What is the raison d'etre of a book publisher? What are the ethics of book publishing? What is the importance of book publishing to a developing society? In a superb talk titled What Is A Publisher To Do?, Karina Bolasco, a Filipino publisher, dwells on these isses and provokes much thought, very relevant in the Indian context too. She was speaking at the Congress of the International Publishers Association, Berlin (June 21-24 2004). The transcript of the talk is provided below.
What Is A Publisher To Do? by Karina Bolasco
Guten morgen, Good morning ladies and gentlemen.
This is my first time in Berlin but not in Germany as I have been to Frankfurt a good number of times. I have such warm memories of Germans because I was educated in Manila in the 70s by Benedictine nuns, half of whom were still German, In fact, I stayed in their dormitory for four years and remember them distinctly for their firmness and steadfastness, for their sense of equality and discipline. And for being chased back into the dormitory by a German Shepherd every time we were still on pay phones past curfew.
As must be true for most of us, this same education I suspect has helped me decide on a host of moral issues I am confronted with daily, small and big. Those of us involved in the trafficking of ideas, whether in education or media communications, suddenly realize that there really are no small decisions because of the way a teaching method or learning treatise, a film or documentary, an investigative report, or a book impacts on the consciousness of a public. Books have even more power in a perennially developing country like ours where the textbook is still the dominant and sometimes only educational tool, the teacher’s bible she will never doubt or question, much less argue with. Books, coming from traditions of religion and scholarship, have fixity and authority.
Adrian Johns, in his award-winning contribution to cultural history, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making ,explains how knowledge was necessarily mediated through physiological mechanisms of perception and the passions, and that included the knowledge developed through reading.That it is through reading,a deceptively simple practice that documents of all kinds are put to use and thereby produce historical effect.Unlike television and the newspaper which may be more widespread and far-reaching but are transient, books are identical copies all at the same time in various places all over the world,repeatable over the years, and live on library or archival shelves for hundreds of years. This is the fount of their power; the wisdom and prudence the exercise of that power requires is moral ethics. A book publisher therefore who is aware of his/her power and consequently, duty, must know always why he or she is putting a particular book in the market.
Book publishing is not mere manufacturing as in of toothpaste or soap. Neither is it just like making shoes or clothes which are design and style driven, and therefore some styles or designs click, with the market; others don’t and are bargained. Very much like books some take off; others don’t and remain in the warehouse. But shoes and clothes don’t form and inform a culture. Radio,television, film,newspapers, magazines, and electronic media do but they are here now, gone tomorrow and generally cannot be gone back to after so many years. They are just not vessels of knowledge the way books are traditionally perceived and preserved.
I will have to say at this point that this is how and why book publishers suffer from split personality: how to be both a businessman and a cultural manager or engineer. It is much simpler to be just a manufacturer who is out to make a profit or a museum curator who’s not out to make a profit. Deciding what to publish and what not to publish has to me all these years been like walking on a tightrope suspended in air, always a tough balancing act between falling and soaring, where falling is real and soaring is imagined. For the most part, what I’ve been able to do is stay on that rope.
Where Is the Good in Cookbooks and Romances?
When we started as tradebook publishers 14 years ago, my Board of Directors asked why Anvil, considering it’s a sister company of the country’s biggest bookstore chain, should not right away go into sure sellers like romances and cookbooks. So we did, but with slight modifications I could live with. Cookbooks cannot be just collections of the most popular recipes recycled, re-sequenced, but rather should be about food and cooking and eating as Filipino culture. We put in stories around recipes,regional histories around cooking in certain parts of the country, and small narratives on the foreign influences on our cuisines and how even these have been localized. Sometimes the stories would be personal and familial, almost an autobiography marked by memorable dishes. Our cookbooks have to be fresh and innovative. I have yet to publish one of my dream books the Dictionary of Philippine Food, now being researched by a team systematically gathering data from all over. When we need to assert who and what we are, it is important that we have an inventory of all our resources, not just in food and cooking but in all areas. Our cookbooks have always been well received and all these years have consistently been our top sellers, at an average of 10,000 copies in 6-8 months. We have been recognized to have inspired respectable women and even men scholars to think of foodbooks as solid research projects. We tend to take food for granted but it is always what we are about, immediately and socially. It’s the first thing we miss when we are in another country. In this age of globalization or homogenization, it is what sets us apart from all the others. It is our first line of defense.
