The price of independence

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KATRINA STUART SANTIAGO

KATRINA STUART SANTIAGO

Wanting to talk about independent publishing means a crisis: how do I speak of the kind of publishing that I believe in and practice without sounding like an advertisement? This is a country where writers on culture tend to be self-serving and self-centered, using their columns as free PR space. How does one do it differently?
In place of an answer one hopes the above admission suffices. But also there is this: few would write about independent publishing in the mainstream and it behooves me to some extent to write about it as a matter of spreading the information.
Or the good news, if BLTX6 was any indication.

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BLTX-ing it
The first Better Living Through Xeroxography (BLTX) was in December 2010. The brainchild of writer Adam David, the goal then and now is simple enough: bring together small press and independent publishers of books, zines, komiks and provide a space for interested readers to access works that would not make it on bookstore shelves or mainstream book fairs.

In 2010, I went as spectator, interested in who BLTX would gather other than the usual suspects—which to me was really only the poetry group High Chair, publishing independently since 2000, and Adam’s Youth And Beauty Brigade. Unsurprisingly, BLTX gathered writers, creators, and komikeros, mostly male, that I was not familiar with. I’d like to think I also did not have the mind for it then.

 From ‘Footnotes To Misplaced Items’ by Joanne Cesario and Michelle Bacaba

From ‘Footnotes To Misplaced Items’ by Joanne Cesario and Michelle Bacaba

In early 2012, I would find myself helping out with BLTX2, and this time I would have the wherewithal to enjoy the works of komiks creators, from Dark Chapel of Silentsanctum Manga to Mike David of Kubori Kikiam fame. In December of the same year, we would do BLTXXX, and it was then that, I thought the people we were gathering, both as participants and as buyers, was growing. In that tiny space in little-known bar Ilyong’s in Cubao, people sold and bought t-shirts and CDs, art chapbooks and zines, posters and art merchandise—even cupcakes—alongside komiks and chapbooks. All independent, all very small presses operating on shoestring budgets.

We were treated to works from Rai Cruz and CVTY Collective, 98B, Allan Balisi, The Cabinet. Rob Cham, Apol Sta. Maria, Omeng Estanislao, university-based writers organizations. The people spilled out of the venue and onto the streets. Beer was cheap, tables were being emptied of merchandise. Writers who had gone to the UP Writers Night passed by BLTX on their way home; buyers cut across generations.
It was chaos, but it was a fun kind of chaos. The kind that was also about realizing the community was getting bigger, and creators and buyers actually welcomed the come-as-you-are, no pretentions stance of BLTX.

How big can you go?

 ‘EdSa uno dos Tres’ by angela StuartSantiago

‘EdSa uno dos Tres’ by angela StuartSantiago

Since its third incarnation, the expo has had to contend with questions about going bigger, to gather more creators and buyers for the once or twice a year gig. That of course is a crisis in itself, given that this is a non-profit endeavor that is its own financial limitation. Compromises have been made in the course of figuring out how to go bigger, without sacrificing the basic values of independence and freedom.

It’s the same question one asks when one publishes independently, and books published two years ago are still fill the shelves (or floors) of one’s home. And while there are small bookstores like Mount Cloud in Baguio and Uno Morato on Tomas Morato, as well as good ol’ La Solidaridad in Manila, the movement of indie books can only be slower and less predictable, than say, having a book at the neighborhood National Bookstore or Fully Booked.

Publishing independently means the freedom to come out with books that we can be proud of, that are created without the constraints of mainstream publishing. We get the covers that we want, work with the artists whose work we respect. This of course means foregoing eligibility for the National Book Award, no matter how great the work is.

We came out with EDSA Uno, with notes and analysis on Dos and Tres by Angela Stuart-Santiago (the mother) in late 2013, with funds raised from donations by kind souls and kindred spirits. The base material for the book, the chronology of EDSA 1986’s four days had already been published in 1996 and won a National Book Award. Updated and revised and now framed by the days of the boycott that led to the the revolution, as well as an analysis of EDSAs Dos and Tres, this is the most complete history book on EDSA that exists, taking in even that memoir-as-hagiography of Juan Ponce Enrile published in 2012.

One would think it would fly off bookstore shelves (naks), but published independently, we cannot even get them onto those shelves. That’s mainly because big bookstores require papers that the independent writer does not have the money—or wherewithal—to acquire.

Because there is no earning from going independent, and like BLTX, it’s a specific kind of non-profit that always just means breaking even. After all, were we to break down how much a writer like Angela should be paid for her EDSA book, it would be impossible to earn it from selling EDSA Uno at the low price that we can stomach.

Were we looking at paying Angela at all, we wouldn’t be giving away books to schools and teachers, in the hope of just spreading the word.

Going bigger in this sense is not about earning more, as it is about getting a bigger audience. It’s not about getting into the mainstream bookstores, which would raise our book prices. It cannot be about profit, nor is it about paying us as writers.
We figure it’s the price we pay for independence.

The independent streak
It is also this freedom that makes BLTX important, if not important enough to replicate across the country. How many writers, komikeros, creators exist thinking that they need to win a prize and pander to the literary system in order to get published? A small-press do-it-yourself expo allows one to imagine that independence is the way to go.

I find that it also changes one’s sense of what a book should be, and what it can still be. I look at posters, bookmarks, comics, chapbooks in full color and know of the effort it took to make 10 copies for sale. One appreciates good paper and covers, the amount of time it takes to draw anything at all. Xeroxed copies of original work mean not judging a book by its look.

One learns of creativities one would otherwise not have access to, or know to see. There is freedom to trade in books, as with Apol Sta. Maria giving me two of his komiks this year for one of my chapbooks. There is creativity that’s exciting, or surprising, as there was in last month’s BLTX6.

There’s Ched de Gala’s zines You Are There, which has a version each for children and adults, where the same words come to stand for differing images, a reminder of how some stories are the same despite age. Karize Michella Uy’s In The Blanks is deceptively called “a coloring and drawing booklet,” because leafing through the unlabeled pencil drawings of the zine one finds that these images stand on their own, almost like tributes to everyday things, if not the haunting of the things we lose and keep. Joanne Cesario and Michelle Bacabac’s Footnotes to Misplaced Items is about lost things as well, drawn and written with the instability of memory, the spread rendering the missing person to be trapped in the same forgetfulness. Danielle Riña’s comics Dirty Laundry 2 is a hilarious autobiography in the form of slices-of-life that captures the discomfitures of a specific age, like an anti-coming-of-age.

Electorlychee’s book Biyaheng Langit is a fantastic book on jeepney folk art, not scholarly but informed by existing scholarship, a four-year project that has photos of jeepney art from Manila to Quezon. It deserves a review all its own for sure, as does the first poetry chapbook by Vince Dioquino Nameless Horizons and the first chapbook of short stories In Search Of Desire by Charging Station (soon!).

These young writers make one feel like an old fogey for sure, but also they remind of the value of going indie and being free to write and create as we want, and differently from the literary establishment. It is here that writing remains exciting, and one believes that were these writers to go mainstream, that would mean exciting times for the latter as well.

Because creativity has to be about freedom, and independence begets the best of creativities.

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