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December 08, 2003

KARINA A. BOLASCO

To be in the same moment when the century turns is priceless. Not every lifetime is blessed with it. But as we are blessed, so are we cursed. For the hi-tech fanfare that welcomed the year 2000 all over the world also brought with it that tremendous uncertainty, a swelling apprehension of what the new century might gather or yield, bring or take. Whatever it is that awaits us must be faced with wisdom distilled from centuries past. Our memories must light the way.

Book publishing is not just an industry. Always perilously poised between the demands of commerce and culture, books are not shoes or soap we can just manufacture and sell. It’s never as simple as that. Books are complex products because in them must co-exist, no matter how awkwardly, considerations of profit and posterity. We fail to appreciate that it is a constant balancing act: a book might sell thousands, but what does it give humankind? How does it benefit Filipinos? On the other hand, for a book to make an impact on a people’s consciousness, it must sell widely and be read. Success will still be a matter of countless copies sold and read of a good book. And what is a good book? That which carries in it the passion and pleasure of both the writer and the reader. For no matter how skillful a publisher is in running his business, he will still be known by the books he publishes. The history of publishing is the history of houses that published great books.

Like all other cultural artifacts, the book is wise and old. In its present form, sheets of text in ink, each folded 16 times, cut, and then bound together between covers, comes to us from Mainz, Germany, in the 1440s, when Johann Gutenberg, an engraver and gem-cutter rapt with the concept of the letters of the alphabet cut in reusable type instead of wood blocks, experimented with it over several years, borrowed huge sums of money to finance his enterprise until finally he devised all the essentials of printing as we saw it up till the 20th century. These were metal molds for letters, a press which combined the best features of those used for winemaking and bookbinding, and an oil-based ink. The first book, a bible, was printed between 1450 and 1455 and brought by Gutenberg to the Frankfurt Trade Fair. Before this, books were labor-intensive productions, a symbol of wealth and power. Printing democratized ownership of books and popularized book reading.

“Romances of chivalry,” considered the first popular literature, took its strongest hold in Spain after America (New World) was discovered. According to Vicente S. Hernandez (History of Books and Libraries in the Philippines: 1521-1900: Manila, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, c1996), while these books spread to New Spain (Mexico) and should have found their way into the Philippines, too, there is no extant copy even in the oldest library, the University of Santo Tomas Library. Hernandez explains that the royal decree prohibiting the export of such books to the Islands as these would be distractions for both the colonizers and the natives in the evangelization efforts was strictly enforced here. Ships were inspected thoroughly at the port, and boxes of books were checked against the Catalogue of Prohibited Books. Only religious books were allowed in, and the first book printed in the country, expectedly, were Tagalog and Chinese versions of Doctrina Christiana.

It must be vengeance of the highest order that now the most books in this country outside of textbooks are Tagalog romances, and that the most successful television venture is a license to air a Mexican telenovela. Each of the pocketbook romance titles is printed in 15,000 to 20,000 copies, produced by six publishers, run like cottage industries, except for Valentine Romances of Books for Pleasure. This company, started by the local representative of Mills & Boon, puts out five to 10 titles every month and prints the copies in Hong Kong for both local and overseas consumption. Year 2000 saw this popular book form occupying more shelves than it used to in leading bookstores. In the second half of the year, it experimented with a new cover look that radically departs from the comics look of old, calculated to appeal to the broadest audience possible.

The book situation has not changed much since it was last proclaimed renewed and reinvigorated, a decade after what was regarded as some kind of renaissance in book publishing after the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution. Economic crisis or not, there has been no substantial letup in the output. Records of the ISBN National Agency, housed in The National Library, will show the total number of titles issued ISBNs as of the last five years:

1996 3,770 titles

1997 5,093 titles

1998 4,328 titles

1999 4,803 titles

2000 4,774 titles (as of end of November 2000)

Though UNESCO continues to draw its book output data from copyright figures, the ISBN Agency’s figures are certainly more reliable for the simple reason that not all publishers register for copyright. Our new Intellectual Property Code no longer requires registration to protect copyrights to books. The mere act of creation establishes ownership. In UNESCO data, the Philippines always trails Bangladesh, and this is farthest from the truth. In fact, in Southeast Asia, our book publishing is the most vibrant, innovative and varied, managing to do it without government subsidies or multinational subsidiary initiatives. With our English base, artistic superiority, and capacity to articulate intellectual issues, we are expected to be the first who can publish for the region. We are hampered only by a limited outlook so much so that the Singapore-based publishers or subsidiaries of American houses are beating us to it. While Periplus is dishing out all those travel, design, and food books, John Wiley and McGraw-Hill are tapping Filipino authors in business and academic fields to write books for Asia.

