Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Essay: Philippine Speculative Fiction and The Publishing Industry

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

Talking about the local publishing industry can be difficult, mainly because everyone's publishing numbers are usually kept secret. Of course one hears a rough estimate of the stats here and there but ultimately they're not a source that one can rely on to confirm or deny. Much like a Mission: Impossible episode, they are disavowed. So take the numbers that I present with a grain of salt and don't ask me to state my sources.

I wouldn't describe the Philippine publishing industry as "flourishing" by any means but whether it's healthy or not depends on your perspective. On one hand, we have magazines like FHM which have print-runs in the six digits and Tagalog romance novels in the vein of Mills & Boon selling as high as 50,000 copies. On the other hand, for most fiction "literary" (i.e. not pop) publishers, the term "best-seller" takes on a different meaning when the goal is selling a thousand copies in a span of five years.

Nonfiction (i.e. cookbooks) is usually an area that's profitable to publishers but what I want to focus on is the fiction side (besides, I don't have the numbers for nonfiction either). Again, the most popular genre which bookstores can't help but stock is Philippine romance. They sell for under a dollar and have been quite popular for the past few decades. The print run is anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 copies and authors are usually paid a lump sum (anywhere between $200~$400). Unfortunately, the said genre is also frowned upon by the literati (i.e. ignored) except as the subject of term papers and studies. At this point, it's cliche to state that they are one of the local best-selling books.

The second most popular genre in the last decade is horror. This wasn't always the case but for some strange reason, that particular market clicked. The most prominent publisher is PsiCom, which also publishes Chick Lit. How popular is horror? Well according to PsiCom's site, they have 52 horror titles and the True Philippine Ghost Stories franchise is in its 24th volume. The books retail for under two dollars and probably an estimated print-run of anywhere from 5,000 copies to 20,000 copies. Much like romance, more or less ignored by the literati but respectable publishers have released their own horror titles (edited and/or written by similarly respectable editors/writers).

Another genre which I have absolutely no numbers for but similarly popular is the aforementioned Chick Lit. Aside from PsiCom, Summit Media--the local publisher of the very popular FHM magazine--also forayed into the genre a few years ago. What made Summit Media (and to a certain extent, PsiCom) different from conventional publishers is that instead of using the bookstore distribution chain (the bookstores obtain as much as 60% of the cover price), they started selling their books through their already-established magazine distribution network (which aside from having more visibility, pays a lower percentage to the retailer). (It has to be mentioned that romance novels can also be found at magazine outlets.)

Children's books are another semi-profitable area of publishing. One can enjoy print-runs in four to five digits, especially if your particular book is picked up as required reading for the academia. Again, the price point of the books are relatively low, usually under two dollars for the really popular ones.

What haven't I talked about yet? Everything else. Unless you're required reading for schools and universities (Bata, Bata... Paano Ka Ginawa ["Child, Child... How Were You Made?"] was required reading for my high school so that meant all 247 students of my batch had to have copies, whether they were brand-new or secondhand--most likely the former; multiply that by all the other schools that require it every school year and you've got a really lucrative title using offset printing), fiction books have print-runs of anywhere from a few hundred (i.e. the minimum the printer will allow) to a few thousand. Following economies of scale, the prices of such books are also more expensive, ranging from $5 to $10. Most likely, those award-winning books or novels that win local literary awards will belong to this category.

Unfortunately, Philippine speculative fiction also falls under this category, whether it's the short story collections of the various authors (prominent Filipino author Joy Dayrit for example is someone I could classify as speculative fiction, even if she might not consider herself so) or actual anthologies and magazines like Philippine Speculative Fiction and The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories respectively. Selling a thousand copies of each is probably already optimistic. (On the brighter side of things, almost canonical writers such as Alfred Yuson will probably enjoy a long print run with his magic-realist satire novel Great Philippine Jungle Energy Cafe for the same reasons as Bata, Bata... Paano Ka Ginawa).

And it's not like other publishers haven't tried. Psicom tried to penetrate the spec fic market for a mass market audience with Pinoy Amazing Adventures and it's been discontinued after one release. Let's put it this way: there are four titles listed under its "Other Fiction Books" section, Pinoy Amazing Adventures included, and all but one are listed under their "bestsellers" column. Can you guess which one it is?

People, depending on who you ask, will cite various reasons to explain this phenomenon. Some will complain about the price ("the books are too expensive") but then that becomes a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma (will low price of books actually guarantee higher sales?) and I don't really see price being the primary hurdle (for example, Filipinos don't have problems buying equally-expensive imported books). Some will cite incompetent distribution (it's probably easier to order an imported title than a locally-published book from bookstores) and distribution leads into other problems as well (such as the retailers keeping 60% of the sales and leaving little profit for either the distributor or the actual publisher). Another hypothesis that might be thrown into the mix is to translate English works into the more common Filipino but again, why are imported books, which are not in Filipino, selling in this country? And perhaps the more cynical ones will claim that Filipinos aren't really readers but that really doesn't take into account the actual sales of books or the prolificness of fanfic readers (and writers!) in the country.

