in the front page of their newspaper today.

  19. eviveneg said...

    our unlikely ally in this one: Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago. it's in the Philippine Star right now that she blames those people in the customs for misinterpretation of the law.

  20. Anonymous said...

    the book blockade issue was shown on 24 Oras, the GMA primetime news program.

  21. matthew said...

    The Great Book Blockade or The Great Tax Evasion by Private Commercial Enterprises

    Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials, with Annexes A to E and Protocol annexed 1950
    Florence, 17 June 1950
    -Protocol, Nairobi, 26 November 1976


    Annex A
    Books, publications and documents
    (i) Printed books.
    (ii) Newspapers and periodicals.
    (iii) Books and documents produced by duplicating processes other than printing.
    (iv) Official government publications, that is, official, parliamentary and administrative documents published in their country of origin.
    (v) Travel posters and travel literature (pamphlets, guides, time-tables, leaflets and similar publications), whether illustrated or not, including those published by private commercial enterprises, whose purpose is to stimulate travel outside the country of importation.
    (vi) Publications whose purpose is to stimulate study outside the country of importation.
    (vii) Manuscripts, including typescripts.
    (viii) Catalogues of books and publications, being books and publications offered for sale by publishers or booksellers established outside the country of importation.
    (ix) Catalogues of films, recordings or other visual and auditory material of an educational, scientific or cultural character, being catalogues issued by or on behalf of the United Nations or any of its Specialized Agencies.
    (x) Music in manuscript or printed form, or reproduced by duplicating processes other than printing.
    (xi) Geographical, hydrographical or astronomical maps and charts.
    (xii) Architectural, industrial or engineering plans- and designs, and reproductions thereof, intended for study in scientific establishments or educational institutions approved by the competent authorities of the importing country for the purpose of duty-free admission of these types of articles.

    (The exemptions provided by Annex A shall not apply to:

    (a) Stationery;
    (b) Books, publications and documents (except catalogues, travel posters and travel literature referred to above) published by or for a private commercial enterprise, essentially for advertising purposes;
    (c) Newspapers and periodicals in which the advertising matter is in excess of 70 per cent by space;
    (d) All other items (except catalogues referred to above) in which the advertising matter is in excess of 25 per cent by space. In the case of travel posters and literature, this percentage shall apply only to private commercial advertising matter.)
    Why it that the Exclusion of this agreement was not is discussed? Annex A(b), stated that “ The exemption SHALL NOT APPLY to a PRIVATE COMMERCIAL ENTERPRISES”. Then who violates this UNESCO Florence Agreement? The importers (Private Commercial Enterprises) who hides under this blanket agreement or the government who follow this?

  22. wolffia said...

    yay! read the ff:


    i sure hope the suspension is forever!

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