The Forum - July-August 2007 - (Vol 8 Issue 4

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Going Indie: The challenges of independent publishing
Celeste Ann Castillo Llaneta

Gloria F. Rodriguez’s office is full of giraffes. From stuffed toys to figurines to posters, giraffes have turned the room into a wildlife preserve. The impressive collection is not of her own doing. Every single giraffe was given to Rodriguez by friends and family in honor of her role for the past fourteen years. “That’s me, I’m Giraffe,” says the septuagenarian who is the sole proprietor of Giraffe Books. “I’m a one-woman publisher. Somebody would call and ask to speak to the personnel manager, and I would say, ‘yes, this is she.’ The editor? ‘Yes, speaking.’ At times, I’m also the janitor.” Rodriguez established Giraffe Books in 1993 after retiring from New Day Publishing, a non-profit publishing house established by the Christian Literature Society of the Philippines in 1969. Rodriguez joined it in 1973 and is chiefly responsible for making it a pioneering (and for certain periods, the only) literary publishing house in the country. She retired from it in 1993. “It was my own private ambition, to publish books that are good for the Filipino and that express the Filipino spirit.” Over the years, Giraffe has published history books, collections of short stories, essays and poetry by both Filipino and foreign authors, and a Humor from the Internet series compiled and edited by Rodriguez herself. Still, nothing lasts forever, and Rodriguez has already foreseen the end of Giraffe Books. “By 2008, I will be 80 years old. I’m overstaying as a publisher as it is.” Giraffe Books has seen everything that could happen to a small, independent publisher in the Philippines, from distribution and financial woes to inspiring feedback on their books from appreciative readers. Its experience, as well as that of other publishers, can be a helpful guide to the new indie publishers today. Indie is as indie does Coming up with a good definition of an independent press can be as tricky as the publishing business itself. In its website, the Independent Press Philippines, a non-profit organization launched during the Read or Die Convention earlier this year organized by the book club Read or Die, Inc. (ROD), cites a loose definition of an independent press or a small press—the terms are sometimes used interchangeably—as “a publisher whose press run does not exceed five thousand and who doesn’t publish more than ten books a year.” Another portion of the website clarifies that the important distinction between a “small press” and an “independent press” lies in the fact that, “the raison d’etre for independent publishers is not their small size but the types of books they publish and their cultural and financial point-of-view.” By whichever definition, Giraffe Books is a good example of a small and/or independent press. “Small presses are virtually non-existent,” observes Kristin Mandigma, founding member of Read or Die, Inc. Literary publishing is almost solely the territory of large publishers such as Anvil Publishing, Inc., and the university presses. Most small publishers are the publishers of comic books. Among the small literary publishers, Mandigma cites Kenneth Yu, who publishes Philippine Genre Stories, a digest of speculative and pulp fiction, and award-winning writer Dean Francis Alfar, who publishes his yearly anthology on Philippine Speculative Fiction. Both Yu and Alfar handle their own marketing and the distribution of their books. It’s in the attitude Lirio Sandoval, president of the Book Development Association of the Philippines (BDAP), has a different point of view. He says, “It’s not whether you’re big or small. It’s a way of thinking. When we say ‘independent,’ we usually mean independent from the influence of your financier or the company board of directors.” However, there are small publishers who might be under the influence of other outside forces, such as advertisers or authors who want to get themselves published. “‘Independent’ means, ‘what I want to publish, I’ll publish.’ That’s how I would define it.” In that sense, he believes that independent publishers are making their mark in the publishing industry. In every bookstore, the shelves are laden with new publications and genres that weren’t there ten years ago. “As far as the

