Is there a way of combining what is popular and what could be considered as a quality book in contemporary Philippine Literature to encourage more readers?
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Behind the success or notoriety of the latest book title is a publishing house, except of course in cases when the book is self-published. When a new book comes out, everyone cheers the author and congratulates him or her for producing work– true? Yes.
On the other hand, does anyone think of the publisher, or the process of how the work of the author ended up being published? No, or at least hardly ever. It’s long overdue that publishers in the Philippines be cited (or condemned, depending on your perspective) for their role in promoting Philippine literature. In the case of the small publishing house Visprint Inc., either action is fine, just so long it gets the public to read. Fortunately, what this small publishing house with a rapidly spreading positive reputation and growing market wants anyway is to produce quality books. Correction: quality Philippine literature.
Nida Ramirez is the 30-something whiz behind Visprint and its success. The communication arts graduate from the University of Sto. Tomas has just finished her stint when she joined Visprint, which, at the time, was, not surprisingly, mainly a printing company.
“They wanted to keep the machines running. To go into book publishing was primarily a business decision in the beginning,” Ramirez explained.
What the owners did not count on was their new publishing manager’s uncanny skill to pick out winners.
Ramirez said that it all started with her being a fan of a then previously-unknown-outside-the-internet-world humorist who called himself “Bob Ong”.
“I was a fan of his website. It was called ‘Bobong Pinoy.com’. Joseph Estrada was still president then, and everyone was having a great time poking fun at how he spoke English. ‘Bobong Pinoy.com’ was full of funny vignettes related to ungrammatical English and how Filipinos are,” she explained. Ramirez said that at the time, she was quite unsure of what she was doing, but she followed her gut. She read on the site that ‘Bob’ wanted to get a book published.
“I sent him a message, and everything started from there,” she said. “When I received the draft, it was not what I was expecting. It was still good, so we printed it.” The rest, as the cliché goes, is history: in 2001, Visprint released “ABNKKBSNPLako!” by Bong Ong.
In the last decade, this collection of humorous pseudo-personal essays has consistently topped bestseller lists in National Bookstore and everywhere else it was sold. In February 2014, it was turned into a movie with a cast led by Jericho Rosales and Andi Eigenmann.
“ABNKKBSNPLako!” was followed by “Bakit Baligtad Magbasa ng Libro ang mga Pilipino?” in 2002, “Ang Paboritong Libro ni Hudas” and ‘Alamat ng Gubat in 2003, “Stainless Longganisa” in 2005, “Macarthur” in 2007, “Kapitan Sino” in 2009, “Ang mga Kaibigan ni Mama Susan” in 2010, and “Lumayo Ka Nga Sa Akin” in 2011, all by Bong Ong.
“It was a very good start for us. Visprint became known, and many other authors started to send us their manuscripts,” said Ramirez. Ramirez also successfully pushed for the publication of the ground-breaking graphic novel “Ang Kagilagilalas Na Pakikipagsapalaran Ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah” by Carlo Vergara in 2003.
“Zsazsa Zaturnnah”, which focuses on a gay superhero, was turned into a movie and an acclaimed musical. Reports also have it that it – as well as its sequel released in 2012 titled “Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila Blg.1 “ – is also being used as reference and subject in gender studies courses in the University of the Philippines and other universities.
Not the great Filipino novel
Now, a 13 years later, Visprint has a roster of writers and comic book artists that it can definitely boast of, among them Manix Abrera who is behind the cult-favorite among university students “Kiko Machine”, Paolo Fabregas’ funny and unrelentingly Pinoy “Filipino Heroes League”, Bebang Siy, Karen Francisco “and Palanca-award winners Eros Atalia of “Ligo Na U, Lapit Na Me” fame, Dean Francis Reyes Alfar (“”How To Traverse Terra Incognita”), and Ferdinand P. Jarin whose “Anim na Sabado ng Beyblade” was chosen by the Department of Education as part of selected readings for the Grade 9 curriculum under the K+12 program.
According to Ramirez, Visprint is open to publishing a variety of literary genres, both in English and in Filipino.
“What we really want, however, are materials that are very Pinoy in taste. We want to produce the kind of books which, when read, will immediately show the reader that the setting, the plot, the characters are Filipino. We want Filipino places, Filipino eccentricities and ideas; in short what we want are books that our readers can relate to,” she said.
Ramirez is quick to say that they’re not aiming to produce the “Great Filipino novel”. “Oh no, our goals are quite humble – we want books that Filipinos can read, enjoy, and hopefully learn something from.” Regardless of Ramirez’ sincere denial, judging from the quality of Visprint’s line-up so far, it’s clear that the publishing house nonetheless is really aiming for quality literature.
