Earlier this year, Visprint—one of the biggest players in the local publishing industry—announced that it will be closing in 2021. The company’s founders are retiring according to a released statement via their Facebook page. The sudden closure of the beloved publishing house is a major shock to the industry. But what happens after? And what does this mean to the whole publishing industry?
But before we tackle these concerns, let’s trace its literary roots. Visprint came in to the book scene in the early ’80s. However, it isn’t yet known as a book publisher but mostly a printer. Because it took some risks, it had a big break in the early 2000s by publishing an unknown author. Now, it is known for some bigwigs as well as young writers in the Philippine literary scene. Some of the names that made Visprint prominent are Bob Ong, Eros Atalia, Bebang Siy, Edgar Calabia Samar, Eliza Victoria, Manix Abrera, Budjette Tan, among others. It has largely contributed to the growth and development of the contemporary Philippine literarure. So what happens once Visprint shuts down its doors come 2021? What happens to its beloved authors and artists?
First of all, once Visprint closes shop next year, the rights of its books will automatically revert back to the authors and/or creatives. The founders can’t take the rights with them unless they plan to reopen in the future or sell the business altogether. This leaves the books of the authors and creatives “homeless.” Now, authors and creatives have to scramble to find a new home for their books. With only several players available, it’s very interesting where will they go.
But knowing the authors’ decisions is trivial as Visprint’s closure poses a bigger problem to the book industry as a whole. Simply put, Visprint’s death triggered a chain reaction to the book industry.
This starts off with finding a new home to the “homeless” books. Since Visprint is shuttering its doors, players such as Anvil Publishing will probably court these “homeless” books with their authors to their houses. Whether authors decide to be adopted is another thing. Another trade publisher, The Bookmark, might try to win some. However, they aren’t publishing new trade books now so they might be out of the picture. University presses won’t probably enter the field to swoop in rights since Visprint’s catalog is mostly commercial and is not fitting to their scholarly catalogs.
Publishers are not the only ones who might get entangled with this. Even the bookstores, too. Another reaction that will be triggered is the lost of sales for the bookstores’ part. Some of Visprint’s titles are really best-selling that they are often being asked on most bookstore chains. Now that they won’t be here anymore, a significant share will be lost. Fully Booked takes the brunt of the force as it majorly stocks Visprint’s titles. Anvil Publishing does not distribute to Fully Booked, and the bookstore needs a bigger player such as Visprint to keep itself afloat. I’m not saying that it can’t survive with some titles from the university presses, but trade books are probably more appealing to the general audience. Now that Visprint’s Trese is being adapted for a Netflix series, the demand for the Trese series is going to be higher than ever. Who will probably produce/print future copies? TV series tie-in, anyone? Even though Anvil Publishing miraculously swoops in the rights to Trese series, it still can’t distribute to Fully Booked. Unless, of course, the authors have some kind of funding to print the books themselves.
A Bird’s Eye View
Visprint cited the retirement of its founders as the reason for its closure. There might be some truth in that but the economy (read: capitalist forces) and the company’s current market position might have also upended it.
The impending death of Visprint gave us a sense of the industry as a whole. It says a lot about the local book publishing industry. Even though armed with best-selling titles and the support from the local book community, the publishing house still didn’t make it. It says a lot about how the local book industry is struggling. Even though there are festivals and book fairs focused on Filipino literature yearly, apparently those are not enough to promote local books.
I think the whole problem here is with the publishers themselves. Having worked in the industry before, I have made my own research. And even though I recently left, I still keep track of the developments and progress. The problem is publishers can’t keep up with the technological changes. No matter what your opinion is, e-books and audiobooks are two of the hottest trends in the international arena now. Even the NBDB 2017 Readership Survey says so. And still, Philippine publishers are very print-centric. They don’t apparently have the investment for the digital revolution. And when I say digital revolution, it’s not the full-house production team of e-book developers and audiobook producers with their teams. Simple stuff like application of best SEO (read: content marketing) practices, marketing, and PR investment can do wonders! To sum it up, the model that Philippine publishing companies adopt is very very outdated.
What We Lack
I can tell you a lot of things international publishers do that Philippine book publishers do not. First of all, the country does not have a vibrant publishing culture unlike in other countries. We do not have literary agents here to vouch for the authors. Usually, first-time authors sign contracts with publishers without knowing their rights first. Should they give all versions of print rights? How about e-book or audiobook rights? And how about world rights? These stuff are very confusing and should be handled by the literary agents. Authors can probably do it themselves but they do not have the time. Literary agents also take care of negotiating for deals—royalties and payments—with publishers. Without literary agents, authors are stripped of first-line defense. Without literary agents, most authors do not know how to pitch their works to, say for example, big studios for TV, film, or stage rights. They can’t see the value of their works in a different perspective. Oftentimes, their great books lose a fighting chance to stay relevant and visible in the market after a year of publication.
International publishers also give “advance against royalties” to their prospective authors. This is the payment made in advance to the authors for selling the rights of their works. Publishers gauge or calculate how much the title will earn in a period and that is what they will give as advance. Aside from the advance, authors and their literary agents earn royalty shares when the publisher recoups its investment for the production. Oftentimes, the advance for authors reaches for up to six figures in the US. However, Philippine publishers do not mostly employ this model except for some literary bigwigs. They only give most authors a paltry amount. This does not give the author the motivation to write better and produce more stuff.
International publishers also assign a publication date as early as one year to the books they are going to publish. This is to give enough PR and marketing magic to the titles. In this period, publishers print Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) six months before the publication date to solicit reviews, generate buzz, and see if the title works for the targeted audience. When did you see a Philippine book have this kind of treatment? Did we have some cover reveals with local publications? Have you ever held an ARC edition of a Filipino book? The truth is, local publishers do not have enough budget for this kind of tricks—leaving a lot of marketing buzz and selling opportunities in the door.
I have extensively written about how the Philippine publishers’ lack of e-book and audiobook content affects their efforts to survive and stay relevant. You can read it here.
There are still a lot of stuff the players are not following. Even though some are not applicable in the Philippine market, it’s still worth taking the risks. After all, publishing is about taking risks anyway. You gamble for these newbie authors and praying they might be the next JK Rowling or Stephen King. To sum it up, I can see that most Philippine publishers are not learning from their mistakes. They keep employing old strategies as if they are working.
The impending death of Visprint is also the death of the Filipino story. Visprint has been a go-to medium for young and platform-less writers. Without it, there won’t be new spawn of ideas that cater to the Filipino culture and psyche. The death of Visprint also impedes our move to push diversity in the publishing industry. With few players competing in the arena, chances are, inclusion and representation might as well be gone. More and more foreign books will be read by the market. It’s an effect that is underlying in nature, and will probably have lasting effects in culture and identity preservation. Sure, it might not happen now, but in the next hundred years? It might be. Unless, there’s an innovative, culturally sensitive, and ambitious local publishing company that will make us all fall in love deeply with modern Philippine literature soon.
Until then, let’s support indies and the few ones that remain.