creative side of publishing is concerned. would render books obsolete. Then. in fact. In his paper titled “Creative Publishing. we began to realize that there was a market [for books].” Myth-busting That Filipinos don’t read is a familiar complaint.” he says. Inc. either here or abroad. When that dwindled in popularity. the How to Draw Manga series.” Adventures in publishing A publishing company that has been proving Hidalgo’s point is PSICOM Publishing. As the Internet grew as a font of information. etc. he cites this as one of two “common misconceptions. met his editors and writers.” the second misconception being the prediction that the explosion of information technology in the form of the Internet. begs to differ.” then PSICOM is it. PSICOM tested the waters of book publishing with computer books. Koreans or Indians. but they don’t have the capacity to buy [books]. Or we might have the readers.” Not all their books were successful.” he continues.. it hit the downtrend. traces the company’s roots to a computer magazine. read more books than the Chinese. magazines for the Japanese anime otaku.” he says. “There was a time when our purchase order was almost 1. PSICOM responded by putting out a magazine on IT news. With this. The books sold like the proverbial hotcakes. “I noticed a commotion going on in one of the booths. dubbed “blooks. and even new experimental forms such as books based on Internet blogs.” The Philippines has also been lagging behind in the regional book market. president of PSICOM. based on the number of titles it publishes. “being able to experiment the way we want to. PSICOM has been mapping out uncharted territories of publishing. the Philippine book industry is doing well.000 books a day.” Although not a small press by a long shot.” According to a 2003 Social Weather Station (SWS) survey of reading attitudes and preferences of Filipinos. “The first [misconception] is a half-truth at best. “There are lots of interesting books and publications coming out. “Filipinos read books that they think they need or want. a whole spectrum of genres from horror to chick lit to humor. “[The books] were a hit. An untapped market. but immediately discovered a major drawback—computer developers will always be quicker to put out new versions of their software. I checked it out and saw that the booth was selling Singapore ghost stories.” On the business side. The market for science fiction books. is similarly weak. In fact. This accounts for the sustained success of large publishers that specialize in romance novels in Filipino and in religious books. “I think we have enough talent. we’re open to it. a series of romance novels based on GMA’s Love to Love series sold less than expected. PSICOM hit pay dirt. “Book publishing. Gabriel happened to be present during one of the book fairs in Singapore. [Publishers] have more ideas than they can handle. etc. Arnel Gabriel. For instance. the Inquirer…ran a story on an international survey that shows that Filipinos. Since then. Figuring that PSICOM should try other genres. coming up with offerings that include DC Comics.” “When we ventured into book publishing. to everyone’s—including Gabriel’s— complete astonishment. . and I think there will always be a buyer for your books. and soon came up with the first of the True Philippine Ghost Stories series. As proof. Antonio Hidalgo.” says Sandoval. we don’t have enough book buyers. cable TV. just as with every other fad. but sad to say.” “I think that the second misconception is simply false. however. they put out a series of books on text quotes. “We’re experimenting with different genres now. as Gabriel notes. and upon observing the then rising fad of texting. president of Milflores Publishing. on the average. text ring tones.” Hidalgo writes.” delivered at a symposium held two years ago at the University of Santo Tomas. has grown both globally and locally along with the proliferation of IT. “There are still too few readers compared to our population. “[But] as long as it’s a good idea. as long as the definition of independence is the freedom to try out new forms and. despite the glut of manuscripts. “It is simply not true that Filipinos don’t read—they do. he calls attention to the display in his office of three plaques of recognition from National Bookstore awarding the top three bestselling spots to a PSICOM publication. CD-ROMs. 90 percent of Filipino adults have read books and 68 percent have read non-school books.” He came back. and that’s why you have these independent establishments coming up. While scouting around for a new good idea. “[publishing] is still not very profitable.” he says.” Sandoval admits. We printed around fourteen books and we came out with a new book every two to three months.

Gabriel observed an odd phenomenon when the first True Philippine Ghost Stories came out. 9 out of 10 buyers are looking for information books.” Pandering to the masses’ craving for escapist romance novels. the gay culture.” he says. established in 1999. According to Hidalgo. has hit upon a win-win situation. insomnia.e.” Besides the language barrier. this is also a manifestation of the class divisions in our society. for instance. say. not through the support of the masses. Their lineup of books now includes the best-selling English Grammar series and books on themes such as Filipinos migrating to the US. the sales of the books jumped. no matter what class they come from. and I guarantee the latter will appreciate it. “We have a problem because our best writers who are welleducated write in English. The best writers in the country have much to offer readers. will not help develop minds. but it sold. what we have today is the books written by the nation’s brightest sitting untouched while the masses feed on a steady diet of tabloids. Milflores. who speak the same language.” Our historical experience has resulted in our elite—the educated and highly literate—being alienated from the masses. while only 30 percent prefer English. We advocate cultural development by getting our best minds to talk to the masses. the preference for Filipino is supported by the findings of the SWS survey reported in his paper. Our elite was formed through collaboration with the colonizers. who were usually high school or elementary school children. in our books we don’t simplify the subject. So in the next book. This alienation also manifests itself in the cover designs.’” Intersection of life In this context. the same SWS survey Hidalgo referred to in his paper found that 91 percent of Filipinos read to gain information or additional knowledge. According to Hidalgo. “We need to profit so that we can continue publishing books. which are often done along Western styles and fail to take into account Philippine popular taste. etc. ‘This isn’t for me. We tell it as it is. That book became another hit. “The masses cannot learn to read English because they wish to read the best minds. i. the reading market.. while only 9 percent read for amusement. and 13 percent prefer Cebuano. Hidalgo says.” says Hidalgo. so there is no bond formed between the elite and the masses. has formed its advocacy. “We’re all aware of fictionists who try to do. Inc. Quite apart from the language barrier.” In fact. Gabriel is ready to test this theory by coming out with a sci-fi book in Filipino. escapist romance novels. provided that they address the needs and wants of readers and the obstacle of language in their writing. The relative lassitude toward science fiction might also be due to the fact that most sci-fi books are written in English.” . Hidalgo strongly suggests that writers learn to write in Filipino. “On the other hand.” The class divide He traces the roots of this phenomenon to our history. To be acceptable to the colonizers. which shows that 57 percent of Filipino adults prefer to read non-school books in Tagalog (Filipino). and formulaic TV shows that do nothing to uplift them. Milflores tried to bridge that disparity by getting the best minds to write about the experiences that all Filipinos have in common. You. especially among high school and elementary school kids. Latin American magical realism without regard for cultural tastes. “The masses think. “We look for the intersection of life between the masses and the intellectuals. he discovered that when he translated the books into Filipino. the sales dipped. Again. who are not well-educated. The mass audience. which in turn help the readers by educating them. the best minds. you had to distance yourself from the masses. “We’ve been a class society since Spanish times. While Filipino writers concentrate on writing fiction or poetry. When we cleaned up the mistakes.” he says. “Book 1 had a lot of mistakes in grammar and a lot of typos. It’s not just in the choice of language either. which he himself did at the age of 56. since “this finding is counter-intuitive to those whose first language is English and who think that the rest of the country is like them. In writing his highly popular sabong series. Hidalgo remarked in his paper that discussing this finding never fails to inflame some people.Talking the talk What’s the difference between a book that sells and a book that haunts the shelves? One factor often overlooked by the educated elite is the language of the book itself. This is written for them. we left the language alone and only minimally changed the words used by the contributors. Milflores Publishing. read in Filipino. are the ones who can adjust.

