Penman No. 316: Big Stories in Little Books

IMG_7566.JPGPenman for Monday, August 20, 2018

 

AMONG THE 50 pounds-plus of books that I carted home from my last visit to our daughter Demi’s place in San Diego, California, was a mini-stash of small leather-bound books that most people would probably ignore had they turned up in a yard sale. In a time wedded to the notion that bigger is better, small books attract scant attention, the impression being that they can’t have much to say.

To be honest, I didn’t know the size of the books at the time I ordered them; either I wasn’t looking too closely at the description, or was distracted by other features. My first reaction upon seeing them might have been disappointment, expecting to receive heftier volumes, especially given their topics, history and geography. But as soon as I opened them and began reading, my complaints melted away.

First, a short note about book sizes: publishers and librarians generally go by descriptions that range from the folio, the largest standard-sized book at about 12” x 19″, to the sexagesimo-quarto (or “64mo”) at 2” x 3″. Most books we buy today fall into the octavo (6” x 9”) or duodecimo (5” x 7-3/4”) category. My small books are octodecimo (4” x 6-1/2”) and smaller. (Miniature books—indeed, whole miniature libraries, one of which Napoleon was said to have carried to battle—have a fascinating history.)

The first little book I’d like to share with readers is Vol. II of Mavor’s Voyages and Travels, published in London in 1796. (For its age, its looks almost new, the leather supple and unmolested, except for wear at the corners, and the paper is bright and crisp.) The book offers contemporaneous accounts of the voyages of the great navigators and explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries—Drake, Cavendish, Raleigh, Van Noort, etc.—and they brought me back to my boyhood readings of these travels and their marvelous discoveries.

I haven’t finished the book, but so far I’ve found one reference to the Philippines, from Joris van Spilbergen’s voyage of 1614-1617:

“On the 6th of January 1616, they landed on one of the Ladrones, and reached the Manillas the 9th of February. On the 5th of March they received intelligence of a fleet, consisting of twelve ships and four gallies, manned with two thousand Spaniards, besides Indians, Chinese, and Japanese; which powerful armament was intended to drive the Dutch out of the Moluccas.”

More gripping is this episode from the round-the-world voyage of Willem Schouten and Jacob La Maire of 1615-1617, described elsewhere as “the greatest Dutch expedition into the Pacific Ocean,” a voyage mean to find a new route to the Spice Islands and Terra Australis, today’s Australia:

“They left the coast of Sierra Leona on the 4th of October; and next day, about noon, were surprised by a violent shock given to the lower part of one of the ships. No adversary appeared, no rick had been encountered; but while they were amused with this phenomenon, the sea began to change color, and a fountain of blood seemed to surround them. This sudden alteration of the water was no less astonishing than the shock they had sustained; but of the cause of the both they were equally ignorant, till they reached Port Desire. There, in careening the ship from the strand, they found a large horn, both in form and magnitude resembling an elephant’s tooth, sticking fast in the bottom of the ship. It was a firm and solid body, without any cavity or spongy matter in the middle; and had pierced through three very stout planks of the ship, and raised one of the ribs; penetrating at least a foot deep in the timbers, and about as much more appeared outside. The incident on the coast of Sierra Leona was now explained. It was clear that some monstrous tenant of the deep, of unknown species, having made a rude assault on the ship, was unable to withdraw its weapon; which, breaking in the attack, occasioned such an effusion of blood as to discolour the surrounding ocean.”

And Port Desire? Could a port be better named, from the viewpoint of a sailor months at sea, suffering from scurvy and all manner of loneliness and discomfort? (The port, now named Puerto Deseado, still exists in Patagonia in southern Argentina, and was visited by Charles Darwin on the Beaglein December 1833.)

Another small book comes from 1822, and it’s in French: Le Tour du Monde, ou Tableau Geographique et Historique de Tous le Peuples de la Terre. These “tour du monde” or around-the-world books were popular in the 19thcentury; I’ve chased after them out because they promise exquisite engravings, and this one didn’t disappoint, with hand-colored illustrations of life in Tahiti, Java, the Sandwich Islands, Peru, and Patagonia. No Philippines here, but since it’s the sixth volume in a series, I’m pretty sure the Philippine version will turn up soon.

Of course, much of this information could be available elsewhere at little or no cost; you don’t have to buy an 18th-century book to see what it says, with websites like Project Gutenberg providing the full texts free of charge. But I choose to read not just for information, but for the romance of it—and there’s nothing like holding the very same book that a solicitor or a milliner would have sought for news and entertainment two hundred years ago.

