The Mighty Literary Scene

Here’s a talk I gave this Saturday at an event organized by the DLSU Writer’s Guild. They asked me to talk about what’s going on in publishing right now and where the young writer fits in. I thought it’d be best to try and be a little inspirational (so forgive some of the corniness) and I also worked in a line from Serenity, just because it’s cool and something to live by.

What kinds of titles are being published today and which kind is most lucrative?

What are the factors that drive publishers to publish these kinds of books (why are they being published more than other kinds)?

Has there grown to be a culture in Philippine Literature outside of the kinds that are in the market today? Describe and Define it?

How is the young writer situated/affected, or what is his role in the current published literary scene?

What’s being published today? It’s pretty easy to see. Cookbooks, children’s books, instructional books, and textbooks. None of which I have ever handled. While I did work for a publisher that came out with textbooks, those were mostly reprints, and the books were already written and they were required in classes, so no marketing was needed for that. But that’s really our book-buying climate.

Tipping the scales, or the National Bookstore sales figures anyway, are the books by the nebulous Bob Ong, identity kept secret, and published at a regular clip. So when you look at National’s sales figures they will tell you that Philippine literary titles sell, but really, that’s just Bob Ong. As far as other stuff goes, you’ve got your ghost stories, inspirational books, and the occasional Tagalog romance. Which is to say that what you’re probably hoping to write: poetry, short stories, longer form fiction, drama, and other literary forms, are not exactly what people go into the bookstores for.

So let’s talk about the term lucrative. Do you mean money? Let’s break down the figures. If you write a literary book and take it to a publisher, they’ll probably give you a thousand copy print run. You’ll get fifteen percent royalties on every sale, net price. Let’s go with some round figures. Say that your book’s going for P200 wholesale. 15% is thirty bucks. So at 30 per copy, with a 1,000 copy print run, you’re bringing in P30,000 if you go bestseller and sell out your print run. It usually takes literary titles five to ten years to sell out their print runs, if they ever do. After which the book goes out of print. So if you’re planning on living solely on your literary writing, then that may not be the best plan.

What does literary writing offer though? Respect. Prestige. And if you’re a faculty member, it goes towards your rating and promotions. So there’s that. Your book may not make you rich, but it might secure your faculty appointment, promotion, or tenure. That, as far as an academic life goes, is pretty lucrative.

What drives publishers to publish these kinds of books? It’s pretty simple. You just have to look at the kind of publisher we’re talking about. If you’re looking at a Trade Book publisher, then these people are looking to sustain a business. Thus they will make their selections of book based on a number of factors, and not a small factor among them the potential for a book to sell. It’s not to say that those books are written by sell-outs, or that they are produced only to sell, but rather to say that those books have been judged to have some commercial potential. Whether it’s the aforementioned cook books, instructional books, or ghost stories, the commercial aspect is important. Sometimes these publishers will include poetry and other literary works with limited sales potential, but that’s mostly to beef up the publishing house’s prestige. The books published by these publishers will usually be well written, come from reliable names, and have generally sellable pitches. Sometimes such publishers will specialize in specific genres, or types of writing. This helps for differentiation and allows them to carve out their niche in the market.

Then you’ve got academic publishers. While academic publishers would generally like to sell their books as well, sales are not their primary concern nor drive. The goal of academic publishing is to release books that forward research and discourse. They will publish academic and scholarly work, along with literary work. Their mandate is to proliferate knowledge, and to make new knowledge and findings available to more people. Underlying this mandate, most of these academic publishers are publishing arms of educational institutions, usually universities. For the university’s prestige, academic rating, and other representation aspects, it’s important for the academic press to consistently publish good books. Sometimes academic or university presses will publish textbooks, or books that can be used as main texts in classes. It’s these books that have the most potential for selling from the academic catalogs.

If you want to make money, write a textbook that can be required to a lot of schools. Make sure that you keep the book updated, and keep getting that book into a new batch of kids’ hands every year, and you can be pretty much set. Keep a teaching position along with the royalties from textbooks, and you’re made.

But this isn’t what you want to hear, and this isn’t what I want to tell you. I felt the need to bring down the hard realities first. Because if you are discouraged by the prospect of meager royalties, or by the possibility that you might not be writing stuff that you want to, then best prepare yourself to do something else.

If you are willing to face these odds, and you are willing to deal with these meager prospects and limited possibilities, then maybe you can still give it a try.