“Of course we want to make money. We got into publishing because we wanted to keep the machines busy and in that way continue to bring in income. Then again, what’s stopping us from aiming for quality? We want books we can be proud of; we want to always be able to say that we are contributing to Philippine culture in our little way by coming out with titles that can encourage Filipinos to read.”
Not all things are rosy for Visprint in one aspect, however: it also had to do with critics who thought that Bob Ong’s work as well as the controversial ““Ligo Na U, Lapit Na Me” (also turned into an indie film) were books that had a “bad influence on young adult readers” for whom they appeared at the onset to be primarily targeting.
“Reports reached us that here were some members of the academe in the University of Sto. Tomas and UP who supposedly warned their students against reading our books. For a time we thought that we were put under a ban by the academe, but our sales, thankfully said otherwise,” Ramirez said laughing.
Things took a turn for the better when the reviews of Bob Ong’s books started coming out in the Philippine Daily Inquirer and mentioned in various columns and blogs. “They were all positive reviews. They said, well, that whatever could get Filipinos to buy books in drove was good. I mean, it’s a start, right? “
“ABNKKBSNPLako” could be said to have ushered in a new chapter in the history of Philippine literature. Of course there would be many who would declare at the top of their voices that the book and others like it in the pseudo-confessional genre written in informal language and using seemingly “unschooled” structure were bad representatives of what makes Philippine literature, but for Ramirez, it’s all a matter of perspective.
“Again, what we really want is to popularize reading. Sure, we all want Filipino teenage readers and all Pinoy readers in general to prioritize reading the works of authors like Amado V. Hernandez, Bienvenido Santos, F. Sionil Jose, Nick Joaquin and others, but we have to compete with so many foreign publications!
We have to start somewhere. It’s a wonderful thing that Lualhati Bautista’s books continue to be popular even with readers who are unfamiliar with the issues she discusses, and that’s what we want: relevance. We want to come out with books that are both popular and relevant to the lives of our readers, but also books that reflect on our lives and culture as Filipinos,” she said.
Popular versus ‘Quality’
Based on a cursory survey of bookshelves in National Bookstore and Fully Booked, most published works of fiction and creative non-fiction in the country are written in English. Many of these books are currently dominated by YA (Young Adult) and graphic novels, as well as a handful of novels. The subgenres, in the meantime, vary from chick lit to fantasy. Observers say that the current trend is due to the activities of the younger generation of readers: these days, many prefer to buy eBooks or download literature from the Internet. It can be noted that many of the YA novels are somehow patterned from their Western counterparts.
The sad fact that many societies including the Philippines continue to venerate anything Western can be considered at the core of many challenges that current and future Filipino writers whether in English or Filipino must face. In the last three decades, readers have been prodded towards Western literature, and this is one of the reasons why there is a relatively smaller market for locally published works of literature. For instance, who can miss the irony in the fact that the Philippines has 90 million-strong population, but a book is considered a bestseller if it sells 1,000 copies in a year.
It’s expected that different readers apply different standards when it comes to the books they buy and read. There is nothing wrong with this per se; but if most readers base their criteria on foreign books and how they are written, the themes they carry, and the settings where the plot take place, Filipino writers who want to be read and to sell their work are sometimes forced to conform to what the prospective market expects. In the process, they then somehow end up losing important elements of what makes their work Filipino. In the name of profit (or in the hopes of being recognized as somehow “superior” to others, they lose their cultural signature.
Award-winning writers in the country continue to produce books that gain respect among younger generations of writers locally and internationally, but their works – intelligent and graceful contemplations on Filipino life from different perspectives of the middle class, ethno-racial groups, and of those who travel the world and different time zones are unfortunately seen to be “too sophisticated” for the ordinary Filipino reader who earns a minimum wage and who barely finished college. While the works of these writers can be said to represent the best of Philippine literature in English, the audience for them nowhere reach the scope of what the books of, say, Bob Ong have.
Case in point, the romance novels published by Precious Heart Romances (PHR) published by Precious Pages Corporation since 1992 and My Special Valentine pocketbooks under Bookware Publishing Corporation continue to break records as their market includes overseas Filipino workers. Malou Medina, editor of My Special Valentine pocketbooks in an interview for the article Sweeter than Bukayo, Cheesier Than Keso, admits that 90% of their readers are 13- to 50-year-old females belonging to the C, D, and E markets. The stories follow a strict romance formula which requires happy endings; this is what guarantees huge sales. Industry insiders say that each title gets an initial print run of 5,000 copies or more, making romance novelists the envy of critically acclaimed Filipino authors.
