Penman for Sunday, June 4, 2023
IF YOU’RE reading this on this Sunday morning, then it’s not yet too late for you to find a cab and get yourself over to the World Trade Center in Pasay City to catch the last day of the Philippine Book Festival, and have your favorite Filipino authors sign their books for you.
Organized by the National Book Development Board (NBDB) in partnership with the National Library and other agencies and organizations, the PBF will showcase the best of new Philippine writing and publishing, with the bonus of having most of the authors around for signings, chats, and the now-obligatory selfies.
Since the Internet took off thirty years ago, people have been declaring that “Books are dead!” (And even before that, “The Author is dead!”—although, of course, not quite in that almost literal sense). Well, guess what—both are very much alive, whole new generations of them, as if the Internet never happened. I don’t have the hard figures to show—I’m sure the NBDB has them—but just from what I’ve seen at the past Manila International Book Fairs (the next one of which will be held in September), there’s much more new writing and publishing happening now than there was before the Internet.
There are many drivers for that, one of which has to be the proliferation of writing programs and workshops, whose graduates really succeed only when they come out with books. (Like I often remind Creative Writing grad students who take forever to “perfect” their thesis projects, “You’re writing for no more than five readers—your dissertation committee—and when you’re done, your thesis will be sitting on a solitary shelf. Just do what you need to pass the damned defense and focus on producing your first book out of that draft! Your real examiners will be your readers.”)
Another factor is the growth of the publishing industry, which has become much more diversified in terms of ownership, material, and audience. The long years of martial law drove much creative output underground, so to speak, with few available venues for literary publishing and only competitions like the Palancas providing incentives for continued production. (On the other hand, the government presses kept churning out books on the First Couple’s abounding wisdom.) Post-EDSA, the pent-up dam broke, and literature flourished, but still hardly on the scale we’re seeing today.
I suspect that’s because many new players have gone into publishing, finding niche markets for everything from religious and self-help books to graphic novels and high-end coffee-table books. Among these, I’d count Milflores Publishing, founded by the late Tony Hidalgo and now in the hands of the very capable Andrea Pasion-Flores. Balangay Books, focused on local literature, has been opening doors for new young authors, and belongs to the Indie Pub Collab PH, a group of independent publishers. Down south, Savage Mind Bookshop and the Ateneo de Naga University Press have made great strides in literary publishing not just in the Bicol region but well beyond. Emerging in the wake of the Pink Revolution, San Anselmo Publications has made a name for itself as a purveyor of progressive thought. A recent visit to OMF Literature’s bookshop and office along Boni Avenue showed me how Christian literature is flourishing, attracting both new authors and readers.
Let’s not forget self-publishing, which with such new technologies as print-on-demand and e-books has outgrown the stigma of “vanity” publishing and has produced both commercial and critical successes. While overall quality remains highly variable, the free Internet has empowered and enabled a new generation of young people to feel like they can become “writers” by posting on such sites as Wattpad—and some of them will be. (The irony here is that, as on Amazon, writers who succeed in their e-book debuts then get picked up by publishers of physical books.) Professional design and editorial outfits such as Studio 5 and Perez NuMedia also exist to help individuals and institutions turn their ideas into prizewinning books.
And then of course the long-established big-name publishers and academic publishers are still around: Anvil Publishing, UP Press, Ateneo de Manila University Press, UST Publishing House, and the University of San Carlos Press, among others. Vibal Publishing has produced impressive and sumptuously printed historical books—as has, let’s not forget, the National Historical Commission. They remain the publishers of choice for what might generally be considered prestigious but non-commercial projects, although their marketing savvy has vastly improved, from book design to distribution (much of the bookselling has moved online, to Shopee and Lazada). But since the wait at these publishing houses tends to be long, even established Filipino authors like novelist Charlson Ong (White Lady, Black Christ) have gone with such alternatives as Milflores (as did I, in its previous incarnation), which can often provide speedier results with no sacrifice of quality.
One more thing: more Filipino authors have begun to get published and noticed abroad, beyond America. Note the recent publication of Ulirát: The Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines, edited by Tilde Acuña et al., and the South Africa-based Jim Pascual Agustin’s Waking Up to the Pattern Left by a Snail Overnight, both by Gaudy Boy in Singapore. Singapore is also where Penguin Random House SEA is based, and from where it published Danton Remoto’s novel Riverrun and his book of stories The Heart of Summer(aside from his translations of our classic works in Filipino), and Maryanne Moll’s novel The Maps of Camarines. I’m also happy to report that my novel Soledad’s Sister just came out in a German hardcover edition (as Last Call Manila) from Transit Buchverlag, following earlier editions in Italy, France, and the US. A 15th-anniversary edition of the novel, along with a new edition of my Voyager collected stories, are on sale at PFB—as are almost all of the books I mentioned here, with their authors on hand to sign them.
So wait no further and grab that ride to the WTC, for your share of this bountiful harvest of Filipino books. (Did I say that entrance is free?)