Despite the prospects that face you with the major publishing houses and the major distribution systems, it is still possible to be successful. I find selling a literary title moderately well an accomplishment. You’ve got the cards stacked against you, and it’s impossible to break through, and there’s no chance that literature is coming in to save the day. But, as one of my favorite things goes, “Doing the impossible makes us mighty.”

And thus you’ve got publishers willing to take risks on writers. I mean, to have publishers who still believe, and who keep publishing despite all this world around them telling them that people aren’t reading, people don’t read, Filipinos are not a reading society, that books are dying. Man, they are still publishing. And that is really something commendable, and something to love about local book publishers.

And you’ve still got writers out here producing work. We Filipinos have an amazingly vibrant local literature. It’s hard to fathom how many great writers we have. I am constantly surprised and delighted when I discover writers I’ve never read before. These writers are just as good, if not better, than a lot of international writers I read.

We’ve also got indie movements sprouting up. There’s High Chair, which deals in poetry, publishing right at the cutting edge of the genre. They go with small print runs, identifying a niche market, choosing distribution channels, and coming up with a sustainable model for poetry, a genre that bigger, traditional publishers can’t make heads or tails of in terms of making a profit. There are people like Tweet Sering who decide to go indie and find ways to make that work. And there’s The Youth and Beauty Brigade, put up by Adam David and me, that publishes and also organizes events and looks for ways to encourage and promote other writers.

The Komix scene is exciting and vibrant. The subculture of creators and readers is strong enough to sustain not just one, but many Komikons over the course of the year. And with breakout titles like Trese, the international success of Elmer (by artist Gerry Alanguilan who already has international renown having worked for Marvel and DC, but then the very Filipino Elmer I think is really a milestone for Filipino komix) and the ongoing success of stuff by Manix Abrera, as well as exciting stuff coming from creators like Mike David and Macoy, among others, I expect komix to thrive and spread to an international readership in the coming years, especially with the access and distribution opportunities afforded by digital publishing.

Speaking of international readership, it’s with great pride that I can refer to two authors, F.H. Batacan and Criselda Yabes, who are friends and who were my batchmates in the UP National Advanced Writer’s Workshop in 2009,  and who have just signed with international literary agency Jacaranda. International publishers have shown interest in publishing the two authors, and it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before their books have international editions. Personally, and I mention this with quite a bit of pride, while also saying it to pressure myself to write, Jacaranda has also shown interest in my work. And after having seen initial parts of my novel, they have expressed interest in representing my work as well. With authors like Chuck Syjuco breaking out with the Mann Asia, Butch Dalisay taking his Mann Asia to a nomination which has led to his book being published in Italy, France, and the United States, and others, it seems like we’re already knocking on the door of the international reading market, and it’s only a matter of time before we knock that door down.

Where is the young writer in all this? It might be a young writer who breaks that door down. I’d love it if it were some kid, coming out of nowhere, and screaming to the world, here we are, and it’s time to read us. It’s young writers who have a passion and idealism that gets lost as one progresses through life.

Now you know that things kind of suck. You probably won’t get rich from producing literature. Local publishing is a struggle. You won’t get read too much in your own country. In a population of 100 million and growing exponentially thanks to our insistence on not using condoms, we still don’t have the good sense either to get people to read. What percent of the market of 100 million Filipinos must you capture to be a bestseller, when all you need to be a bestseller is to move a thousand copies?

But you also now know that things are kind of awesome. We have a national literature to be proud of. We have writers who, despite all the deterrents, all the difficulties and barriers and limitations, continue to produce outstanding books. We’re breaking out, creating, finding, and tapping niche markets. We have writing to be proud of, writing that deserves to be elevated not only to an international market, but a writing that deserves a stronger national readership. Man, we got to have Filipinos reading Filipinos, because this stuff is just too good for us not to get in on.

Doing the impossible makes us mighty. Publishing in this kind of reading environment seems impossible, when it’s so much easier, more profitable, and more sensible to sell fast moving consumer goods or F&B. Writing in this kind of environment is even more impossible. No one wants to read you. Walk down the street and people could care less if you wrote an amazing book. And you’ve got to hold down a day job, or a day job and rackets along with it, just to get by, and in between all that, that’s when you find those little slivers of time to write.

Still we do it. How can I not think that Filipino writers and publishers are mighty?

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