On Books, Authors, and Readers

Antonio A. Hidalgo
President and CEO
Milflores Publishing, Inc.

(Presented at the panel discussion on "Books, Authors, and Readers," Philippine PEN Golden Anniversary Conference on "Literature, Nation, and Globalization," December 8-9, 2007, National Museum of the Philippines, Ermita, Manila)

Milflores is a small corporation that publishes trade books for profit. In eight years of operation, we have published and marketed 75 titles. Because of our limited capital, we have to make sure that each and every one of our titles is profitable. The way we try to do this is to be as responsive as we can be to the preferences of Filipino readers.

Some Characteristics of the Market for Trade Books

The National Book Development Board (NBDB) commissioned the Social Weather Stations (SWS) to undertake a nationwide survey of the reading attitudes and preferences of Filipinos in 2003 and 2007. I will discuss only the survey findings that we have used to shape our strategies in publishing books.

Both surveys have found that a high percentage of respondents, from 68 to 80 percent, had read non-school books during the year of the survey.

Unfortunately, because of widespread poverty, most of these readers, from 51 to 58 percent, could only afford to spend P200 or less on non-school books for the entire year. Presumably, this has forced most readers to be extremely utilitarian in reading. From 87 to 91 percent of them read for knowledge, and only from 9 to 13 percent read for enjoyment.

Both surveys show that Filipino and English are the two main preferred languages of readers. There are twice as many readers who prefer to read in Filipino than those who prefer to read in English. These findings are reinforced by other language surveys that show that Filipino is clearly the lingua franca of our country.

According to both surveys, younger readers in the 18-24 age bracket read significantly more non-school books than older age groups. This finding should be combined with the fact that our high population growth rate of 2.3 percent per year has made each generation much larger than the previous one. Thus, younger readers dominate the book market both by their sheer numbers and by reading more books, on the average, than older readers.

Finally, the 2007 survey found that more than a third of non-school book buyers always or often noticed the packaging of the book and its blurb.

Strategies to Reach a Wider Audience

An important problem for book publishers is our postcolonial situation, which has resulted in a highly fractionalized society. Scholars in the indigenization movement in the University of the Philippines often refer to The Great Cultural Divide (Ang Dambuhalang Pagkakahating Kultural) between the elites and the masses. This divide explains why there is a mismatch between what many of our best writers write and the needs and preferences of most readers. Too many Filipino writers write in English, while most readers read in Filipino; the best writers concentrate on writing fiction, while most readers want information books; because of class differences in lifestyles and experiences, the content of the best Filipino literature in English is often at odds with what most readers want from fiction, so they turn, instead to telenovelas, formulaic romance novels in Filipino, and lately, badly-written ghost and horror stories in Filipino.

The tiny, but affluent, A and B market (variously estimated at 7-12 percent of the population) should be the audience for Filipino literature in English by the best writers. Unfortunately, again because of our postcolonial situation, this segment is extremely Westernized and prefers books by foreign authors. This is why our largest book stores all carry many more foreign literary titles than local ones, often 20 or more foreign titles for every local one.

Knowing that several factors separate good writers from the mass of readers, we have focused on ways to narrow the cultural divide between writers and readers in order to successfully sell our titles.

1. Focusing on popular topics. We give priority to publishing manuscripts by good writers on popular topics that have wide appeal among readers. When we can, we also actively enlist good writers to contribute to anthologies on popular topics. We have found that this is often feasible because writers share “intersections” of life with less-educated readers. They only need to focus on these intersections in their writing to reach a wider audience.

Milflores has engaged many dozens of the best, award-winning writers to contribute to humorous anthologies on popular topics like shopping malls, insomnia, beauty pageants, common maladies, being a Nora Aunor fan, and heartbreaks. We have also published collections of humorous essays by good writers on migration to America, pregnancy, youthful angst, young married life, etc. We are in the process of producing a collection and an anthology of horror stories by accomplished writers, knowing that there is a clear demand for these type of stories.

While publishing books on popular subjects that appeal to a wide audience is not new in the Philippines, the Milflores titles are different in that they are written by some of the best writers in the country who had previously not tried to reach out to a wider audience. The quality of the writing is high and a number of these literary titles have sold well and also earned national awards from the critics.

2. Emphasizing information books. We constantly search for good information books by experts that are written in a style that is accessible to ordinary readers. We have a series of manuals on cockfighting that has sold well since 1993. We also have an extensive series of self-learning manuals on language written by senior professors at the UP that has titles that have sometimes made the bestseller list of National Book Store.

We often publish creative nonfiction like collections of essays (including travel essays), opinion columns, and blogs, for creative nonfiction appeals to more readers than fiction does.

