A Time for Firsts

I read this paper yesterday at the first networking/meeting event of the group Writer’s Block.

The invitation was to talk about firsts, and seeing as to how I have just released my first independent book which has with it a number of its own firsts, my talk will be mostly about that. But first a quick trip down memory lane.

The first short story that I ever submitted to class was trashed by my professor and my classmates. I was, by that time, regularly published in newspapers and magazines, but a new hand to the craft of fiction. I was expecting to be praised for my writing, but instead I was told that my story was not a story. I also decided to show this story to a professor that I admired and idolized. To pound home the fact that my story was not a story, he had written, on the cover page of the story, underneath the title, in bold, capitalized letters in red ink, “This is not a story.”

His comments did not end with that big read streak on the cover page, but rather the whole piece was at risk of being overwhelmed by the red ink that was attacking it on all fronts. Everywhere, on every page, were those comments in red telling me where I had gone wrong. And on the back page of the last sheet was a short critique of the piece, further explaining to me how bad the story was and what I had to do.

I went home and I wanted to throw the story away and quit writing. A writer’s ego, especially a young writer’s ego, is terribly fragile. But I guess that’s where you can tell which ones will persevere. Some people just quit. Some people stop showing other people their work. Without a feedback system through which you can gauge whether you’re getting better though, you won’t get better. When we start out we believe all our work is golden. We do need someone to tell us that we can do better, must do better, must move beyond what we think is good, and move towards what is actually good.

And sometimes it takes getting destroyed for you to start creating something new.

I picked myself up off the floor, went back to that fiction class about a month later with a different story. That story would turn out to be my first published short story, and would bag me my first campus award.

And now, just a shade under a decade since, I gave that old professor of mine with the judicious red pen a copy of my latest book, and he had this to say: “This is my kind of book! You’ve got style, Carl. I am reading it now and relishing your command of English prose. Ang galing, Carl. Love it! Bravo!”

And that was the first review of the book that I got. I’m still waiting for other reviews to come in, but that was a nice firstie for my first independent book. And now we turn to that book and the number of firsts around it.

It’s not my first book, but it’s my first independently published book. And with it are a number of key differences.

My first book is a collection of essays which cover a range of topics. The only binding thing is that they are written by me, with my geeky sensibilities. Otherwise, they can all stand alone, independently of each other.

With this new book, I was working under a unifying theme. My literary partner and book designer Adam David has called it a novel in creative nonfiction form, as it does follow the kind of development and narrative arc that can be seen in novels. So I was working with a pretty large canvas. My goal was to write essays that could be read on their own, but when taken together formed a narrative movement, unlike that first book of unconnected pieces.

This unifying theme I also consider a first. It’s a book about love, and while that isn’t a new thing, I believe that you’d be hard pressed to find a book of Filipino creative nonfiction written by a heterosexual male that deals squarely with love, and with heartbreak in particular. Our machismo and our patriarchal culture make it near taboo to discuss such things with friends. What more to write about it in such a candid manner and then have that writing published. But I feel that the sincerity of that which I say, coupled with my conscious attempt to keep it tempered and accessible to readers and ensure that it doesn’t sound like a diary or blog entry, help to make the book different and appealing to readers.

Further, in talking about making the book different, we made a number of design decisions that really make the book different from what you see on the racks in bookstores. First off, and what will jump at you, are the aesthetics of the book design. More often than not literary titles try to look dignified and deep. But we were going for a sense of fun, and yet something that also fell in line with the theme. Originally we were going to do a play on Star Trek, but the whole idea of games and toys, things I love, and which Adam came up with in a “Eureka” moment, we had the video game cover. Love after all, was this sort of game, and I am playing it throughout the book. The paper doll cover followed, and this went in accordance with our original concept to do variant covers in homage to comic books that we love.

Another first has to do with design elements. When we think of book covers, front and back, we think of what has to be there: title, author, and a description of the book, along with blurbs or other things that will convince the reader to buy it. You’ll notice that none of these things are on either of the book covers.

This was as much an aesthetic decision as it was a business decision. Adam wanted to experiment with making art that didn’t feature these elements. I thought about how it would impact sales. The intuitive thinking is, of course you need a title and the author’s name on the cover. How would people know what they are buying?

But when we step back, we can consider how inessential those things actually are in the design. This would be important for the casual consumer browsing books in a bookstore. But the book’s being independent, and my decision to not place the book in major booksellers such as National and Powerbooks, meant that if I were selling the book, I would be selling it to people who were looking for the book, who really wanted to buy it, rather than people who had just stumbled upon it at the bookshelf.

This meant a couple of things. First was that I had chosen to have a limited market. I could only afford to run 250 copies in my first print run. But this also meant that if you wanted a copy, you would make an effort to find one. Second was that I had to be aggressive in my marketing so that people would know where to get the copies. Instead of hoping that people would stumble upon it, I had to make it so that people knew there was this book out, and that they wanted to get a copy.

That leads us to another first, my attempt to maximize social media, my different social networks, and to try and tap all the media that was available to me. Most writers are content to write, submit, and have their work published. But I felt that there was a need to be visible and to try and market beyond the literary community. I belong to the geek community and I was able to tap into that market. I made attempts to extend my presence by giving a talk at Pecha Kucha Night. I’ve had to surpass my default shyness and awkwardness in this attempt to bring in more readers and get more people to be aware of Filipino Literature in English. I’ve also started hosting a radio show, and while hosting radio shows isn’t a new thing for writers, well, it’s a first for me. My show premiered on the same night that I launched the book.