Bookselling in this country is severely hampered by costly yet inefficient postal and freight services required to move books around within an archipelago. An optimistic count of bookstores nationwide is 2,500 outlets for all of 75 million Filipinos, thus about one bookstore for every 30,000 people. A nationwide bookstore map, where these outlets are plotted out by region (1997), would show that 558 are in the National Capital Region (NCR), with 200 in Manila alone, while the other regions would average 86 outlets. It gets worse in Mindanao. Regions 9 (Western Mindanao) and 12 (Central Mindanao), with a population of about four million each, have only 24 and 20 bookstores, respectively. Roughly, this translates to one bookstore per 200,000 people. Based on National Bookstore figures, booksales, both imported and local, constitute only 15 to 20 percent of total bookstore sales.

Bleak as it may be, in an age of niche marketing, where every product can and will find a market, book publishers do seem resigned to the idea of various small markets for different books. While this entails many preparations and incurs development costs which cannot be distributed over a good number of units, the upside is we’re providing a forum for as many ideas and stories as possible. The downside though is because printing works on economies of scale, we can’t have attractive full-color books, trade or text, at affordable prices.

Still the operative terms are books different groups of people will want to read and are accessible to them—are there right where they are, are reasonably priced, and are enjoyable reads (well written and well designed). Books not above people’s heads but those which catch their fancy or captivate their imagination because they’re useful, interesting, entertaining, profoundly satisfying, or a combination of all. Books that are there when people need them and want them.

The Players: Textbook Publishers

Of the 40 to 50 full-fledged publishers, 95 percent are textbook publishers who produce for a captive market in basic education, in both private and public schools. The latter had been possible by virtue of Republic Act 8047, passed in 1995, providing mainly for the privatization of public-school textbooks. What could have been possible with larger printruns were quality, attractive, full-color, yet reasonably priced textbooks for Filipino children. Publishing works on economies of scale and such dramatic increase in number of copies would have allowed dramatic improvements in our textbooks. Privatization of textbook publishing could also level the gap between public and private school education. It could also encourage publishers to start their own tradelines: books other than textbooks. These might be storybooks or other types children enjoy reading, for that is how they really acquire the habit or love of reading, certainly not from being forced to read dull, boring, lackluster textbooks.

The Department of Education, Culture and Sports, under the leadership of Bro. Andrew Gonzales, however, has reversed multiple-adoption and private-sector participation, the said law’s core requirements, by setting in place bidding mechanisms seen to eventually achieve a one-student-one-book ratio. Volume potential is millions of copies, depending on whether the bid won is for national or just zonal supply (there are four zones: Luzon 1, Luzon 2, Visayas, and Mindanao). Printruns for the private sector can range from 50,000 to 80,000 per title. In both public and private schools, the lifespan of a textbook program is five years, meaning the same edition may be used by a school for five successive years.

The college textbook, long declared dead, having been the casualty of extensive photocopying among students, might still be revived. The Marcos reprinting decree taught us to be totally dependent on foreign textbooks in almost all fields, especially in the sciences and medicine, engineering and even in business. That has been junked by the new copyright law, and there is now growing impetus to develop and publish our very own textbooks. Experts in the different areas are now working on such textbooks on commission from leading publishers.

Textbooks are powerful tools because both students and teachers depend on these for a large part of the education process. We must never lose sight of the fact that for a child who doesn’t come from a home where books are a fixture, his or her first experience with a book is with a textbook. If he does not enjoy that experience, then the child is lost forever. If he is traumatized or humiliated by that experience, he will not have fond memories of books and reading.

Textbooks as indirect repositories of our culture and heritage, if done well, are our most reliable tools in building and rebuilding this nation for they imbue our youth with a sense of pride and dignity in being Filipino.

University Presses

Four university presses in Metro Manila are actively publishing: University of the Philippines (UP) Press, Ateneo de Manila University Press, University of Santo Tomas (UST) Publishing House, and De La Salle University (DLSU) Press, not to mention a few in the provinces putting out a title or two a year. At the Philippine Bookfair held in September at the Megamall, UST Publishing House released 20 new titles; UP Press, 27 titles; Ateneo, 20 titles; and DLSU, 22 titles.

In general, the university press output is a mix of scholarly and academic studies or researches in the humanities, social sciences, and the natural sciences as well as in culture and the arts, and literature, both classic and contemporary, and not just in Filipino or English but also in other major Philippine languages like Hiligaynon, Iluko, and Cebuano.

UP Press in the last three years has embarked on a reprint program for the Philippine centennial celebration by reissuing a good number of titles, mostly on history and culture, that have long been out of print. While the university presses basically intend to pursue and enrich scholarship, specifically Philippine studies, they will soon lament the fact that nothing intellectually stimulating is being done locally by our scholars and critics. Much of the excitement over new areas of study comes from the work of foreign-based scholars, whether American or Filipino, teaching or finishing post-graduate studies in universities overseas.

Perhaps being in environments which encourage and generate debate over new findings or interpretations of history, being proximate to extremely valuable archival or library collections, and somehow blessed with time to research, develop, and complete such studies, these foreign-based scholars are exploring the nuances of historical events, for instance, and engaging in provocative discourse. So it is not unusual that some of the titles of Ateneo Press are Philippine editions of those published in the United States, United Kingdom or Australia. Begrudgingly they are asked why foreign (mostly Americans like Alfred McCoy, Michael Cullinane, Norman Owen, Stuart Schlegel, John Sidel, and others) or overseas-based Filipino scholars (Reynaldo Ileto, Vicente Rafael, Patricio Abinales, E. San Juan Jr., Jun Aguilar, and others) are privileged over scholars stationed here. No less than UP President Francisco Nemenzo Jr., by promising to revive the intellectual life in the premier state university, admitted to its being dead right now.