ranging from 40 to 50 percent of the price of the book. especially when it comes to marketing and distributing their books. Independent publishers are those who are independent from whatever influences might force them to sacrifice the quality of their work or compromise their standards for any reason. If we can diversify the publishing environment. Other costs include securing the book’s ISBN. There is also the fact that nobody will buy a book that is too expensive. but if no one knows about it. . Both Gabriel and Hidalgo suggest minimizing overhead to lower costs. that you have to allocate a budget to promote your books. are independent. because the National Book Development Board and the BDAP have both given the go signal to small.” He urges publishers to explore other avenues. a self-confessed bibliophile working as editorial assistant for the Fookien Times Philippines Yearbook. “It’s a chance for small publishers to get their books promoted. and even Anvil. Neither is a huge company that produces formulaic work solely to make a profit. the Independent Press Philippines. stresses the importance of marketing.” Rodriguez counsels budding publishers. The returns are often intangible. or the Koop.Hidalgo believes then that the definition of independent publishing has nothing to do with size. There is the consignment fee required by major bookstores before they agree to display your books on the shelves. indie publishers to sell their books at the Fair through the ROD. transporting the books to all the bookstore’s branches and monitoring sales. especially smaller publishers. our writers and literature itself. Mandigma is excited about the upcoming 28th Manila International Book Fair to be held at the World Trade Center from August 28 to September 2. A vanity press that publishes self-aggrandizing autobiographies of rich people may be small. It helps to have your own printing press—Gabriel can attest to that—but even PSICOM still has to cope with the rising costs of paper and materials. both mainstream and independent. For Giraffe. In the same sense that the Philippine Daily Inquirer is independent. “The first thing I learned in the book publishing business is that a book unseen is a book unsold. giving your author his or her 10-20% royalty and paying your illustrators and editors. The 2003 SWS survey has shown that 58 percent of Filipinos who do buy books only spent P200 a year or less. a small press. a large one.” “You have to love what you’re doing. then Milflores.” says Rodriguez. In his blog. for his part. Charles Tan. who urges small presses to register for the Fair at their website. but is in no way independent. who had to learn accounting in order to maintain Giraffe. we can help develop the Philippine readership. having good relations with a dependable printer is the key. gives a general description of the financial hoops a publisher must jump through in order to sell a book. “I’ve been telling publishers.” Banding together An encouraging development for the smaller publishers is the move to form a cooperative that could enable them to pool their resources.” says Mandigma. The publisher ends up scraping by with whatever is left. how do publishers. “There are plenty of talented writers who deserve to be published and we need an alternative forum for them to be heard. but there are many. As many returns as there are giraffes in her office. of course. plus. it won’t sell. Sandoval. This is where ROD is headed through their initiative. such as direct marketing or selling through other places besides bookstores. You might have published a good book. the cost of printing the book. succeed in the business? “Surviving financially is very hard. Obstacle course Given the challenges of the Philippine readership. In fact.

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