There’s actually a few more small books in the pile, but we’ve run out of space, so I hope I’ve said enough to pique your interest in these tiny packets of wonder.

Penman No. 224: Fantastic, Frenetic Frankfurt (2)

IMG_9577.JPG

Penman for Monday, November 7, 2016

 

GOING TO the Frankfurt Book Fair was a great opportunity to renew old friendships and make new ones within both the global and Philippine publishing community. While we authors count publishers among our closest and most valuable friends, I realized in Frankfurt that we really don’t talk about their side of the business that much, as engrossed as we often are by our own fabulations.

I was particularly happy to finally meet Renuka Chatterjee, who had been India’s premier literary agent when she worked for the big Osian’s cultural conglomerate in New Delhi. As my first literary agent, Renuka had been instrumental in getting my second novel, Soledad’s Sister, translated and published in Italy; but more than that, she guided me through my first textual revisions, through which I began to learn how international publishing worked. When Osian’s shut down its literary operation, I passed on to another very capable agent in New York, and Renuka eventually joined another leading publishing house in India, Speaking Tiger. We had corresponded by email over the years, but Frankfurt gave us an excuse and a venue for a long-overdue face-to-face.

Another acquaintance lost and found was the dynamic and groundbreaking Malaysian publisher Amir Muhammad, whom I had first met at a conference in Penang in 1992; Amir gifted me with a new trilogy of Southeast Asian stories he had just published, featuring the works of some of our best young Filipino authors. (Those books—like many others I’ve gathered on my travels—are now lodged at the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room in UP, where we keep a repository of contemporary Southeast Asian literature.) Indeed, and not surprisingly, the Malaysians became the Philippine delegation’s best buddies at the fair; we frequented their booth to partake of the nasi lemak and to trade notes on the writing life. The Indonesians were equally hospitable, and our troop of visitors enjoyed a chat and the inevitable selfie with their star, the novelist Eka Kurniawan, whose Man Tiger made the 2016 Man Booker International Prize long list.

IMG_9554.JPG

Neither were the long hours at our own booth wasted, as a steady stream of visitors curious about our books and our culture came by to browse, to converse, and to do business. Business, after all, was what most people went to the book fair for, and while some of us minded the store, our delegates were often out meeting with their counterparts from the US, the UK, Europe, and the rest of Asia. (I had a very productive conversation with a gentleman from Montenegro who runs a kind of global blog of blogs—expect “Penman” to appear there soon, but only after it’s published here, of course.)

IMG_9583.JPG

It was the Ateneo University Press’ new boss Karina Bolasco’s third straight year at the fair, which she had previously attended representing Anvil Publishing. University presses don’t generally look at their books as profit-makers, reducing the financial pressure somewhat, but Karina still had a full schedule of meetings with academic publishers, especially longtime Philippine partners such as the University of Wisconsin Press. “Our job is to negotiate for reprint rights,” Karina told me. “We try to find material already published abroad that will be interesting to Filipino readers, and we also offer other presses the rights to reprint Filipino works with a global appeal.”

One of the most visited displays in the Philippine booth this year was that of Mandaluyong-based OMF Literature, Inc., which has published religious and inspirational books since 1957. OMF CEO Alexander Tan told me that their market was big and growing—extending even to OFWs in the Middle East—and that it had developed its own local stars such as pastor Ronald Molmisa, who draws huge crowds to his lectures on love and relationships. “I realized that by breaking the rules and letting people like Ronald use Taglish in their books, we could reach more readers,” Alex said.

On the other hand, literary agents like Andrea Pasion-Flores, who now works with the Singapore-based Jacaranda agency, assume the task of representing Filipino authors abroad and finding publishers to buy their works (and who then assign editors to work closely with the authors on revising their text for publication). Andrea—an accomplished author in her own right who also happens to be a lawyer and the former executive director of the National Book Development Board—is the first and, so far, the only literary agent working actively in the Philippines. Jacaranda has already sold the rights for such distinguished Filipino writers as the late Nick Joaquin, Charlson Ong, Isagani Cruz, and Ichi Batacan (whose Smaller and Smaller Circles will be a movie soon).