With the romances, we were not as successful. Right now considered the fastest selling of all books (local and imported), the formula romances in Filipino continue to be written by either comics writers or film scriptwriters who persist to give popular audiences the same twists and turns of television soap and movie melodramas in lackluster Filipino. At the risk of sounding self-righteous, there was no way Anvil could kill trees for such books. I figured that the best and quickest way to elevate the standards of the genre was to tap the prize-winning writers: the mindset would be politically correct; the language would be engaging the craftsmanship will just naturally show. Hopefully, constant exposure to their kind of writing would slowly raise this reading public’s appreciation standards. We conducted two workshops to brainstorm on how these serious writers could reinvent the genre according to the psychology of its mass market. However, though packaged like all the formula romances: in size, shape,look, and price, the Anvil romances stuck out like sore thumbs in the bookstores. They all had a love story, true, but also they were depressing social-realistic pieces investigating the exploitation of women as prostitutes, mail-order brides and mistresses, and it did not seem to matter at all that they were well written. Techniques and devices such as flashbacks and flash forwards, or stream of consciousness where much of the action happens only in the mind, were a bit sophisticated for, or completely unacceptable to, our romance readers. I remember that we even had an avant garde young writer who satirizing the form, asked readers to choose their own ending. At quarterly reviews and pullouts from stores for consigned titles, it was the Anvil romances which would be left on shelves. We managed to sell only 3000 copies a month versus the usual 25000 sale of a formula romance. Eventually, we had to drop out of that game we could no longer afford to sell at the same price as we drastically reduced our printruns. Besides, when we went back to the writers to plead and argue it would not hurt them to give their romances well-developed happy endings, they began to drop out one after the other. It could have been an experiment ahead of its time, or it really was a failed exercise in subverting or appropriating a popular form to somehow change a reader’s consciousness. I was shamed before my Board but it was to their credit that they did not pressure Anvil anymore to put out formula romances.
Publishing Meaningful and Outstanding Literature: A Vocation
It has always been excruciating to fight to publish fine literature especially poetry, when it just seems the most logical thing to do in every culture; the most natural for a nation to find and keep its soul. Even more painful is to know it in real, day-to-day terms: from last year’s reported sales, one poetry book sold only 5 copies in 70 stores in 12 months’ time. Probably the worst I’ve seen in my 24 years in the book business. I am aware that this is more or less the same deal meaningful literature, especially poetry, gets even in developed countries though ten times not as bad. For a good period oftime, our long running bestselling series by a clinical psychologist and sex therapist heavily subsidized our literary line. I refer here to the usual business strategy of keeping a good mix of bestsellers and those significant to society and culture but will not sell so that the fast- sellers can carry the slow-sellers. This author’s charm and sales appeal draw from her conviction, candidness and professionalism in discussing issues related to sex, which hypocritically still is taboo in social discourse when movies and television have been taken over by graphic sex and violence. Her books have empowered mainly women who from social conditioning are too shy and ignorant to ask about it as well as men who normally just joke about it. When our sex therapist relocated to London, we lost a pillar of support for literature.
Before it can even fly, my noble rhetoric of If we don’t publish our finest writing, what kind are we?is always immediately shot down by my marketing manager who tells me emphatically in my face that she cannot sell such titles and will refuse responsibility for copies rotting in the warehouse. She would use the term rot to wean away publishing managers from this strange notion that books are non-perishable and therefore continue to be assets even as they stay hidden in stockrooms. They fade or discolor, binding loosens from extreme heat, covers or pages curl, not to mention the cost of money on a loan for printing said book, plus the continuing expense of rent and upkeep. I have therefore been compelled so many times to look for funding in the form of co-publication grants from elsewhere like foundations and commissions in the country and abroad.
