Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 22, July 1998 


Publishing in Cuba

Claudia Lightfoot

Claudia Lightfoot is currently working in Cuba. Her particular interest is in Cuban literature and publishing. E-mail:

The Cuban economy is only just recovering from the collapse of the Eastern bloc. In 1990, Fidel Castro announced the `special period', a supposedly emergency period of shortages and belt-tightening which is still in full force eight years later. The publishing houses were no exception to the new austerity and in 1990 they were plunged virtually overnight into having to sink or swim. From being totally subsidised by the Cuban government (and indirectly by Soviet funds) they were told they had to be self-financing. To have some idea of the scale of this shock it is necessary to understand a little of how the system functioned before 1990.

Since the revolution, of course, all publishing houses have been state owned and controlled, the only real difference between them being their remit. Each publisher was assigned a specific field: the Jose Marti press's function is to publish works in translation; that of Pablo de la Torriente Blau press to publish the social sciences; Lettras Cubanas is devoted to Cuban literature. The system was highly centralised. The Instituto del Libro was in overall control of all the publishing houses and had direct control over the seven largest. Each editorial board would have their proposed list approved or amended by the Instituto. They would be told which printer and how much paper they had been allocated, they would have no say in the size of the print run, and all books were distributed centrally from Havana to bookshops around the island, again directed by the Instituto del Libro. Apart from proposing the initial list, publishing houses functioned simply as editors and book designers. Most importantly they had no financial role. Salaries were paid by the state and the publishers had no budgeting or financial decisions to make. The state's policy was to follow up its successful literacy campaign of the early days of the revolution by providing its new reading public with vast quantities of books. The ideology has always disregarded presentation in favour of content, and the production quality of the books was extremely poor.

Suddenly, in 1990, after years of this undemanding role, the only funding left for the publishers was the salaries, which continued to be paid by the state. The Instituto still retained editorial control initially but otherwise publishers had to acquire a whole new set of financing, marketing and production skills. Naturally, the first thing to go was the books themselves. Very little was published in Cuba in the first few years of the `special period'. Raul Aguiar's story serves to illustrate the point. He won the Premio David, a prestigious literary prize in Cuba, in 1992, but had to wait until 1996 before his publisher could find the funds and the paper to publish his novel.

How then have the publishers adapted to becoming self-financing? Primarily they have survived because of Cuba's double economy. The publishers have to pay all printing costs in dollars and must generate enough dollar income to be able to do that. But salaries, which would represent a major proportion of costs in a capitalist country, are still paid by the state. The average salary of an editor is 300 Cuban pesos a month (about US$15). Secondly, although publishers have had to be self-financing since 1990, they are not required to show a profit, simply to generate enough income to cover production costs. Nevertheless they have had to be very inventive in looking for ways of meeting these costs. Paper, which is all imported, is very expensive and often scarce because of the embargo. For the first time for nearly forty years publishers have had to think about books as a product to be sold.

After much initial floundering there are now three main ways in which publishers are funding the production of their books:

Firstly, a few books are produced entirely in Cuba and sold at home and abroad for dollars. This represents only a tiny proportion of books published since Cuba does not have the technology to produce books to international standards. (It is only in the last year that you can expect to find a computer in a publisher's office.)

Secondly, a certain number of books are entirely funded by other agencies, by far the most important of which is the FONCE (Fondo De Desarollo De La Cultura y La Educacion: the Foundation for the Development of Culture and Education). This state agency was established soon after Cuba's reluctant move towards economic liberalisation to ensure that the new market economy would not entirely destroy the ideology and to safeguard essential and unprofitable educational and cultural projects. The FONCE carries out a kind of benevolent robbing Peter to pay Paul by redistributing to publishers, for example, some of the considerable dollar income generated by the export of salsa groups so that they can publish educational texts or literary works deemed to be essential. In the same way a publisher will occasionally receive funding from other agencies to produce books which that agency wishes to promote (always provided that they also meet with the approval of the Cuban authorities). The French government, for instance, gave the Jose Marti publisher a grant to produce works from the French classics in translation.

The third and by far the most successful way in which Cuban publishers are now working is in co-production with foreign publishers. The Cuban publisher usually provides all the editorial and design work and the foreign publisher undertakes the production. The deal usually gives the Cuban publisher 50 per cent of the books, which is clearly profitable for the foreign publisher who has no editorial costs to meet. Despite the fact that it leaves the Cubans with the problem of marketing the books in a country where there is no advertising or promotion, the market is limited and the only people with dollars to spend on books are tourists, more and more Cuban publishers are looking for foreign partners with whom to enter into such co-production agreements. The great majority of books published in Cuba recently have been in production with another country, largely, though not necessarily, Latin American or Spanish. For example the highly successful Pinos Nuevos series of works by young Cuban writers was published jointly by Lettras Cubanas and an Argentinian publisher.

The Cuban publishers are keeping their heads above water by a combination of making production agreements with other agencies or foreign publishers, remaining low-paid state employees, and by not yet aiming to make profits or pay dollar salaries. However, the need to look for foreign markets has bought some predictable ideological and literary problems and some painful compromises as publishers are forced into accepting strange bedfellows in order to meet the foreign market. The rest of the world is largely ignorant of and uninterested in the more serious but mundane aspects of life in Cuba. Foreign taste for Cuban subjects tends to be for the exotic, `rum and rumba' aspects of Cuban life. The government is well aware of this danger and has addressed the problem by, for example, the work of the FONCE and the Instituto del Libro which remains important and does its best to exert editorial control. One provincial publisher was reprimanded recently for publishing a book on astrology. But the stable door is open and in the publishing world as in the rest of Cuban society the chase for the dollar is on. Authors are deliberately writing about the aspects of life in Cuba they know foreign readers want to hear.

The trend will be altered only with the appearance of a true internal market in Cuba. At the moment that seems a long way off. The whole literary dynamic would need to undergo radical change first. This is a very literate society where for thirty years people were used to buying books at subsidised prices which made a book cheaper than a beer. All that has changed in the last eight years. Very few books are produced for the domestic market; often they are on sale in pesos for only a few days before being priced in dollars. And with the economic situation, books are very low on people's priorities, even in pesos.

Where will Cuban publishers go from here? Although it is a miracle that Cuba has survived the embargo and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the economy has been stuck since 1996 and the signs are that the government will have to liberalise further and bring in more economic reforms. That is certainly the view of the foreign companies who are increasingly investing in Cuba if only on the toehold principle. Things change from day to day and no one can predict very much. At the moment the publishers seem to have found a modus operandi which allows them to fund the production of a greatly reduced number of books. However, further liberalisation may mean at least part of state salaries being paid in dollars. Then publishers may be forced to go into profit rather than simply cover production, and they will certainly not all survive. Publishers in the provinces are in an even more precarious position than those in Havana, where there is at least some possibility of generating a dollar income. One possible answer is for Cuban publishers to enter into more long-term partnerships with foreign publishers rather than looking from project to project. It might be the right time for a major foreign publisher to invest in modern printing technology in Cuba itself. Whatever happens, it is hard to imagine that the Cubans will not meet the challenge after all the problems they have managed to overcome so far. [end]  [BPN, no 22, 1998, p 10.]

^^Back to top

Return to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 22, 1998 >>

home about us news resources subscribe
newsletter forum search

© Bellagio Publishing Network 2002-2005.

Go to Top Go to top
Go to top Go to Top