IMG_9563.jpg

Andrea and her Jacaranda colleagues Jayapriya Vasudevan and Helen Mangham spent long working days in Frankfurt at the exclusive Literary Agents section upstairs, which only registered agents (who paid a hefty price for table space) and publishers could theoretically access. But Andrea secured a pass for me so I could observe the frenetic 30-minute “speed-dating” sessions that took place in hundreds of cubicles. “You’re probably the only author in this room,” Andrea told me. When I asked her what international publishers were looking for from Filipino authors, her response was quick and to the point: “The big novel, more genre fiction, and more high-quality literary fiction—and less ego, please, as Filipino authors generally aren’t used to revising their work!”

Back downstairs the next day, my companions at the Philippine booth were surprised to see me in animated conversation in Filipino with a Caucasian lady, whom I was happy to introduce to everyone. Our visitor was Annette Hug, a novelist and translator who had come from her home in Zurich to meet with me and with her publisher at the book fair. Annette—who took her MA in Women’s Studies in UP and regularly practices her Filipino with an OFW friend—had just translated a piece I had published last month in the Philippine edition of Esquire magazine, a piece on extrajudicial killings that had somehow gone viral; Annette’s translation had come out that same day in a Swiss newspaper and she brought me my copies, fresh off the press. But apart from that sad topic, Annette had also just published a novel in German, Wilhelm Tell in Manila, based on Jose Rizal’s work on that Swiss hero’s life, and the UP Press will now explore the possibility of publishing a translation of her novel in the Philippines.

IMG_9597.jpeg

Another visitor was children’s book author and Palanca Hall of Famer Eugene Evasco, who just happened to be in Munich on a three-month research fellowship, so he took the three-hour train ride to Frankfurt to visit the fair and to take in the mind-blowing displays at the children’s literature section.

Of such providential encounters, magnified into the thousands, was the Frankfurt Book Fair made, and while I was there less on business than as a roving cultural ambassador of sorts, I was glad and privileged to tick another item off my bucket list. I’ve run out of space to talk about an excursion some of us took to trace the footsteps of that quintessential Filipino writer, Jose Rizal, in nearby Heidelberg, so I’ll save that for another column soon.

IMG_9567.JPG

Penman No. 181: A Designer on an Island

IMG_7775.jpg

Penman for Monday, January 4, 2016

 

 

ONE OF the side benefits of our recent visit to Bohol was an opportunity to reconnect with an old friend and professional colleague, the prizewinning book designer Felix Mago Miguel, who has chosen to live and work in Bohol for the past ten years with his wife Amel and their five children.

Beng and I had known Felix for a long time, since she saw and bought some of his paintings and gifted the then-newlyweds with her own painting and some plates by the potter Lanelle Abueva-Fernando. (“The plates are all gone now, because we used them and would break one every year,” said Amel apologetically, “but the painting’s still there!”) Felix and I had worked together, as writer and designer, on some coffee table book projects, notably those on Philippine-American relations, the Mt. Apo geothermal project, and the Government Service Insurance System. After my early collaborations with the late, lamented Nik Ricio, it was a relief and a pleasure to find the young and talented Felix, who has rightfully taken over Nik’s mantle as one of the country’s most sought-after book designers.

We invited the couple over to lunch at our hotel and we had a nice long chat about life, work, and what it’s like to keep on top of your profession from an island far from the country’s business and cultural center.

“Honestly, it hasn’t been all that difficult,” said the former Manileño. “In fact, I didn’t tell my clients for a whole year that I was working from Bohol because they might worry about my accessibility and meeting deadlines and so on. But with the help of the Internet and by scheduling my trips to Manila, I’ve been able to cope with the demands of the job. I use WeTransfer and Google Drive to move large files online, on my SmartBro account.”

Amelia Zubiri was born in Bohol, but also grew up and went to school in Manila, where she and Felix met in UP Diliman, where Felix was a Fine Arts major, graduating in 1992. They decided to move to Bohol to get away from Manila’s toxic atmosphere and to raise their children, now aged 16 to 7, in a healthier and more relaxed environment; all the children—the twins Ulan Kalipay and Ulap Namnama, Angin Kalinaw, Araw Naasi, and Langit Biyaya (the only one born on the island)—have been home-schooled. Deeply spiritual, the Miguels have learned to repose their trust in Providence, and their faith has been well placed.

When a huge earthquake devastated Bohol on October 15, 2013—just two weeks before supertyphoon Yolanda ravaged the Visayas—the Miguels and their one-storey home emerged shaken but unscathed, and they shared their good fortune by helping out with relief efforts. “The earthquake was a life-changer for many Boholanos,” Amel reflected. “It encouraged many Boholanos who had left for jobs overseas to come home and spend more time with their families. Seeing the new houses they had painstakingly built crushed in seconds seemed to remind them that nothing was more important than time together.”

