“You are Killing our Artistes and Celebrating it!”



St Lucian poet and Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott

St Lucian poet and Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott

In the Caribbean you’re more likely to wake up one day in summer and find it snowing than find a writer or poet who believes that the way to get ahead in the book trade and the literary field is to look to the governments for support. That’s no surprise considering the number of aspiring writers who, over the years, have felt compelled to leave their homeland in despair for the greener pastures of the USA, Canada and the UK.   

Derek Walcott is one of those who are incensed about the situation and he never shies away from lambasting the Caribbean governments for not doing more to help the region’s struggling artistes and writers. He even questioned the relevance of the Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA) during his address at the opening of the event in Guyana earlier this year, suggesting that the governments have nothing to celebrate in a festival of arts because they have been allowing writers and artistes to live in a state of “deprivation.”

“You are killing our artists and then celebrating it!” he rebuked them.

 To the CARICOM Secretariat’s credit, four years ago they were evidently concerned enough about the situation in the arts to procure a team of consultants to carry out a study of the creative industries to try and figure out what could be done to give a boost to the sector.  The group comprised of an 8-member research team headed by Lead Consultant, Keith Nurse, the director of the Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Law, Policy and Service, University of the West Indies, Cavehill Barbados. Their job was to assess the economic contribution of the cultural-creative industries in CARICOM, identify factors constraining the global competitiveness of the sector, and analyse trade and investment issues with a view to formulating a strategic action plan for the development of the sector. The study was an EU-funded project. At the end of it they compiled a 261-page report entitled “The Cultural Industries in CARICOM: Trade and Development Challenges.” They submitted it to the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery in 2006.   

It is not clear to what extent the report was circulated among stakeholders in the creative sectors. But one thing is certain – as far as it relates to writers, publishers and booksellers in the region, the findings are distressing.

The consultants cautioned that new developments in world technology were radically changing the nature of the book trade.

“The new digital and information and communication technologies have revolutionized the industry in terms of production processes, distribution channels and consumption modes” says the report.

It then goes on to make the startling disclosure that, for the period under review, regional trade in cultural goods depicted a whopping deficit, with annual imports varying between $100 million and $250 million to the CARICOM region. Exports were less than $25 million. The main exports (approximately 75%) were “printed matter” including “printed, manufactured music.”  

Figures cited from the 2006 Global Competitive Index published by the World Economic Forum for the period 2001 – 2004 reveal that Guyana, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica suffered the following cumulative trade deficits in the “printed matter” category.

Guyana                        – EC$61,660,028

Barbados                     – EC $95,321,015

Trinidad & Tobago    – EC $178,644,134

Jamaica                        – EC$365,781,821

The research team were unable to determine the disaggregated figure for books, magazines and audio books.

“A key limitation to the analysis of the sector is the lack of disaggregated statistics. For instance, under the current trade classification, textbooks and novels are contained within the same category. Thus, to customs officials and, by extension, local and regional statistical agencies, there is no difference between the two.”

In short, if the authorities were to go solely by available records and statistics, they would not be able to tell who among their people are novelists and poets. They don’t exist. 

In cases where Caribbean publishers outsourced printing services to places like China and shipped the finished products to the USA and other foreign markets, the consultants could find no record on regional statistics of such exports of Caribbean-published works.

Nevertheless, we can safely assume that the number of “physical” books being exported directly from the Caribbean is comparatively miniscule at best. Clearly, the old system has not been serving our writers well.  The consultants offered some advice.  

‘The convergence of the new information-driven economy has to prompt a redefinition of content providers, with authors now having to shift personal paradigms from being “book writers” to creators of text that can assume multiple formats and generate multiple income streams as their works find traction in specifically targeted markets. A new appreciation of the “entertainment” market is also required as the regional publishing heritage has had an intellectual or “high culture” bias.”  

Once again, the call is clear. Writers and publishers of Caribbean works must be proactive and keep up with the times when it comes to book promotion and marketing if they are to have any chance of competing with foreign imports.  There also needs to be a broadening of the range of genres

Further, the report notes that increasingly “it is the exploitation of rights to intellectual property rather than the creation of tangible product that is becoming a major source of income to creators of text.”

It stresses that there is need for an internet-enabled distribution network within the CSME that would make the import, export and distribution of text more cost-efficient. “The archipelagic structure of the Caribbean region makes the shipping of products within the region, and having to negotiate multiple customs authorities, cumbersome.”

Still alluding to the need for access to modern digitized systems, the report calls for the enhancement of existing distribution networks (i.e. bookstores, publishers and authors) into efficient, electronically facilitated channels “that can be exploited by a lean and coordinated distribution system facilitated by e-commerce technology.”  

“Regionally publishers and even authors [should be able to] conduct their own distribution through visiting their various territories, with larger bookstores in most cases, serving as national distributors.”  

There was more advice for regional publishers. The researchers said marketing in the sector had been limited to individual efforts at reaching new markets, with only the Caribbean Publishers’ Network (CAPNET) providing a common vehicle for individual members to enjoy representation at international book fairs. Caribbean publishers “whose core competence is to locate and process manuscripts into market-ready forms for distribution, and to nurture and develop talent,” lack the ability to penetrate new markets and take advantage of global opportunities, says the report.