A number of our titles mix genres and provide information along with art and entertainment. For example, Sleepless in Manila and My Fair Maladies are anthologies of short fiction, poems, and essays that also contain sections of straight information on insomnia and common ailments. Our cockfighting manuals combine theoretical and practical information on the science and art of cockfighting with short stories of the cockfighting world. Our latest hybrid title is Much I Do About Nothing. It conveys the basic legal information couples will need if their marriages break up through fictional, and zany, interviews with a host of comic book heroes. All these books have sold well, at least partly due to their information components.

3. Publishing books in Filipino. We give priority to good books written in Filipino, for this instantly doubles the potential readers compared with publishing books in English. We now have a number of Filipino and bilingual titles, like half of our cockfighting manuals, our book on Nora Aunor fans, a play by Chris Martinez, an anthology of flash fiction edited by Vince Groyon, my own fiction in Filipino, and a gay dictionary by Louie Cano. A few more books are in the pipeline for next year. Nevertheless, I would still like to have more good manuscripts in Filipino. You may take this as a call for submissions.

4. Attracting readers with humor. Most of the Milflores books are written in a humorous tone because all Filipinos appreciate humor and it appeals to readers of all classes and fractions in our country. Using humor to attract wider readership need not result in mindless books, however. In fact, some of our most successful humorous titles also discourse on important aspects of our national life, like Suddenly Stateside, by Marivi Soliven Blanco, which probes sensitive issues like racism against Fil-Ams and the deep alienation of Filipinos in the U.S. In his award-winning play, “Welcome to Intelstar,” Chris Martinez dissects the cultural distortion wrought by call centers in the country. In Bongga ka ’Day! and Brusko Pink, Neil Garcia, Ronald Baytan, and Ralph Galan, and Louie Cano, respectively, seek to empower gays with pride in their sexuality. In my humorous cockfighting stories, I have dwelt on subjects like class struggle, dehumanizing commercialization, and mindless globalization that sacrifices disadvantaged Filipinos.

Humor and depth are not necessarily contradictory. Critical discourses can reach a wider audience when written in a humorous way.

5. Publishing young writers and contracting young graphic artists. A good number of our titles are first books by young writers. We also contract mostly young graphic artists to do our covers and illustrations. Young writers and graphic artists naturally appeal to young readers who dominate the reading market. This has been one of our most successful strategies, for the number of good young writers and graphic artists seem to be multiplying exponentially each year. In addition to generating good sales, this approach is also quite gratifying, especially when books by young writers win national awards, like Wala Lang, by Bud Tomas, The King of Nothing to Do, by Luis Katigbak, and Love, Desire, Children, Etc., by Rica Bolipata-Santos.

6. Lowering the prices of our books. We try to narrow the gap with readers by devising means to lower the prices of our books without resorting to subsidies or sacrificing our profitability. The most effective way in which we have done this is to break up what might have been a large book into a series of smaller ones that don’t overlap, so that each title can then sell at affordable prices. Though readers might ultimately need the entire series to derive the full benefits, they will have the option to buy the titles one at a time. In effect, they can buy the series in installments, rather than have to forego one large, all-encompassing volume because its price is unaffordable. We did this for our cockfighting series and the prices of the titles, at this time, range from P150 to P190 per copy. We also did it for our language series of twelve titles and their prices range from P95 to P195 per copy. Recently, we broke up a thick anthology of flash fiction by young writers into two volumes to lower the price of each book.

7. Niche marketing. When evaluating manuscripts, we always ask ourselves what market segment the book was written for and how large that segment is. The clearer the market segment of the book and the larger it is, the better the chance that we will publish it, provided, of course, that the writing meets our quality standards.

We have successfully published literary titles that were written for identifiable market segments like gays, single women, young wives, cockfighting aficionados, insomniacs, Tsinays, mallers, and young adults. We also try to suit the production of the book—its size, type of cover design, layout, and illustrations—to the tastes of the market segment it intends to reach.

Finally, we have used the concept of niche marketing in a somewhat different sense—to identify market segments whose needs and wants are not, or are being inadequately, met by local publishing—in other words, gaps in local titles. Then we try to get good writers to fill this gap.

For example, The Milflores Guide to Philippine Shopping Malls was conceived because despite the immense popularity of malling in the Philippines, no local book on this phenomenon had yet been published. Nightmare Journeys, a book that tells the stories of Filipinas who survived being trafficked as prostitutes abroad, was similarly conceived by identifying an important aspect of Philippine life for which no local book had yet been written.

These are some of the strategies that we have devised to successfully publish and sell books in the Philippines.