(Delivered at the BLTX Talks panel on print publishing with Edgar Samar of Tapat
Journal and Mike David of Kubori Kikiam, March 3, 2012, Saturday, 2 to 8 p.m. at
Chef’s Bistro, Quezon City.)
I would like to be able to say that freedom and risk characterize alternative presses, but after a decade of working in publishing, from production to distribution, I realize that mainstream publishers have the money and the muscle to undertake risky publication projects as well.
To me, what differentiates traditional publishing, i.e., commercial presses, from alternative publishing doesn’t entirely rest on the freedom or the risk that attends a certain type of content or aesthetic, if at all. If Anvil or its hypothetical indie imprint reissues Adam David’s The El Bimbo Variations, does it make Anvil/the imprint an alternative press? A popular title is not the exclusive domain of commercial presses either; it’s not as if the point of an alternative press is to go out of its way to publish only those books that they are sure no one will buy as a political statement. The modest popularity of The El Bimbo Variations doesn’t automatically make Youth and Beauty Brigade traditional or mainstream.
To me, a publishing organization can call itself alternative if by its activities (in terms of operations, production, and distribution) it is able to come to its own shape and survive outside persistent practices and notions upheld by mainstream models that are outdated, oppressive, or not inclusive. For instance, the idea of profit as the heart of a business endeavor. As an alternative press, it is important from the get-go to know exactly where you stand on the idea of profitability. A lot of you are probably saying, I am for it. My question is, To what extent?
When High Chair was set up ten years ago, we announced that it was not intended to be a profitable venture. We believed then as we do now that the value of any human endeavor cannot be measured by commercial success. I’m sure it sounded precious and naïve to a lot of people then. But this belief continues to guide a lot of our decisions, from distribution channels to print runs and pricing to marketing, which is: no to maximum profit.
Don’t get me wrong. We can use the maximum profit—who doesn’t? People think High Chair has rich funders. We do not. Our only revenue channel was going to be sales. The early years meant a lot of out-of-pocket expense from the members because there weren’t enough titles to sell and the copies were not selling fast enough. At the same time, we did not want institutional backing, wary of what it might mean for the work that we wanted to do. We edited, workshopped, put together the book, learned design, looked for good but inexpensive paper, negotiated with the printers, and delivered the books ourselves. There was no remuneration promised to any of us. No one was ever obliged to give money, but the members did. It’s hard enough to fund your own book, but to raise money if not give up some your own to fund the publication of another person’s book is harder.
But we did because we believed in the work. On the copyright pages of the early titles, it said: High Chair is a nonprofit small press. We publish our poems and those of others we believe in. That explicit statement is important for several reasons, one of which is that it demands from us a kind of accountability for the books we will publish. Oddly enough, being nonprofit and having no institutional support helped sustain the existence of High Chair. We saw numerous admirable endeavors that had to close shop when the sponsorships ran out and we did not want that to happen to us. We had to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps because we didn’t have large corporate funding and university support in the first place. We relied and continue to rely on sales and contributions from members.
Still, we have accounts payables with our printer for books published in 2010 plus an outstanding loan from last year. However, to go for maximum profit means increasing the price of our books for a bigger margin. Some say this is easy to justify given how beautiful they look. But we refuse to do it for a number of reasons, foremost of which at least to me is inclusivity. To us, a higher price point means reaching out to a certain demographic at the expense of another. Some say that people will value something that’s more expensive, others say that if it looks good and expensive then it can command such and such price, and perhaps both are true for them. I for one am uneasy about endorsing this kind of thinking.