In proposing solutions the report makes numerous recommendations. The key ones include:

– The introduction of incentive regimes specific to the creative industries e.g. tax incentives to individual artistes and to purchasers of Caribbean products

– Tax concessions for importers of specialized equipment and material that are used as inputs into the creative process of production

– Develop a cadre of world-class editors, graphic designers and printers

– Develop more skilled personnel to exploit opportunities created by new technologies

– Develop a more harmonized distribution network

– Create more opportunities for authors to interact with publishers and agents

– Reform the Caribbean’s cumbersome regional tariff regimes

Notwithstanding its extensive and very detailed analyses, the findings of the report as it relates to the Caribbean book trade could virtually be boiled down to one clear, overarching conclusion; the sector must dispense with the old way of doing business and position itself to take advantage of the convergence of new media and technology.   

“The market conditions exist for a revolution in the Caribbean publishing industry to advance the economic impact of the sector, but strategic interventions from regional governments and key stakeholders are required to creatively reposition the publishing sector to take advantage of contemporary opportunities.”

But herein lies the problem. What has experience taught us about putting trust in our governments to do what is necessary to position the book trade sector to “take advantage of contemporary opportunities”? Jamaican writer and poet, Geoffrey Philps put it very aptly and spoke for the entire Caribbean posse when he said in his recent article “Caribbean Publishing in the Internet Age,” “Our governments have already proven to be unreliable. The goal of every politician is to retain power, and they have time and time again let us down. Witness the fiasco of CARIFESTA and the near debacle of Calabash.” http://www.geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/

How writers respond to the challenge of navigating through the sector and finding a home and an appropriate marketing strategy for their work will depend on their ultimate goal. If it is simply to see their work in print (through self-publishing) just for the joy of it and to share it with family and friends, then that makes life a lot easier.

If, however, their dream is to follow in the footsteps of literary stars like Elizabeth Nunez, Edwidge Danticat, Caryl Phillips and Derek Walcott, then that’s a whole different ballgame. More likely than not, they would have to take the route of royalty publishing and seek outlets outside the region, which makes the challenge much more daunting.

Yet, inasmuch as it is money, opportunity and access to technology that make the world go round, ultimately it is PEOPLE who make things happen. The proliferation of book clubs and other literary social groups – both real and virtual – is an indication that writers are increasingly coming to appreciate how important it is for people who share a common love for books to interact and support each other.

How wonderful it is to see writers emerge from the darkness of obscurity into the light of literary success, only to turn around and help create an underground railroad to assist talented young aspirants break the shackles and find their way into a land of hope and promise.

In unity there is strength. There is much to be gained when writers and artistes pool their resources and work together, share ideas and critique and support one another.

Here’s something else to ponder.

Increasingly, Caribbean post-colonial literature is being transformed by the emergence of female poets, novelists and essayists whose writing deals with issues of love, relationships, motherhood and the hardships of raising children, often in poverty. Their perspective on such issues, as well as their take on other critical matters such as race, identity and cultural consciousness bring a refreshing balance to the discourse; a balance without which the Caribbean’s image of itself would be hopelessly distorted. To the extent that these voices are allowed to go silent or succumb to discouragement, to the same extent shall we be impoverished.    

And lest there be any doubt about our governments desire to help the writers in their struggles, the consultants cautioned:  

“At the regional level the CSME has thus far failed to deliver its potential benefits to the cultural industries because of the failure of Member States to meet their obligations.”

Since then another report on the regional cultural industries has been prepared, this time for the CARICOM Secretariat Regional Symposium on Services, Antigua & Barbuda. It was prepared by none other than Keith Nurse who headed the research team who compiled the abovementioned report on “The Cultural Industries in CARICOM”.  This latest report is entitled ‘The Creative Sector in CARICOM: The Economic and Trade Policy Dimensions.’ It was prepared in July 2009. Among his recommendations – once again:

“The economic value of the cultural industries is largely unmapped, unmonitored and undocumented. There is need to create an information infrastructure to capture relevant data and formulate policy recommendations for industrial upgrading and harmonizing of trade policy initiatives. There is also need for policies that support local/regional production and distribution of cultural goods and services.”

2 responses to ““You are Killing our Artistes and Celebrating it!”

  1. Keith Nurse has been doing great work in this area for a number of years. Unfortunately, most of his recommendations concerning Carifesta still have to be implemented. Carifesta has been declining steadily over the years (I attended the first and best in 1972 in Guyana, and several, including Guyana again last year). It has become amateurish, repetitive, mediocre. Few of the top artists bother to attend anymore. Local Politics interferes with planning and decides who goes. The only advantage is that those who do go have a chance to meet old friends and get a sense of what is happening (if they are willing to look closely.) Carifesta urgently needs an overhaul. Many recognise this. (Kwame Dawes has a good article on this in the most recent BIM). As to publishing and the book trade, yes, the call is to radical reviewing of all the issues. This blog is among those new efforts that point the direction for today.

  2. Referencing the same document produced by Keith Nurse and his team (released in 2006) – Amazing that they would missed the World Creole festival of DOMINICA (three- day festival) held yearly the last week end in October.

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