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.