When it comes to promoting Philippine speculative fiction outside the country, it might seem like a futile endeavor to do so. I mean sure, Dean Francis Alfar's short story collection The Kite of Stars and Other Stories or his anthology Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 3 might be cited in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2008 but once the acknowledgment is said and done, what's next? It's not like international readers will have a convenient--or at least inexpensive--method of acquiring the book. Since few people outside of the Philippines have actually read the book, it's not too far of a stretch for conspiracy theorists to accuse me of making all this stuff up (and that's certainly a concept book for you--writing the speculative fiction texts of an imaginary culture). And this honestly isn't limited to speculative fiction but Philippine literature in general. We're inclusive and we're honestly not working with models that help promote and distribute our works outside of the nation (that's not to say no one is doing just that--two years ago, I remember this publisher whose books are aimed at Overseas Foreign Workers and Filipinos abroad, making them available in their designated countries). It's actually not a problem if publishers are publishing books solely for readers in this country. But honestly, looking at the local publishing industry, aside from the pop books, where is it headed? As it is, I don't see established publishers doubling their print-runs in the next five years. If anything, their market is shrinking and as far as my limited perspective is concerned, they're not doing anything radically new or different to avert that inevitability.

There are probably people who think it's traitorous or un-nationalistic of me to consider foreign publication as one of my hopes for Philippine speculative fiction (and as a nation, we have some advantages lucrative to Western markets, such as our texts already written in English instead of paying costs for translation). But why not? Some foreign publishers have better distribution models than those we have here and, well, there's some demand for Philippine speculative fiction abroad. And honestly, internationally-published writers like Jessica Hagedorn have mileage that wouldn't be possible had she solely been published in the Philippines. There was even a recent blog entry featuring Filipinos getting published in Singapore (where they'll hopefully enjoy a larger print-run and visibility).

As far as Philippine speculative fiction goes, arguably we can rely on the output of our writers in online markets (and one of the reasons why I put up the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler in the first place), but that's only a portion of the fiction that gets produced (not to mention that it doesn't showcase all of our best work). And the fact is, the Philippines is still pretty much a traditional country and some writers favor print over online texts, even if they can conceivably have a larger target audience with the latter rather than the former. But honestly, local print runs are relatively low that even independent publishers abroad will probably have more economically-feasible models in place and higher print-runs. Is it too much to ask to have a system where I can refer books and fiction to other people (be they local or abroad) without having them go through scavenger hunts just to find the titles that I want to talk about? (On a side note, you can check out AnthologyBuilder which includes fiction from the likes of Dean Francis Alfar and Alexander Marcos Osias, in addition to the other talented authors they feature.)


Pipe said...

Thanks for that birds-eye view of the publishing industry Charles. It was very informative.

I like your rebuttal of the arguments that (1) the books are too expensive; (2) the English language as a barrier; and (3) Filipinos are not readers - arguments. Those arguments can and are overturned by the success of a lot of international genre fiction here, as with Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings (all of which I think had a good deal of success even before the movies). I think the people who buy those books - people who buy a lot of foreign genre books and/or read or write a lot of genre stuff online - is a potentially very receptive audience for Philippine speculative fiction. They should be the target audience, at least at first. (As opposed to the tagalog romance crowd or even the tagalog horror crowd).

I'm no expert, but I think there are ways to reach/expand this audience:

* Alternative distribution methods: One argument you mentioned (but didn't really pose a counter to unlike the others) was the distribution problem. From the discussions I've heard in podcasts like Dragonpage (which I learned of from you, so thanks!) it seems like there are a lot of advantages to being able to publish stories as ebooks, and since this target audience is at least somewhat net-savy (very net-savy in the case of fanfic-dom) it might be a good way to circumvent distribution problems to an extent.

* Alternative forms: I already mentioned the ebooks above, but there are other forms in which the stories can be packaged as well, like podio -paudio? - books. I also think that it might be worthwhile to try cheap, relatively short Light Novel style books here (like in Japan.) I was just at Komikon the other week, and I found myself thinking that if you could have, say, a 7,000 word 'xerox book' with a few illustrations selling for about 30-50 bucks, I think it would do pretty well. I'm pretty sure more than 1,000 people were at Komikon - and they were ready to SPEND. (I say that from personal experience @_@)

* Mainstream Long-form Spec Fic: Again I'm no expert, but from what I've seen, this target audience isn't generally looking for brilliant short stories, or novels which push the literary envelope: what they love to read are new, well-done and unique takes on classic themes of "an epic battle of good versus evil" or "a child coming of age" or simply "a romance with magic or space-ships so I don't have to admit I'm actually reading a romance." These are the types of stories that the target audience is buying; its not like Dean Alfar's anthologies are being overlooked in favor of foreign genre anthologies - its that they're being overlooked in favor of Twilight (coming-of-age-romance-with-vampires), or Eragon (coming-of-age-with-dragons) or Harry Potter (coming-of-age-with-tasteful-scarring).

I think that its only when a novel of that nature comes out that we will be truly able to gauge how well local spec fic will be accepted here. (I think a lot of people get started on genre novels, not short stories).

Whew that was long. Anyway, thanks for the essay Charles ^_^ Wish we could have done stuff like this on the old PGS message board @_@

Anonymous said...

This is something I diddn't know. Anyway I would't think to English language as a barrier, I think everybody around the world should accept it as a world language, useful to ease and not to trouble the global communication. This should be the excuse to teach English more and more, even filipinos will gain an advantage by this. I think perhaps filipinos need writers who can bring out their history in an epic way, a world before the European arrival something to be proud of. Then the publishers should accept to not to earn a lot of money in the beginning of this attempt and give to this new market a chance to become independent. But we know it won't happen, nobody is interested in ideals, only in money.