Last week was nerd-out week for me, as I participated in two book-related events: The Future of the Book Conference about digital publishing in the Philippines, and the annual Manila International Book Fair. I was supposed to blog about them last weekend, but things came up (and all I could do was coax my remaining brain cells to LET GO OF THOSE LITTLE SAMURAI SWORDS and not gut themselves. I barely escaped being committed for nervous breakdown from reading and editing 400 pages of a cognitive abomination, but that’s another story). What follows is more of a reflection on than a recap of the conference and the book fair. For more information about them, I included relevant links. This, by the way, will be an essay in three parts to avoid TL;DR reactions and because, you know, I get exhausted too. This is PART 1.
PART 3: FOTB, MIBF, and new forms of literature
THE FUTURE OF THE BOOK
As attending the whole conference would have cost me three weeks’ rent, I just went on the second day, which was just as well, as it focused on digital publishing from the consumers’ perspective. Charles Tan identified what consumers want in an ebook. Carljoe Javier evoked the experience of books — hunting for them, writing on them, smelling them — and the sentiment attached to the printed book, and suggested that the digital publishing industry cultivate a similarly sentimental but distinctive experience of ebooks to hook readers. Angelo Suarez talked about how digital publishing provides space for traditionally “unpublishable” works to be out there and maybe grab an audience, and presented a sampler of experimental and/or commercially non-viable works of literature published digitally. Paolo Chikiamco discussed the merits of small presses and independent publishers in the digital age as the “golden mean” between big publishers and self-publishers. Now I can go on and summarize all the other presentations I attended in a sentence or two, but as I’ve mentioned, there are far better sources to turn to for a recap of the talks, like this at Rocketkapre (which includes videos of the talks! Brilliant!), this at POC, and this at Coffeespoons.
What I really want to talk about are the three issues related to digital publishing that most concern me as a bibiliophile, a literature major, and a writer in the Philippines: democratization, the social aspect of reading, and new forms of literature. Perhaps these concerns weren’t the point of the conference, but they were what I thought about as I walked, free cookies in my bag, away from the concluded conference at Technohub.
The BIG QUESTION, as perhaps any concerned citizen-culturati would warrant, is the issue of democratization. The consumption of literature in this country has always been associated with the more privileged classes. Take the recently concluded book fair, for example. The entrance fee is pretty cheap, but the crowd roving about there was a mix of the comfortable middle and upper classes. I even saw several people exchanging updates on book finds using high-end mobile phones with wireless bluetooth headsets, hello James Bond movie?!
If you can afford to buy and read something more “nutritious” (as my father would say) than a Tagalog romance pocketbook that costs 20 pesos at the newspaper stand, then yeah, you’re privileged. If you buy Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus at Booksale for 20 bucks and read it, then of course you’re privileged, you think the majority of your countrymen has even heard of Camus?
Now, I love the idea of everyone reading Camus, or, for that matter, Gregorio Brilliantes and Miguel Syjuco and Conchitina Cruz, and so I ask whether the rise of digital publishing can democratize literature, and more importantly, how. How will it help propagate a reading culture in a Third World country in which most people simply don’t have the luxury or interest to read (and would rather watch Marian Rivera deliver some hackneyed, feisty retort and slap Nadine Samonte back, or, perhaps more tragic, would rather sell bananacue after school to afford a textbook fraught with errors rather than buy Manix Abrera’s pretty pricey 12 or the latest Kikomachine collection). Let’s face it: we Filipinos don’t have a predominant reading culture — at least not those of us outside the A/B bracket, which is, come to think of it, almost all of us. If we did, then I wouldn’t be that odd girl in high school who practically made a burrow of the library—heck, not even most of my classmates really read our textbooks.