I think that the literature that will captivate the young of my country, whether in Filipino or English, is yet to be written. I imagine it to be more visually engaging through words and must dredge up our past for their future to take root in. Our children’s generation who, without our having been consulted, grew up on mtvs and computer interactive games, are a multi-intelligent, distracted lot and understandably confused at times but highly capable of being focused and driven. It certainly will require a different form of engagement from a book publisher in my country to bring them back with a vengeance to books and reading. I see it my duty therefore to be actively watching out for such new writers, support writing workshops, nourish an environment where they will be motivated to write because they know that when the time comes and their works are ready, there will be publishers who will publish them. Publishing houses build their reputation on authors they cast their lots with.
But even as I respect literary writers, I avoid like a plague those who write exclusively for themselves, and think of everyone else, especially the ordinary masses as barbaric and beneath them.They are quick to explain away low sales as indicative of the growing gap between their high artistry and the failure of mere mortals to appreciate it. They claim not to care about book sales as they equate commercial success with prostituting one’s art. Such folly anyone will readily see that both publisher and writer want to reach as many buyers and readers as possible. The intent that a book be read by as many people as there are is shared by both of them. I have often invited outstanding literary writers to consider, while their masterpieces are yet taking shape in their minds, other forms like biographies,travel and textbooks, just waiting to be enriched by their craftsmanship and their insights.
A Free Market of Ideas
Anvil pioneered by publishing in a thoughtful way topics and themes traditionally considered unfit for books, or just never before written as books. For example, we put out the first literary anthology by gay and lesbian writers, the first erotica anthology by women, the first book that discusses the split in the Communist Party of the Philippines in the late 80s, the first manual for cultural workers, the first history of Philippine medicine, the first history textbook that doesn’t gloss over the 1902 Philippine-American War and treat it as a mere revolt, the first Philippine literature text that includes literatures from the non-Manila regions, the first comprehensive anthologies of fiction by Filipino women who wrote in Filipino and in English, first love poetry anthology of contemporary poets from Singapore and the Philippines, the first Philippine English Dictionary which many regarded as the bastardization of English, and a host of others.
This is not to privilege certain political standpoints which people might think are my own biases but merely to retrieve or bring to the surface those long buried and repressed, or to mainstream those marginalized and forever marshaled only to the fringes. This way, the reading public can really have access to all information, ideas, and memories before they take their own positions on issues. A free market of ideas, the minimum goal I guess for most publishers, and as in all capitalist enterprises propelled by profit and competition, these ideas must be well argued and documented, well written and packaged, well marketed and distributed.
We have been publishing books on psychic phenomena, spirit questing, concepts of karma and reincarnation, when recently the Superior of a supposed liberal congregation issued a congregation-wide and university-wide circular banning all discussions, readings and circulation of New age and psychic topics and books in classrooms. One of our country’s leading thinkers on this debate decided to respond with a new book called On Christianity, New Age and Reincarnation: New Perspectives on Old Religious Issues. His goal is to make public teachings hidden from people and dismissed as the work of the devil by vested religious and political interests. The Superior’s congregation runs a leading private university in Manila that produces the future businessmen and leaders of our country, and it was therefore unhealthy and dangerous to censor what the university can discuss and read. It was important to contribute to this public discussion and stimulate more critical thinking on the subject.
Just as we published books on the abuses of martial law and the Marcoses, I was open to publishing as well the Marcoses’ biography as written by one fine writer who served them. Congresswoman Imee Marcos, the daughter, and I had met twice on it, and I’m waiting for them to finalize their manuscript based on our reader’s recommendations. Just as we published Robert Aventajado’s own account of the Abu Sayyaf hostage- taking in Sipadan (Malaysia) as former President Estrada’s chief negotiator, I was open to publishing former Libyan ambassador to the Philippines, Sayyaf Abdul Rajab Azzarouq’s own version of the incident. Aventajado exposed him as the only one who could have run away with US$15M, part of the ransom money given by the Libyan government that was not paid to the Abu Sayyaf.