High Chair proceeds from a perspective where pricing in terms of trying to appeal to an audience that could pay more must never be factored into the production of the book. We want the books beautiful and we want them affordable. We work closely with the designer and the printer to realize this, and are willing to wait if the conditions were less than ideal, i.e., the cost of raw materials will drive up the price of the book. Some suggest we go for bigger print runs to drive down the unit cost, but a bigger print run means a bigger lot cost, for which we don’t have money. Also, a bigger inventory demands bigger storage and faster turnover. According to conventional wisdom, you can’t have a large inventory sitting too long on the shelves (or in our case, the stairs of the Tamblot apartment, Chingbee’s office at FC, Bolix’s kitchen, the trunk of Kristine’s car). You have to move them all and you have to do it fast enough so you earn more. But we have them sitting there because if you’re not out to maximize profit then you don’t mind waiting for the book and its reader to find each other, maybe two weeks from now, or maybe in two years.
A small print run means choosing one’s distribution channels carefully. Here in the Philippines, “proper,” i.e., traditional, distribution means selling through National Bookstore and Powerbooks. How many times have I heard the question, “Ha? Wala kayo sa National?” And I tell them exactly why. Selling at NBS and Powerbooks means agreeing to their consignment terms of 40% to 50% consignment commission per title (at least) on top of the 1% marketing charge. The store is not accountable for soiled or lost copies, so the publisher absorbs this as loss. (On top of the 41 to 51% commission-slash-marketing-charge.) Then the cost of delivering the books and pulling them out. (Not sure if this is still done per branch–POSTSCRIPT: It is.)
Seriously? How is this fair? How is this helpful to publishers? Am I naïve to expect a local bookstore that’s willing to work with local publishers? Is it so wrong for these stores to maximize profit? That’s their business, that’s how they contribute to society. (No, it’s no longer just “their business” and how they “contribute to society.” Unfortunately for members of High Chair, I foam at the mouth when it comes to distribution via these two giants, so for the record, let me just say that this rage is all mine.) We don’t sell our books at National Bookstore and Powerbooks because we don’t agree with their consignment policy and we choose to sell our books through small and independent bookstores that are not out to maximize profit. And of course we don’t want to increase our print run just so that we can afford their consignment terms and consequently support their policy. I’m sure our absence is no great loss for these bookstore chains when they have school supplies to sell. Still: one must be able to recognize and resist/reject any setup where the interest of one party (alternative press) has little bearing/effect on another (giant bookstore chain), whose indifference or prejudices in turn can affect the former to a great degree (survival).
When it’s not about profit, how then does an alternative press survive? How does one continue one’s work outside maximum revenues, traditional channels, and institutional backing? I believe that a publisher worth its alternative salt should keep asking these questions as it does its work. Pressures will always be there and it is up to the alternative press to determine which concessions mean a lack of commitment and which ones may even serve to open up new ways of organizing and sustaining oneself. And we can’t tell or know from the get-go. We have to find our answers along the way.
I’ve learned that an alternative press, if it is to survive, must resist existing for its sake alone. One cannot overstate the role of the community to our survival. I realize that, as a reader, I have to support the efforts of alternative presses if their presence in the community is important to me. High Chair has been very lucky to keep meeting like-minded people willing to work with us despite our limited funding. Poets, visual artists, and museums allow the free use of their poems and artworks in our website and books, members and friends give their design and programming services either for free or for a song, and a printing press grants us outrageously flexible payment plans as long as we don’t publish porn.
Grateful to this intimate, supportive community, we donate books, hold free poetry workshops, lectures, and poetry appreciation sessions. We forego maximum profit. High Chair alone may not have the means to sustain itself, but there is a community of readers, writers, artists, suppliers, and just plain Good Samaritans that supports our efforts. They read our books, contribute their works to the online journal, and open themselves up to conversations. They believe that society should still have room for endeavors that resist traditional and narrow economic values, and they are willing to help create this space.
Lastly and for the record, High Chair doesn’t call itself alternative. It is a nonprofit small press. This isn’t to disavow the social goals of alternative presses that we, by some of our choices, espouse. It’s just that, sometimes, the label alternative is reduced to glorified self-marginalization. Challenging the beliefs and business practices of mainstream presses is never an end unto itself. By continuing our work as small or independent or alternative or nonprofit presses, we have to contribute to broader goals of inclusivity, community engagement, and accountability. Thank you very much.