pop goes the world: books now and ever after

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  25 August 2011, Thursday

Books Now and Ever After

The major problem faced by creative writers in the Philippines today is that few people buy books by Filipino authors, and this lack of financial renumeration is a disincentive for the creation of literature.

Creative writers struggle because there is a tiny niche market for their work, and this market is dominated by the few established writers who create high-quality output and have managed to make names for themselves over many years of hard work. Writers just starting out looking for publishers? Good luck with that. Lucky breaks are frequently prayed for, but not always bestowed by the publishing gods, who have their bottom line to consider.

The lack of financial incentives for creative writers is a major deterrent to the development of works in the literary field. Why write a short story that may never see the daylight of publication in the very few literary magazines on the market, when you can write a showbiz column for an online website and earn enough to at least feed yourself and your cat?

Journalism provides a decent living for many creative writers, but sometimes it’s not what they would really be doing. What puts food on the table does not necessarily feed the soul. Writing creative works nowadays is seen as self-indulgent, because there is no assurance that the work will be published, or even paid for. In the need to be exposed, many writers often contribute their work gratis for anthologies. In order to survive, creative writers need a day job, and write their creative works on their off-time.

Authors whose works have grabbed the fancy of the reading Filipino public, like the top-selling and mysterious Bob Ong (said to actually be several writers), may make the best of the situation, reaping royalties such as they are. Still, it is debatable if he makes enough from his books to quit his day job.

While creative writers dream of being able to do nothing but write, it’ll remain a dream until present conditions change.

Why are local readers not reading – and buying – the works of Filipino writers?

In publishing, the biggest earners are the textbook publishers with government contracts.

Also doing well are men’s magazine publishers – FHM, Maxim. Literary works, however, are of a different character, and its readers are fewer compared to, shall we say, FHM readers. While readers of creative works may also read FHM, it does not follow that all FHM readers will enjoy reading literary works. Sex sells better than lit. (Perhaps creative writers should write more erotica?)

Because there is a small market for literature, there are few publishers who are still in business – Anvil, among the private companies, and the universities – UP Press, UST Press, Ateneo Press, and De La Salle University Press. Fox Books, founded in 2007 with such lofty dreams for the literary world, went out of business in less than two years, unable to gain a solid financial footing, although it had published interesting works by humor writer Jay David, Layeta Bucoy, Beverly Siy, Sarah Grutas, and other young writers.

It has been said that the Philippines does not have a reading culture comparable to that of the Japanese or the American. We are a still an oral, story-telling culture. The media we enjoy extend the story-telling function to a mass audience. What is the visual stimulation of TV but the modern-day equivalent of sitting around a rocking chair listening to Lola Basyang?

In print, komiks such as “Wakasan” used to be more popular and were the preferred channels for narratives that could be enjoyed by the masses. But komiks were killed by the increase of printing costs, poor pay for writers and artists, and the onslaught of alternative forms of entertainment brought by cable TV and the Internet.

Lack of education and unfamiliarity with the language is another barrier for the Philippines developing a reading culture. If one cannot understand English well, why buy books written by Filipino writers in English? If one cannot read, why buy books at all, even those written in Tagalog and the other Filipino languages?

A related problem is the cost of books. TV is ‘free’, another reason for its popularity. Buying a book can take a sizable chunk from a student’s allowance or from an average householder’s budget. With the majority of the population belonging to the C-D-E socio-demographic, they are potentially the largest market for any sort of product. In the case of books, the cost should be brought down for them to be more affordable and their purchase considered in lieu of other forms of entertainment; however, given that the present prices of books are already as rock-bottom as they can be brought, this is a major issue that will be a stumbling-block for the creative book industry until it is resolved.

A major constraint for the development of a healthy market for creative works is the lack of support or the inadequate support from both the government and private sectors. When an alarming number of the nation’s population lives below the poverty line, when gas prices have shot to the sky, when the world is struggling from the fallout of a major financial depression, less attention and funding are given to art, which many in the mainstream see as a non-essential indulgence or luxury, compared to, say, food.

Government agencies such as the National Commission for Culture and the Arts would be expected to be the rallying point for a development-focused national literature program, and for setting the foundation for Filipino literature appreciation in elementary and high school. Yet without enough funding, such plans cannot be implemented. The state universities, University of the Philippines to name one, have always tried their best in that regard, but again finances are a stumbling block for the expansion of their programs, such as the annual UP National Writers Workshop.

In the private sector, one would also expect that bookstores would be more pro-active in promoting creative works by Filipino writers; however, it will be noticed that they do not give prime display space to local works. Filipino works are lumped under one shelf category, “Filipiniana”, instead of each work being placed where they belong by genre: horror, young adult, etc. along with works of foreign authors, which are given more importance because they sell better.

There is also a lack of marketing opportunities, and writers themselves have to find their own ways to sell their works. Carljoe Javier sold his Kobayashi Maru of Love from his backpack; Axel Pinpin went the indie-publishing route for his Tulang Matatabil and did his own distribution efforts.

Multi-sectoral support is essential to the development of a better climate for the publication and reception of Filipino creative works; how to gain this support is a matter for discussion and planning.

Because people don’t read, they don’t buy, so publishers don’t publish, so writers don’t write. But the lack of buyers does not mean that writers cannot write, or should not write; it just means that they might not earn anything for their efforts.

But there’s always one story that’s the exception to the rule. First-time novelist Samantha Sotto is the talk of the blogosphere with the recent publication of her Before Ever After by Random House’s Crown Publishers imprint. She is the first Filipina they have published.

The novel was born this way: Samantha, who had to take her preschool son to Ateneo in the mornings, would wait for him at the Starbucks on Katipunan across the Loyola campus. Having read Audrey Nifenegger’s Time Traveler’s Wife and being dissatisfied with the ending, she set out to weave her own love story, pecking out the tale of Shelley and the charismatic Max Gallus over a year’s time, with much of that spent on research.

Upon finishing the manuscript, she bought a copy of The Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published and followed its advice, going online to search for an agent and finding Stephanie Kip Rostan, whose confidence in the worth of the tale led to her finding a publisher without much trouble.

The book is set mostly in Europe, which Samantha explored as a teenager. Its protagonists are non-Filipino; only one Pinay makes an appearance, when the action sends some of the main characters to Boracay. Overall, it is a good read. Generally I don’t like chick lit or the romance genres, but I loved this one in spite of myself. It’s well-written and  -plotted, complex enough to make it interesting without being difficult to follow, and the ending is enigmatic. It made me and my 13-year old daughter Erika, who devoured the novel in one sitting, sit up one night hotly debating “What really happened to Shelley and Max?”

Before Ever After is available in paperback at National Bookstore and online as an e-book at Amazon.com for $11.99, where it’s in the top ten bestsellers in its category.

It’s proof that even with the glut of content available, tales written with a magic touch will float to the surface and command attention; and that Filipino creative writers who despair of getting published here might try doing what Samantha did and get published abroad, and that way gain a larger audience and the proper renumeration. ***

FHM cover here.  Kobayashi Maru image here. 

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