Just as we went ahead and published the story of a survivor of the 1989 purges within the Communist Party of the Philippines in Southern Tagalog, despite appeals from some key Party people not to as rightist organizations and the Philippine military will use it to discredit the Party, we assured them we would also publish their side of the story. I was sent messages through friends, who were former Party members, not to proceed with the publication as this was merely a domestic problem that should be kept within the family. I explained that this was anyway public knowledge based on and fed by rumors and wild speculations and it was urgent that this phase of the Party’s history be told for the sake of the survivors and the victims’ families who are deeply embittered and disillusioned by it. Many of the survivors are broken spiritually and mentally and could not even go back to their grown-up children they abandoned as infants to the care of others while they were fighting underground against Marcos. As they tell, their physical injuries are the least of their pain; the greatest is from not understanding how the Party whom they served with the best years of their lives turned in and decimated its own, comrade against comrade. These people badly needed justice and closure. The book, To Suffer thy Comrades, by Roberto Garcia, in its third printing since it first came out two years ago, brought down a dam that held back flowing water. So many more survivors emerged and told their stories; they organized an egroup and countless fora; the stories just came rushing out into dailies and magazines.
Edifying Filipino Culture and Building Identity
An enduring vestige of colonialism is our continuing miseducation despite claims and a political resolve to decolonize it from more than 30 years ago. What this education has done is separate us from our very own bodies of knowledge and literature, thinking patterns and forms of critical inquiry, beliefs and artistic expressions. Every year we graduate students who hardly know any Filipino writer, musician,painter, much less scientist and thinker, nor know substantially our history without the veneer of dates and facts, nor aware of the versatility and richness of our country’s natural and artistic heritage. Because of a Marcos reprinting decree which most American publishers openly opposed, we became more heavily dependent on American textbooks especially in the technical and scientific fields where no Filipino university professor will dare use a homegrown textbook because doing that will compromise the university’s standards. After a new and decent copyright law took care of that reprint decree, imported textbooks now cost between P900-1200, outrageous certainly in any culture. I am not raising here the matter of the obligation of publishers in a developed country to those in a developing one. I am raising instead the criticalness and urgency of Philippine publishers’ developing our very own textbooks in all fields. This is a duty we must fulfill.
We need to publish and retrieve all our stories and memories long suppressed by a colonial mentality. When we can’t because for instance, the epics, are not viable book projects, we locate co-funding ventures. Our commitment is to publish books which will form and continue to critically inform and edify our culture, assert our identity as a nation, which I think shall be our sole resource and defense against globalization. And even if assuming we are not resisting globalization, we can sit at the global table only when we know fully well who we are and what we bring with us to the table. Only nations well rooted in their own cultures can discriminately take in the elements of a global culture.
I come from a country where two novels by Jose Rizal, one of which is called Noli Me Tangere and was printed here in Berlin in 1887, inspired the leaders of our revolution against Spain, and gave birth to a nation, the first in Asia. The books’ pages burned from the hero’s searing words and fired the people’s aspirations for independence and freedom and justice. For these two incendiary books banned in the country and read secretly, Jose Rizal was ordered shot at age 35. I come from a country where books are a burning metaphor for hope and liberation from poverty. I come from a country where in its remotest parts book pages are probably literally burned with wood to cook food,humankind’s most basic sustenance. These images of books are certainly not exclusive to my country, what these confirm is the power of the book.
Alberto Manguel in the wonderful book, A History of Reading, notes that almost anywhere readers are alienated or considered intimidating. A community of readers has an ambiguous reputation that comes from its acquired authority and perceived power. The popular fear of what a reader might do among the pages of a book is like the ageless fear men have of what women might do in the secret places of their body, and of what witches and alchemists might do in the dark behind locked doors. Societies that want us to forget or not think and question, censor, ban or brand books as superfluous. Reading therefore is an act that cannot help but be subversive. If books have such power, how can a book publisher be mindless?
Despite what information technology announces, the book in its present form, will continue to be vested with new energies and greater power. There is nothing more potent than holding in one’s bare hands the entire text of a treatise, a novel, a person’s life, the world’s history, or any full body of knowledge for that matter. This new century, which we all saw turn,and that was priceless, in turn saw us tremendously anxious as to what it might bring or take, gather or yield. All we need really for times ahead is wisdom, distilled from centuries past, and is it not so reassuring to know all that is intact and passed to us through books? To be questioned again and again.To be proven wrong or right. To be weakened and brought down to its knees. Or to be re-energized,reinvented and made glorious all over again. As in centuries past, the publishers’ task is to form and inform cultures and civilizations.