In August, I spent six days on the lovely island of Barbados after I was invited to be the featured author guest at AnimeKon Expo, an annual pop culture convention. While I was there, I learned a whole lot about the island and its history and people. I also got a good look at how local economics and ongoing changes in the global publishing industry have impacted Barbadian readers and educators.
Many U.S. residents might look at the name Barbados (and the island’s close proximity to South America) and guess that it is part of Latin America. But while Spain briefly claimed Barbados in the late 15th century, little Spanish culture remains aside from the name. (The original Arawak name for the island is Ichirouganaim). In 1627, Barbados was colonized by Great Britain, which brought in African slaves to grow and process sugar cane; it was hard, dangerous work.
Visitors can clearly see the influence of British culture from the school systems to the governmental structure to the architecture of its oldest buildings. Sugar and rum remain important exports. But because agricultural lands have been turned into housing (including lavish vacation estates on the west coast owned by celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger), tourism has become a critical industry for the island. Barbados gained its independence from Great Britain in 1966 and has been part of the Commonwealth since then. It is the most highly developed island in the Caribbean and the populace is well-educated; Barbados has a slightly higher literacy rate than the United States.
Getting books to this island full of readers is especially challenging. Because of import costs and taxes, hardcovers and paperbacks often cost two or three times more than in the U.S. One of the ongoing challenges for Barbadians is that, aside from rum and seafood, practically everything else has to be imported. For instance, I saw banana trees all over the island in peoples’ back yards, but even bananas have to be imported because consumption regularly outstrips supply. As a result, consumer goods and food prices are high.
“The price of print books often feels prohibitive,” says Barbadian author Marc Gibson. “Pricing my books so that people can afford them without me or the store taking a loss is difficult.”
The difficult economics extends to textbooks and instructional materials. But he says that as costly as importing books is, printing them locally is even more expensive. “Printing costs in Barbados are roughly three times higher than the total cost associated with printing overseas, shipping, brokerage fees, and VAT (value-added taxes).”
“Printed textbooks, though expensive, are readily available on the island,” says Chattel House Books representative Erica Hinkson. “In the past, we benefited from special pricing for the region. This arrangement no longer exists, unfortunately. Print textbook prices have continued to rise and are putting those books out of the reach of many students.”
“E-books in many cases are significantly cheaper, and of course far easier to transport,” says Gibson. “Chattel House Books is making it a serious priority to provide Barbadian and Caribbean books as e-books, so it is easier for readers to get these books as well, for local, regional, and international readers.”As a result, Barbadian authors, educators, and book stores are increasingly turning to electronic resources.
“Our parent company, Datalore Inc., launched the Caribbean Shared Education Resources Service (CSERS) project,” says Hinkson. “It provides e-textbooks to schools across the region.”
Hinkson is enthusiastic about CSERS, which has grown over the past two years. “Schools have benefited from both better title availability and pricing by using e-textbooks. We’re looking forward to seeing more and more students and educators take advantage of these resources.”