Most of these OFWs work as seafarers, an occupation historically favored by Visayans. “It’s not uncommon for a Boholano family to have one or two seamen working on ocean-going vessels,” said Amel. “You can tell the houses that they build with their remittances by little design elements like anchors and portholes,” added Felix, smiling.

Felix Mago Miguel’s own journey to the crest of the book design business is a story of good breaks, sheer talent, and perseverance. Now 44, he started out in 1996 by designing Soledad Lacson-Locsin’s landmark translations of the Noli and Fili for Bookmark. “I’d done book covers before, but this was the first time that the publisher, Lori Tan, let me do everything from cover to cover,” said Felix. Later that same year, another book project, Water in the Ring of Fire: Folktales from the Asia-Pacific, edited by Carla M. Pacis, won for Felix his first design award from the National Book Awards. Since then, he has designed over a hundred books, some of them winning him recognition from the National Book Awards and the Gintong Aklat competition.

It isn’t the awards, however, that drives him to excel in his craft, but the satisfaction that he gets out of seeing a happy client. The project that has given him the most pleasure has been XYZ: The Creativity of Jaime Zobel, which drew on Zobel’s three decades of work in photography and art. “Don Jaime was so ecstatic about the book that he told me he needed to take a Valium to calm down,” recalled Felix. It’s that kind of reception that drives Felix to spend long nights staring at a computer screen, poring over one image after another.

The most technically challenging was Cuaresma, put together by Cora Alvina and edited by Gilda Cordero-Fernando and Fernando Zialcita, and winner of the National Book Award in 2000. “This was before digital photography, and I had to work with a huge box of color slides,” said Felix. But then again, “The technical aspects of book design are often easier to deal with than some people behind the books,” Felix confessed.

Like me, he’s had his share of good book projects that, for some reason or another, went nowhere. He did get paid for work done, as I was, but it’s such a waste of labor and good material when a project that seemed so promising never sees the light of day, because someone in the production process fails to deliver, or because the clients themselves lose interest or change their minds. Thankfully for Felix and me—as I wrote in this column a few weeks ago—coffee table books remain in high demand, and I expect to be working with him again on one or two forthcoming projects soon. One current project he’s excited about is a book on native Philippine trees that he’s doing for the Lopezes.

While he’s based in Tagbilaran, Felix flies out to Manila to personally check on his projects in the press. This used to be done abroad for high-quality printing jobs, but local printers have expanded and improved significantly enough to take on the challenge. “Our best local printers like House Printers can now compete head to head with their counterparts in Hong Kong and Singapore,” Felix said. (House Printers produced one of my most recent books, the biography of former Sen. Ed Angara.)

He misses painting, and spoke wistfully about the last big painting he did, a mural for the Church of Gesu on the Ateneo campus in Quezon City. But the children, the Miguels said, seem to be taking intuitively to art; Felix and Amel have monitored their time online to make sure that they can attend to more active and creative pursuits, and it may not be long before this couple’s decision to forsake Manila for a southern island bears fruit beyond more beautiful books.

IMG_7785.jpg

 

Penman No. 178: So You Want to Do a Coffee Table Book

IMG_7603.jpg

Penman for Monday, December 14, 2015

 

 

PEOPLE OFTEN ask me what it takes to produce a coffee table book. As a writer and editor, I’ve been involved with quite a few of them over the past twenty years. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was happy to attend the launch of one I co-wrote with Exie Abola and Felice Sta. Maria, Lighting the Second Century, produced for Meralco by the prizewinning Studio 5 group of publisher Marily Orosa.

While I suspect I know the answer, the first thing I tell anyone who asks me is, “What do you want a coffee table book for?”

Coffee table books are not cheap, running into the millions to produce—and, with few exceptions, they don’t make money for their publishers. So why even bother? Why does every year bring a plethora of new CTBs off the presses?

Many of those books don’t even come to market—they’re never meant to be sold or to make their investment back, and therein lies the reason for their existence: not to make money so much as to make an impression, not even to the general public but among a select group of readers, fellow connoisseurs, enthusiasts, and avatars of a certain thing or idea, to whom they can be given away as promotional material.