Furthering the firsts of The Kobayashi Maru of Love is that it is the first heavily-merchandised literary title. Along with the book itself, I sold T-shirts and bags that had art featured in the book. We broke even on launch night and the proceeds of shirt sales are going to what Adam and I have called the Raise High the Roof Fund, which is a fund to help rebuild the David house after a small domestic tragedy. The merchandising has proven popular with more shirt orders which I have, at this point, generally failed to accommodate as I’ve just been overwhelmed with so much of the work.

And for an indie title with limited distribution, I got rid of 250 copies in less than two weeks. Some copies were given to friends and people who helped with the book, and to reviewers, but other than that, somewhere near 230 copies were sold or pre-ordered in that span of time.

Now I’ll talk about what this means for the aspiring writer. First and most importantly, I believe that we can break away from the negative stigma of the term vanity publishing. I have to admit my own apprehension at being called such, and this is probably why the two books that I had written were previously given to major publishers, Milflores and the UP Press. But after having had my books there, and having experiences where I had limited creative control, I felt like I wanted to do things on my own.

Further, because they are big publishers, they handle a number of titles and authors, and cannot devote their time to certain titles. But if you publish yourself, then you are personally invested in all aspects, especially marketing and distribution. This means a limited distribution, but it also means that you can have direct marketing to your defined target market. The money isn’t there, but it isn’t there either when you go with big publishers. What is there is the satisfaction of being read and having your book out the way that you want.

What this experience further tells us is that we have to see ourselves not merely as artists, but as marketers, promoters, and designers of consumer products. Yes the initial part of it is that we want to create art. But don’t think that we are in any way diminished if we try to sell our art. Rather, we must understand that in the digital age we have to think in these terms if we want to be successful and we want to convince people to buy our books.

In terms also of sales and distribution, The Kobayashi Maru has another first. It is one of the first three independently published titles to be distributed internationally under the Vee Press line. So it is now available in the iBookstore and Amazon.

Now here’s one last thing that I believe we have to think about and address, and it’s this valuation of our writing and our books. While people are willing to pay P500 or more for foreign books, when I tell people to buy my book for P250 which leaves me a very small profit margin, they say, “Ang mahal naman. Friends naman tayo, wala ba akong compli copy?”

Now we ask, if you have an artist friend who has an exhibit, would you ever say to that artist, “Ang mahal naman ng painting mo, pare. Wala ba akong compli painting diyan?” You never would. Because you’re acknowledging the value of the art. Similarly I believe that it’s on us to convince people of the value of literature and of the book as an art object.

You don’t want a free copy. You want to pay for it because you want to acknowledge the artistry that has gone into the work. You want to pay for what the author has written. You want to pay the artist for the artistry that has gone into the book design. It’s this kind of thinking that I believe we have to push in developing with readers. Our culture loves freebies, as does any culture I suppose. But it’s important that we cause this shift in thinking so that we come to value and reward our artists. That’s a first that I’m looking forward to.

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8 Responses to A Time for Firsts

  1. Katy Concepcion says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article! I’ve been holding on to a manuscript that I finished writing almost a year ago and I just didn’t know the next steps to take. I haven’t really considered publishing it myself but you have definitely made me think that that is a viable option. Also, looking at a piece of literature as a piece of art is very refreshing. I hope everyone gets to appreciate the effort a writer puts into anything he or she writes. Some people don’t seem to know that it could sometimes take a whole week to write a whole page. 🙂 Best of luck to you.

    • Carl Javier says:

      @katy thanks for reading katy, and good luck with your manuscript too! having a publisher is great so that you have support, marketing, distribution, and editors to look over your work. but if you feel that you’re ready to take the plunge, then i believe indie’s the way to go. and let’s all work in elevating the way people approach writing and books 🙂

  2. Pearl Fontilla says:

    How I wish Madz could read this article.
    Indeed there are writers who are so ‘sensitive’ about their first works because those attempts at unloading the precious self are awkward but sacred. Good critics are guardian angels in disguise although some of them could be impatient or ‘acerbic’ in their language. We should not be afraid of them but be afraid of not
    being able to write well and only good critics could tell unless we have the
    genius!
    That professor who explained things in detail understood the details of the errors done and included perhaps how to’s – is a real teacher! I like his spirit as a coach to good writing. [Magaling siya at nagbunga ng magaling na manunulat tulad mo!]

    • Carl Javier says:

      @pearl thanks for the comment. i have to agree with your professors like that are the ones who really help students, and ever since i’ve found myself turning to him for advice or wisdon and guidance whenever i’ve really needed it. i just hope that we as aspiring writers and critics can one day be just as generous

  3. yangiwei says:

    Carl, tried to access Manila – PechaKucha Night but oouldn’t. David house? Any plans of showing the number of views and using a Woo Theme? Your current colors are masakit sa mata, or maybe I’m old lang. I’m interested to listen to your radio show. What time are you on? Please tell me that it’s on during office hours.

  4. Angela says:

    I stumbled here from Rocket Kapre, and as an aspiring writer who has no idea of how to get published (when the time comes), I was quite intrigued. I’ve looked at the self-publishing route myself, but have been held back by the stigma which you mention. 😦 Working with a major publisher in the Philippines, on the other hand, felt like a bit of a monster that felt quite impossible to conquer (and I think, like you, that Filipinos would rather buy foreign books than buy local books even if they’re cheaper…sigh, colonial mentality talaga).

    Reading this article was a relief, though! Thank you for sharing this, it makes me feel that there’s hope yet for self-publishing.

    • Carl Javier says:

      Hi angela, thanks for dropping a comment. going with big publishers has its advantages, and going it on your own has its own advantages (full creative control, as well as control over distribution and marketing). in any case, i hope that you keep writing and get your work out there. there is hope for self-publishing, and it’s a matter of getting people to want to also buy self-published books. there’s a lot of stuff involved, but we’re all working hard at it and I do believe that people will come around.

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