Last December 2017, sometime after the long daze of the holidays, I finally caved in and bought a Kindle Paperwhite. Aside from its unexpectedly small size, I was surprised by how it finally got me to go through my e-book reading backlog. I’m now making as much progress as I have with my print books, and that’s no easy feat for this former paper purist.
It also makes me feel like I missed the memo, yet again. Apparently, print books are experiencing a resurgence, just a few years after the world kept insisting print was dead. (It’s much like the comebacks of vinyl and analog cameras.) In the US, print is steadily gaining over digital—according to trade magazine Publishers Weekly, there was a 1.9 percent bump in print sales from 2016 to 2017 (from 674.1 million total units to 687.2 million), and the numbers have been going up since 2013. Print is returning in such a big way, Amazon put up physical bookstores, becoming part of an industry it originally sought to decimate.
The lack of readily available numbers for the Philippines is disappointing—to use the same word parents passive-aggressively reprimand their children with. This disappointment also goes for the scant stats published on the National Book Development Board (NBDB)’s website about “the number of books read in the past six months”, which could still be true 21 years later: “none” was at 31 percent, with the reason “lack of time” garnering an amazing 43 percent.
It’s a different story for those who do have the time to read. It’s clear that, as we said back in our December 2014 issue, the Philippines has always been big on print books. To be more specific in this article, we’re big on reading imported books.
In a talk delivered by NBDB chair Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz in 2014, she stated that we received US$61.493 million’s worth of books in 2012. Imports still dominate the market today. Go to your nearest bookstore and look at the bestseller and new-release displays. Only a few local books are out front and these are usually the humors and hugot texts; often, the rest of Philippine literature is hidden at the back of the store. (Why is that?) Author talks and annual literary events also have foreign authors as the headliners, and the adoring crowds are very happy about it. Events like Big Bad Wolf’s Manila sale have made some people I know spend up to five digits on books. Secondhand shops like Booksale, Books for Less, Bookay Ukay/BookFellas, and countless Facebook and Instagram sellers are doing brisk business every day; and the roaming reading project The Book Stop gets more fans (and book donations!) wherever it goes.
Not to say that our writers, authors, and publishers are completely shut out. Far from it! There’s more diversity now. The “gatekeepers” are still there, but now you can do your own thing and be just fine. We have year-round national and local/limited writing workshops; and calls for submissions for journals and anthologies, here and abroad. Places like Solidaridad Book Shop in Manila and Mt. Cloud Bookshop in Baguio—and online sellers Bookbed and 8LettersBooks—have become known as Filipino author-friendly places. Comics and graphic-novel fans can always look forward to multiple Komikons and Komikets, along with Free Comic Book Day and comic-book conventions.
Self-publishing has also gone beyond vanity presses and zines. There are new writing and reading communities, plus smaller “experience-driven” events like Kwago’s Komura; Book Fair. Writing classes and groups like #romanceclass and #HeistClub make it possible for their writers to publish their own books and anthologies — a nice contrast to what the bigger commercial or university presses have.
The funny thing is while everyone else is ready to kill off e-books, the Philippines is just getting started with them. I may be wrong, but I think our authors aren’t as concerned with e-books’ perceived status as endangered. The more important question for them is how and where to get their work out in either or both print and digital. Closely following that is how to get readers to pay for copyrighted content, given the ease of torrents, and dubious social-media sellers hawking badly formatted e-books for cheap. The more available legal options, the better.
Flipreads and Flipside Publishing were too early for the local e-book industry, plus their e-books were DRMed. They closed in 2016, but many have picked up the slack. Filipino writers and readers are still the big shots on Wattpad, with seven million users signed up. There are also authors who also work as their own publishers and marketers. Mervin Malonzo, Adam David, Aliyah Luna, and Princess Malonzo have Haliya Publishing and Mervstore; and self-publishers regularly promote their e-books across platforms. The aforementioned #romanceclass and #HeistClub authors also publish on either or both print and digital. I know I missed countless more, and I know they’re out there.
I suggest studying the global market; you’ll see that it’s not even about just print and digital anymore! Authors now have to diversify:
- They can do print only, print and e-book only, or e-book only.
- They can go for regular online previews. In the case of Malonzo (of Tabi Po) and Trese’s creators Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, they show single comic-book panels that sustain their readers’ interest and engagement. This also serves as proof of life for their respective series.
- They can publish their stories per chapter. Amazon Kindle Singles is just one place to go for incremental/serialized publishing. Call it the Andy Weir Business Model, if you will.
- They can release free e-books timed to a national holiday (like the new Jose Rizal manga by Ryo Konno and Takahiro Matsui, and Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria’s Independence Day 2017 release of Skyworld: Dominion), or bundled together in specific price tiers à la Humble Bundle or StoryBundle.
- They can bypass books altogether and try narrative podcasts—or maybe release both book and audio versions per episode or per series at websites like Serial Box.
What I’m saying is that, instead of proclaiming either print or digital dead, think of them as just two allies in that bigger battle of acquiring and retaining readers. It’s not a simple, binary issue of alive-or-dead, one-or-the-other. One medium shouldn’t be sacrificed for another because they both have something the other doesn’t. Just choose what you like, and try it out, or try both. If they say it’s dead, ignore them. Trends are cyclical, anyway.