Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Essay: Promoting Philippine Speculative Fiction to an International Audience

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

For some people, I'm the go-to guy when it comes to Philippine speculative fiction. If you want my motivation for doing so, you can read about it here. What I want to talk about, however, is my methodology.

I want to begin by stating that I didn't plan on promoting Philippine speculative fiction. It honestly started with me wanting to send books to author and editor friends, as well as getting them to read my fiction. And at that time (and probably still is), physical artifacts (i.e. a dead-tree book) is more favorable when it comes to getting the attention of editors and publishers. (Here's a hypothetical scenario: imagine running into an author/editor/publisher and do you think they're more susceptible to read your work if you give them a link or offer them an actual book? Chances are, it's the latter unless they specifically request for the former and in my experience, a lot of publicists--assuming they have the resources to do so--practice this.) From the very start though, promoting my own work to the international scene (and let's face it, a good chunk of the international scene is the US and Europe) presented its own unique challenges, at least in contrast to an aspiring writer living in America.

The first problem I encountered was this: it's expensive to ship books to the US.

If it weren't for this fact, I probably wouldn't be promoting Philippine speculative fiction in the first place. How expensive is it for me to ship books internationally? This article compares the standard of living in the Philippines and suffice to say, I'm no millionaire (I still live with my parents for example). Related to this is the fact that the local post can be unreliable (well, if you imagine first-world postal services to be inconvenient, it's much much worse in a third-world country) so I ended up using a courier service like Fed-Ex. When using such services however, there's a minimum weight that they're charging so whether I'll be shipping one book or three, it's still costing me the same amount of money.

This is where my cheapness kicks in: if sending three books is costing me the same as sending one book, why not the former? And due to this discrepancy, shipping costs more than the actual books. This would have been a great marketing opportunity for me had I been a prolific writer but the reality is I'm not. It was only in 2007 that I got a short story published locally so I couldn't really bombard editors with my work. What else could I send them but the fiction of my fellow writers, even if they'll never reimburse me for the books or thank me (or are even aware that I'm sending their books to other people).

You'll notice that I planned to send books to editors (specifically Gavin Grant, Kelly Link, and Ellen Datlow of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror fame). Why not, say, book reviewers? This is the second problem with promotion: books on Philippine speculative fiction aren't available abroad.

Theoretically, you send books to reviewers so that they get reviewed and then readers go out to buy the book. In the case of the Philippines, that's a ludicrous goal simply because the books aren't being sold outside of the Philippines. Instead, my target was to spread awareness of local fiction. And how do I accomplish that? I was hoping that editors might reprint (or failing that, at least get mentioned somewhere in their books) the said stories. It was a bonus that when the said editors do praise such stories, it provides encouragement to local writers. Of course this isn't the only way of promoting Philippine speculative fiction, but I'm a writer and this was one of the avenues that was important to me. It's not so much about book sales but recognition by the international scene. Nor was I the only one doing this. Dean Francis Alfar was mailing copies of his anthology series, Philippine Speculative Fiction, to his writer friends and editors, and I was merely following in his footsteps.

In this, both Dean and I had modest success. While no stories were reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, a couple did make to the honorable mentions list. That felt good but ultimately, we also run into the same problems as the books not being available abroad. So the stories get mentioned in the appendix. What happens next? What if a foreign reader is interested in reading about speculative fiction or finds a story mentioned in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror? Where can they turn to?

This was a dilemma I deliberated on for several days and of course, you had to bear in mind that any solutions I come up with had to be funded with third-world income. No one else in the Philippines was going to promote local speculative fiction aside from Dean and he was focused more on marketing it locally (which is just as well since I'm a nobody here). Taking to heart the adage "be the change you want to see," I went about creating the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler. Not feeling too confident with my own skills, I enlisted the aid of a co-editor (Mia Tijam) and after a few month's worth of reading, deliberation, and debate, I managed to put up the site.

Thankfully, the speculative fiction community was open to the project. People like K Tempest Bradford and Nalo Hopkinson for example are open to promoting fiction of other cultures (and genders and beliefs). I thought that my job would be over but apparently it was only the start. There's been a steady interest in the writings of other countries and since I was the person most available publicly (at least on the Internets) when it came to Philippine speculative fiction, I was asked to contribute articles here and there, such as for the Shine Anthology website, or consulted privately for some projects.

An example of this is the upcoming The Dragon and the Stars anthology to be published by Daw in 2010. The editors, Derwin Mak and Eric Choi, were looking for ethnic Chinese writers and when they asked me to contribute, I also recommended other Filipino-Chinese writers that they might not have heard of. Thankfully, the people I recommended agreed to contribute and some of the stories they submitted were up to par to the standards of the editors.

It probably would have been more difficult to promote Philippine speculative fiction if we lacked writers, or if a bunch of our output was crap. Hopefully, that's not the case, and it'll remain that way. In the meantime, I should get back to my own writing...

(Oh, and here's a recent anthology that includes a Filipino contributor, Gabriela Lee):

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