The National Commission for Culture and the Arts has published, and continues to, a good number of titles on any of these arrangements: in-house, through the different committees or in partnership with private groups. These are special titles on culture and arts commercial publishers normally do not put out. For the celebration of the Philippine Centennial, the National Centennial Commission (NCC) published several titles, including the latest translations of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo by poet-critic Virgilio S. Almario.

It’s a pity though that copies of these are locked up at the office of the President, pending the resolution of the case brought before the Ombudsman against NCC’s Clark Exposition project.

Tradebook Publishers

A handful of publishers, led by Bookmark (15 titles in 2000) and Anvil (73 titles), continue to make books Filipinos can read. Indeed new things and new forms, even topics unthought of or unheard of as appropriate for books two decades ago, are being written, published, and bought. What traditionally was publishable, serious, formal, academic, exclusive because specialized, grand and noble in purpose, has given way to the light, familiar reading fare, witty, humorous, daring, baring, personal but ennobling. The range of books has grown and still is growing— biographies, self-help (health care, parenting, for example), cookbooks, dictionaries, children’s books, travel books, popular psychology and history, inspirational and religious, new age, gay and lesbian, investigative reports, joke and comic books, poetry and fiction. Moderately priced, well-written and edited, handsomely designed, and high-quality productions—truly a lot of planning, care and money go into the making of these books. Ten or so years ago, it took from three to five years to sell 1,000 copies of a local title. Now a good number of these categories can sell from 3,000 to 10,000 copies a year.

Also being published are the works of the finest and most important journalists of the country. This trend has stemmed from a recognition of the fact that journalists write daily or quite regularly for a much broader audience. They have a strong pulse for what their readers want; they are masters of the language, be it English or Filipino, that is easily comprehensible to their readers; they have the discipline to write oftener and are relatively more productive than the literary or academic writers who are perennially in the process of perfecting their masterpieces or verifying and validating their sources. Finally, they are very visible to readers and often have their own following. Their work thrives on the timeliness of issues, and yet amazingly the most timeless pieces are also in these books. While the essays speak of very specific persons, events, and places, the insights and the craftsmanship are those of a historian’s and a wordsmith’s.

Lately, there has been an upsurge in coffee-table production, especially in 2000. It must come from a sense that the turn of the millennium deserves nothing less than grand. Some claim that it is only the AB market that has not been affected by the economic crisis and can spare a few thousand pesos for a book considered a work of art. This also resonates with the pre-printing idea of beautifully crafted books as status symbols, as showcase of power and erudition. These books end up on coffee tables or living room shelves, not in the confines of a study room or a library. These books make it to the international market.

Children’s Book Publishers

Children’s books, by far, are enjoying the biggest growth. In a country where almost 22 million are children ages 12 down, and where since the late ’50s and early ’60s, concerned sectors have been lamenting the dearth of indigenous children’s books, it is about time we wrote, illustrated, and produced our own storybooks for children. The activist generation of the ’70s became demanding parents, actively seeking out and pushing for local children’s books. They became the enlightened teachers and professionals who welcomed, supported, and encouraged the writing, illustration, and publication of our very own children’s books. It helped tremendously that children’s book illustrators and writers are now organized and enthusiastic. It does not even pleasantly surprise us anymore when one publisher launches from six to 10 titles in one blow. And these are not just folktales retold. In these books now, there are contemporary children’s issues and concerns such as death, separations, sibling rivalry, children’s fears and anxieties, especially those of special children.

The leading houses like Aklat Adarna this year produced 14 titles, Tahanan Books, six titles, and OMF Literature, seven titles. Cacho Publishing House has led the attempt to publish books for the juvenile market (ages 12 to 16), an area originally dominated by Americans. Its first three titles, including Birdflight, launched this year for this age group, have been successfully adopted as required reading by some private schools.

Book publishers are the natural partners in raising a generation of book readers. Book projects come with promotion schemes. As publishers match readers and books, they also match readers and writers. The common goal together of writer, educator, reading advocate, and publisher is only to reach and be read by as many people as possible. The activities of producing and distributing books are worthwhile only to the extent that the books are worthwhile, and only to the extent that they are read.

While we hear the First World speak of globalization and technological forms which they say will eventually wipe out books, we know better in this part of the world. We will not go back to reading a “scroll,” being able to move the screen monitor only up and down; we want to go on flipping pages and instantly refer back to parts we wish to savor. We want to bring books around and be able to read them anytime without fear of a power failure. Under sunlight or candlelight, reading can go on.

Nothing can replace the sense of power of a reader who holds in his hands the entire text of a novel, or a treatise, or a body of knowledge.

And what is a home that cannot have shelves of books.