This morning, I was asked by the NBDB to give a reaction to the Report on the State of the Book Industry Address given by Ma’am Neni Sta.-Romana Cruz, speaking from the perspective of an author-creator. I’ve received a few requests for the text of the speech, and since this is one of the few times I didn’t extemporize (much), here it is. (Weird to post it without the speech I’m responding T) but I’m not sure I have the permission to post that one.)
Anyway, without further ado, here’s the speech:
Ma’am Sta. Romana-Cruz views the book industry as a book, and I see her point. But in an industry that is in a state of such flux, perhaps the model we strive for should not be a regular book, not a linear novel, but something else.
I propose that the task at hand, for those with the clout, is to make the industry more like a gamebook. A text of interactive fiction.
The most obvious difference between writing an ordinary novel, and an interactive one, is the presence of choice. An interactive text allows the reader-slash-player to directly influence what happens in the story. These choices represent the author surrendering a level of control to the reader, and I think that a similar phenomena has occurred in publishing.
Concerns about “setting of standards” about the “”quality of books” assume an ascendancy of curators, of gatekeepers, of tastemakers, that is quickly being wiped away by technology that enables a creator to reach his or her audience directly. Whether this is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing can take up hours of discussion, but the fact is — it’s the way things are now, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Control, to a certain extent, has been surrendered.
What needs to be done, is not to attempt –in vain — to put the genie back in the bottle. Going back to my metaphor, the role of the author of an interactive text is not to limit the choices of the player, nor to judge those decisions, but to make sure that, whatever the choices the player makes, the player ends up with a satisfactory story. And the player’s story is only satisfactory if they feel like they’re selecting between viable choices, that they were allowed to make intelligent decisions, that they were given enough context to make informed selections.
The book industry now has choices aplenty. What creators need, is help navigating those choices, and creating their own story. Creators need information to make informed decisions. Creators need support ensuring those choices are viable.
In practical terms this means a few things:
*It means more attention being given to non-traditional forms of writing, uncommon modes and niche modalities. Writing for games, writing in the regional languages, writing in genre… These need support if they are to be seen as viable choices for a local creator. The report mentioned that Romance, Humor, and Comics were among the top literary genres in the country — yet where is the institutionalized support for authors who want to write these kinds of books? The classes, the grants, the awards? I still remember a literary awards ceremony where the idea of a comic being nominated in every category was treated with laughter.
Respect is support. Respect means not valorizing “traditional” over “alternative” when all of these are choices – and hence, all alternatives. Respect means not creating false conflicts or dichotomies, where print is not opposed to digital at all points, but both seen as items in a menu of options now available to writers. Our job is not to demean the choices others make, but to make sure that in our own chosen areas, we create environments favorable to creators. You work in print? Make your contracts and terms fair to writers. You work in digital? Make your contracts favorable to writers. You work in a bookstore? Maybe think about dissolving the filipiniana ghetto and putting local books in their proper genres.
Don’t waste time proclaiming how your chosen modality is better, more proper. In the focus on number of books published don’t equate that number with whether the industry is doing all it can for authors, authors present and future.
The report mentions talent and yes we have that aplenty — but we need to do more than applaud it when it appears on its own. We need to recognize that in most cases, talent needs to be nurtured and cultivated. There’s no such thing as wannabe writers. There are writers who release work and writers that dont. There are writers who have been helped and writers who haven’t. Compare when and how athletics institutions scout, nurture and incentivize that, to how literary institutions do the same.
* Part of nurturing that talent means also nurturing those who create an environment in which that talent is honed and supplemented. It means that steps must be taken to make it a viable choice for people to enter the industry in positions other than that of writers. Translators, book designers, critics and reviewers — other roles require education and nurturing as well. Editors and editing practices were mentioned in the report — but is there an existing formal framework whereby would be editors can learn the art and skill of editing? Or is it, like so many roles in this industry, one where the only available training is either DIY or OJT?
* By cultivating and educating here, I don’t mean a pedantic dictation of “the way things should be done.” Like I said, the industry now is defined by choice, and what we need from curators and veterans is an articulation of stances and positions, so that prospective students have a clear idea of their options.
* It means that we must rethink how and when creators learn about copyright and the rights inherent in creation. We need to reach writers before they are approached with offers, much less sign contracts. We need a Miranda Rights of basic copyright knowledge, core information that a publisher must be sure authors are aware of before negotiations even begin.
Wattpad was mentioned earlier, but please, please remember we should not declare an author a success simply because an authors story has been made into a movie. We must ask how much does the author earn from those movies? Does he or she even have a right to the profits from ticket sales? Merchandise? Unqualified celebration of the Sudden popularity in writers who have not been educated in their rights is like enjoying a splash of red in a sea of blue without understanding that it’s blood in the water. And there are sharks ever circling.
* It means taking steps to help make the choice to be a creator a viable one in the first place, financially speaking. The report mentioned that literature makes “a significant contribution to the nation’s GDP” but how many creators receive a significant contribution to their income from their work? Greater education for creators regarding financial matters may help — sales trends and expectations, an understanding of how retailers operate and how best to market to an audience. But the burden for the success of the book should not be borne solely or primarily by the author — better practices are also needed from traditional publishers with regard to marketing and selling in an era where reader engagement is long-term and uphill, and requires more than just a book launch or two. How many publishers know — or are interested in learning — how to engage their audience on social media, how to make the most out of memes or hashtags or blog tours, how to turn readers into fans?
It’s an exciting time for the book industry, and an interesting time as well, in the sense of the familiar Chinese proverb. It’s important that as we deal with the changes in the industry, we ask the right question. The question is not “how can we stay the same” but “how can we evolve with the times.”