Because they’re generally not for-profit projects and because they require a sizable investment, CTBs are almost always conceived and funded by large institutions—corporations, foundations, universities, and the government—whose leaders have found some special reason to commission a CTB.

That reason is usually to commemorate and to celebrate an important milestone—the founding of an institution, the centenary of a founder, the completion of a major undertaking. CTBs can also be used to introduce or promote a new initiative—say, a province’s tourism program. Some CTBs may seem downright frivolous and extravagant, but many do serve a higher purpose beyond public relations, as visual records of our social and economic history,

But why a book, and why a coffee table book? Even and especially in this digital age—abounding with possibilities online and with new media—print still suggests permanence and prestige. The Web reaches far more people and is practically free, but many see it as an ephemeral medium, lacking the solidity and credibility of a book in the hand. For people and institutions seeking to perpetuate some shining moments and memories, the appeal and cachet of a CTB can be hard to resist.

CTBs are relatively new on the local publishing scene, and it wasn’t until the late 1970s when Gilda Cordero Fernando came out with such landmark tomes as Turn of the Century and A Question of Heroes that this new category of “desirable object” emerged. My own first exposure to CTBs was an epic challenge, when I edited the 10-volume Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People for Readers’ Digest Asia in 1998, working with and learning from such legends as our editorial consultant, the late writer Doreen Fernandez, the late designer Nik Ricio, and our indefatigable project director, Tere Custodio.

Institutions usually go to PR or ad agencies for CTB projects, which are too complicated for in-house PR units to do all by themselves. They can also be put together and undertaken by people like me, Tere, or Marily who’ve had some experience in the work involved, but even I have to assemble a crew of first-rate professionals who can deliver good work on schedule.

CTBs are, first of all, conceptualized by the client in consultation with the writer or the PR specialists. While top management can and should give the marching orders early on—purpose, theme, scope, audience, treatment, budget—it’s best if a mid-level person with some understanding of media were designated to represent the client in dealings with the creatives, with full authority to streamline decisions and processes. (My worst nightmare would be to deal with a whole board of directors, each one of whom will be dipping into the editorial pie and making a general mess of things.)

Aside from the client, the CTB team will typically comprise the project director or manager; the head writer and his or her assistants; the executive editor; the book designer or art director; the photographer; and a production or editorial assistant in charge of logistics—handling money, setting up appointments, liaising with the client, following up the paperwork.

Many future problems can be solved right at the conceptualization stage. If the book’s purpose, scope, and audience are clear from the start, expensive adjustments can be avoided later on. Schedules, budgets, and deliverables have to be established and stipulated in a contract, leaving a little wiggle room for exigencies.

A CTB is picture-intensive, and will typically have a ratio of 60/40 or even 70/30 in terms of images to text. This means that there’s absolutely no excuse in a CTB for bad photography, bad design, and bad printing. If you can’t afford to come up with a good-looking product—never mind the text for the time being—then save your money and go for a regular, black-and-white book, not a CTB. Take note that a good designer could cost more than a good writer. (My pet peeves design-wise include designers who get too fancy with typography or insist on laying out text over an image, compromising readability.)

That said, showing off a well-designed book with awful text—poorly written and riddled with grammatical errors and misspellings—will be much like going to town with a date with the looks but also the brains of a lovebird (not that some people would mind). So invest in a good writer, one possessing a mastery not only of the language but also of the material, and with the patience and maturity to deal with both the client and his or her fellow creatives.

I’ve often found that the actual writing is the easiest and most pleasurable part of the job. Dealing with and interviewing clients can be quite stressful, and there’s a saturation point one reaches with almost any project, no matter how interesting it is.

Like any other book, CTBs also require sharp editors who can look over the writers’ shoulders. I never mind being edited myself, if the editor knows what he or she is doing. (If I don’t have the time to write the books myself, I’ll sometimes offer to do the editing.) CTBs, surprisingly enough, often reveal their lack of editorial oversight in their most visible and therefore vulnerable parts—in their titles, picture captions, and the front and back matter, which tend to be the last pieces of text to come in and are easily overlooked. I’ve seen expensive and glossy books with spelling errors on their title pages!

A good CTB should be a pleasure to read and to own. It should be a showcase of the art of good writing and good design. But above all, beyond being a plaything for creatives, it should do what it was meant to do—provide useful information in a visually engaging way. The best CTBs will retain their value over time and even become heirloom pieces on their own. That’s something worth keeping in mind next time somebody with more money than sense cries, “I want a coffee table book!”