There appears to a wide gap between what can be generally accepted to be “good” Philippine literature and what is popular. The readers of the widely-popular romance novels do not have neither the time nor the inclination to read the former, and then those who read “serious” Philippine literature would not be caught dead buying or reading the latter unless it is to critique them to shreds.
Is there a way to unite popularity and quality? Maybe. Ramirez explained that the fact that Visprint’s branding is all about producing books that are distinctly Filipino means that its authors also have a distinctly Pinoy sensibility. “In a way it’s reverse elitism. I mean, what we want are books that tell stories about lives that ordinary people can relate to. If a writer describes Pasay or Quezon Province, readers will definitely be able to see, hear and feel these places”, she said.
“There are not enough ‘serious’ Filipino books about the Philippines, set in the regions and provinces. We’ve been very fortunate that our writers have very distinct voices in their writing. They not only write well, but their work resonates with readers. Their personalities come out in their writing: if they meet our authors, readers can relate to the authors themselves and their lives, not just their work.”
According to Ramirez, language plays a role in the accessibility of Philippine literature. “Language and plot. Not to go into the failures of the Philippine education system, but there is much to be desired about how ordinary Filipino readers appreciate the written word. When it comes to reading materials, ordinary Pinoys prefer short stories or illustrated materials. It also goes without saying that more Filipinos find reading Filipino easier that reading English.
Also, isn’t it so that we’re also said to be more radio listeners or television and movie goers than readers? Still, we can’t stop our efforts to convince Filipinos to read because we have such a wealth of literary works being produced on a daily basis. We just have to find the correct formula,” she said.
And what is the correct formula exactly?
“Accessible language, relatable plots, affordable prices, familiar settings? I wouldn’t know, really. What I do know is that there is a right book for every reader. As publishers, we just need to up the ante and come up with books that readers can not only enjoy, but also learn from as Filipinos, as members of society.”
On the business side, Visprint also employs a unique marketing strategy: it doesn’t have one.
“We have a Facebook page that has 9,000 followers so far. We also have a website. We also encourage our authors to maintain their own Facebook pages that link to Visprint’s. So far these marketing tactics if you can call them as such have worked,” Ramirez said laughing.
What Visprint doesn’t spend on grand book launches in swanky places it, however, spends on ensuring that its titles have very good covers. “Yes, we spend on that. We want professional graphic and layout artists to do our books. We want our titles to have interesting and contemporary covers that can attract readers.”
On the whole, however, and what Ramirez is too humble to mention, is that Visprint’s success also hinges on Ramirez’ “gut feel” in what will sell and resonate with readers. She herself is a reader but unfortunately, as she smilingly said she is “not a writer”. Maybe this by itself is the key. Ramirez is not indiscriminate in her reading choices, and perhaps this is what guides her inevitably in her decisions on what will make the cut.
“When I read a manuscript submitted for consideration, I either like it or I don’t for one specific reason or another. Mainly I am guided by whether I think the language is accessible to our readers, and if the plot and topics are also relatable. I read as a reader mainly, not automatically as a publisher. When I like something, I think others will also like it because in truth I am very, how can I put it, “masa” in in my reading tastes,” she said laughing.
For the remaining half of 2014 and the start of 2015, Visprint is set to release titles “Dwellers”, “Radiant Void”, “Alternative Alamat”, “Nuno Sa Puso”, “Istatus Nation”, “Maktan” and “Mythspace”. As for Ramirez, she is all set to go abroad to attend a conference of small publishing organizations in October .
“It’s the Frankfurt Book Fair, and I was fortunate to be accepted as a participant of the Invitation Programme, one of the activities during the fair, which is more or less, a special program by the German government for small to medium publishers mostly from Asia, Africa and Middle East. The programme is more of a seminar…teaching us small publishers on what the big ones do, what we need to learn in order to grow more. Starter kit, kumbaga And I’m going there because it’s financed by their government. We’re also considering the idea of translating our titles for the international market”, she said.
In any case, the future seems to be right for Philippine literature judging from the growing number of Philippine publications. Reputable magazines such as the Philippines Graphic continue to publish new short stories from up and coming writers, and the Palanca Awards as an institution also remains strong.
Writers workshops also continue to be popular, with top universities such as the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila, UST and de la Salle holding their own workshops annually.
And while there will always be there who will gripe and groan over how many of the books that “popular” Filipino writers these days are a little more than pulp fiction, it’s always better to take a positive view of things and take up the challenge of getting Filipinos to read more, by producing books that are both very well written and have the potential to resonate with the masses enough to sell.