So, okay, we don’t have a reading culture (at least when the object of reading isn’t a cookbook/manual/required text). What we do have is a culture so ironically enamored with gadgetry and new communication technologies. We’re not the texting capital of the world and a recognized Twitter trend-setting force for nothing. Granted, maybe not everyone has a smartphone or a computer – much less a Kindle or an iPad – but sadly there seems to be more people who possess such ebook-capable devices than literature enthusiasts. The thing is to get these people reading, and I’m hoping that the rise of the ebook and our fascination with its associated technologies can help accomplish that.
Let me tell you an anecdote. Several days ago, I was commuting and sat across this girl and her guy friend who were talking about something-or-other. I was just sort of zoning out until the girl whipped out her smartphone (a mid-range one by the plastic look of it) and talked about how she read ebooks on it while commuting. And her guy friend was like, I didn’t know you read. And she said she read when she was bored; after all, with her phone, it’s handy. And that really hit me. I thought of a friend who hardly buys or reads print books, but likes downloading free ebooks online and reading them. Such anecdotes, I think, illustrate the potential of the ebook to draw in a larger reading audience, especially people from a younger, tech-savvy generation. And although my primary concern is that Filipino authors get a wider local audience, the fact that digital publishing exposes Philippine literature to a global market doesn’t hurt one bit either.
The above-mentioned readers are relatively privileged, and that fact perhaps undermines my argument for the potentially democratizing effect of ebooks; still, I maintain that the growth of digital publishing may broaden the local market for literature among the upper and middle classes, and hopefully, this effect would “trickle down.” An acquaintance once joked that Jejemons can type so… enthusiastically because they have QWERTY phones (do you know you can have one for like two thousand bucks these days? And one of our former househelps saved up for an iPhone, WHAT UP, siya na ang may iPhone!) Maybe those people would make a habit of reading ebooks on their mobiles too.
I don’t want to discuss the Kindle or the iPad or other ebook-dedicated devices in connection to democratization, because hello, the average Filipino cannot afford such gadgets. I’m an avid reader and Kindles and iPads make me geekgasm, but I won’t buy a Kindle for 139 dollars. (Oh, and don’t get me started on that government scheme about creating “cheap” iPad knockoffs to give to public schools to “solve” the problem of the dearth of textbooks. How about building sufficient classrooms for schoolchildren, giving them enough chairs with complete legs, or raising the salaries of teachers first so they don’t work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong and get flak in the aftermath of the hostage crisis? It’s so ludicrous it’s not even funny.) So, yeah, there’s no question about Kindles and iPads democratizing literature—they won’t, at least not in this country. But hey, there’s still the computer (at least most of those belonging to the middle class have access to computers) and cellphones. And then, you never know, maybe five, ten years from now e-readers would be so cheap as to be ubiquitous.
Aside from the tech-savvy thing, alternative business models for digital publishing may also broaden the ebook — and thus, the literature — market. During the conference, one of the speakers — J. Kirby Best, I think it was, though I’m not sure, it could be Christopher Boughton — suggested something radical: that digital publishers offer ebooks for free and get revenue through advertising and print-on-demand (PoD). He compared this to how a lot of artists offer their music for free listening or even free download on their websites, and instead capitalize on merchandise and tours. Through this they get to promote themselves and their music better and reach a wider audience, many of whom buy the CDs anyway. But everyone likes music; not everyone digs literature. I don’t know if that would work here, given that only a relatively small percent of our 90 million (and growing most alarmingly) strong population are reading enthusiasts, but it’s a thought. Everyone appreciates a freebie. Of course, a free ebook doesn’t necessarily get read (how many of us have a crapton of ebooks gathering virtual flies and fluff in our hard drives?), but I should think that making literature more economically accessible would contribute to the cultivation of a reading culture. And that is why I commend the efforts of such institutions like the Vibal Foundation, who, through their various initiatives (like Filipiniana, WikiPilipinas, and POC , and their support of writing organizations, like the UP Writers Club), not only encourage the production of literature and critical discourse, but also seek and strive to cultivate a market for them. Of course, greater reinforcement is needed, and that’s where the next section comes in.