This is an essay by Al Gerard de la Cruz.
For a developing country, the Philippines is said to have one of the highest literacy rates in Asia. More than 84 percent of Filipinos are functionally literate, the state statistics agency claims. Owing to nearly half a century of American colonization, the Philippines in fact ranks among Asia’s largest English-speaking nations. In November, The New York Times reported that some 400,000 call center jobs, many from American companies, have been outsourced to the Philippines.
Many Filipinos have English fiction-reading down pat, a few even going on to write the materials themselves. For every Rowling and Meyer, the likes of Filipino authors Jessica Hagedorn and Melissa de la Cruz hold their own on bookstore shelves around the world.
Mindful of this century-old ferment, Nicholas Sparks and Neil Gaiman, among other world-famous authors, have gone on book tours in the Philippines. Gaiman, who has visited the country thrice, even instituted a local speculative-fiction writing contest, less as a bid to shore up his favorite genre than to encourage more Filipinos to read.
For all Gaiman’s dreams, not all Filipinos can afford his novels. State statistics peg poverty incidence in the country at 26.5 percent, a stratospheric figure anywhere on earth. An average Filipino needs ₱1,403 ($32) every month to survive above the poverty line. Coupled with the leviathan unemployment rate, widespread poverty in the country demotes owning books to a trifling concern. An imported paperback novel typically costs ₱350 ($8), which most would rather spend on rice and dried fish. And while they do not monopolize it, English, or the nuanced language as it appears on a Rowling or Gaiman book, would always be the realm of the elite and middle class. They are the ones more likely to complete a college degree.
Still the masses read. Before the advent of TV sets and personal computers, the comic book was a major diversion for the Filipino masses. At just 10 or 25 centavos for a sit-down rental, ‘komiks’ seemed to give more bang for the buck than a movie ticket. Kenkoy, Darna, Dyesebel, Panday, Captain Barbell—many comic book characters became pop icons as a result. In the ‘90s one could still buy komiks for no more than ₱7 ($0.16), but public interest in them had considerably waned by then. TV, film, and the Internet have apparently killed the comic book star.
Romance novelettes have fortunately skirted the fate of komiks. Since its first publication in 1992, a local series called Precious Heart Romances has endured in popularity, mostly among women. Today initial print runs for the series top at 8,000 copies, staggering for Philippine standards. The country’s largest TV network has even adapted some titles for its soaps. Precious Hearts’ cachet is such that it has been misguidedly disparaged as the favorite of housekeepers. Sold at just over ₱30 ($0.70) and never longer than 130 pages, Precious Hearts is not likely to desert the zeitgeist anytime soon.
Filipinos may be a giddy lot around love stories but they also like to be scared. Locally produced horror books have been perennial bestsellers for the country’s largest bookstore chain, where they occupy a section wholly separate from general fiction. Horror anthologies, e.g. True Philippine Ghost Stories, particularly sell well for the humble price of ₱85 ($1.97).
Affordability truly is king in the Philippines. Stakeholders in the publishing industry must take care to inform their profit motives around this simple market condition. The proliferation of bargain bookstores in shopping malls—of which the country has a lot—should further galvanize readership of imported books among Filipinos. Publishers of textbooks and reference books might want to appropriate sales from their main products as subsidies for their fiction line. The government, on the other hand, should fund the entry of tech upgrades to make printing and publishing more cost-effective.
Stakeholders already have a thing or two to learn from the government though. Aiming to woo more people into reading, the National Book Development Board (NBDB) has established Booklatan. This is a program, which by way of three rounds of training, empowers teachers, librarians, day care workers, etc. to propagate reading interest among the youth. The first phase of Booklatan involves a seminar about the newest concepts and techniques in establishing and manning reading venues. The second phase orients participants on the skills of an engaging storyteller. The third consists of the Readership Enhancement and Advancement (READ) Program, which trains participants how to carry out reading lessons and the like.
NBDB’s Booklatan efforts were not for naught. Their 2007 Readership Survey reveals that readership in the Visayas region, where they have piloted many Booklatan projects, increased by four percent. But perhaps the key to reigniting readership lies neither solely in a book’s price tag nor government intervention.
Jesse A., 25, a daycare teacher who prefers DVDs over books, learned this the hard way. For months now, he has borne the boredom of owning a broken TV; buying a new one is still a luxury for him at this stage in his career. A friend has since lent him the complete series of CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, bought at slashed prices from a book shop. Jesse devoured the entire set. Now he’s taking the advice he’s giving to students and reading books like never before.
Many Filipinos are like Jesse, with no TV or computer to entertain them. Unplugged, their minds veer off to non-electronic pastimes, e.g. sex, which only exacerbate the country’s meteoric population growth. Educators, NGOs and publishers truly need to pitch reading the most to people who are away from the influence of electronic devices.
Al Gerard de la Cruz is a freelance journalist, web content writer and problogger based in the Philippines. A former correspondent for Philippine broadsheet BusinessWorld, he has written for, among other publications and websites, the Doha Centre for Media Freedom and Techday New Zealand.