The power of the small press: On self-publishing in the digital age

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"Self-publishing” is at the core of Better Living Through Xeroxography (BLTX), which started out as a thousand-word manifesto previously published in the Philippines Free Press, written by BLTX’s co-founder Adam David, who constantly encouraged for “literary patricide." Photo by ARABELLA PANER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Better Living Through Xeroxography (BLTX) is one of the more established small press expos that found its origin in Manila and has expanded its reach far beyond the capital since its inception in 2010. This year, there were five events operating under its banner, taking place all throughout December in five places around the Philippines: Quezon City, Naga, Davao, Cagayan de Oro, and Baguio. The expo featured the brightest emerging stars from the literary underground. Writing organizations from a variety of different colleges, small collectives unaffiliated with any major publishing houses, individual creators of komiks, poetry, and whatever else also collaborated to color each scene with life, finding ways around the arduous task of publishing and distributing their own work.

“Self-publishing” is at the core of the endeavor, which started out as a thousand-word manifesto previously published in the Philippines Free Press written by BLTX’s co-founder Adam David, who constantly encouraged for “literary patricide” — in his words — which meant “the divorce of artistic practice from the padrino system” or the act of taking control of one’s own work with regard to publishing and distribution independent from (and out of a discontent for) mainstream publishers and other major sponsors.

Now, BLTX has grown into a full-fledged small independent press fueled by a community sustained by both its buyers and sellers, sharing with each other the time, knowledge, and space to develop from being “mere dabblers” into “nuanced artisans.”

bltx Among the many venues of BLTX is Ilyongs, located in Quezon City. Photo by ARABELLA PANER  

The first of the expo series found itself filled with people navigating the narrow confines and eventually spilling out of the venue — Ilyong’s in Cubao, Quezon City, its spiritual home. Patrons were bombarded by books, ‘zines, stickers, prints, and other interesting items crafted, reproduced, and sold to them directly by their creators, establishing an intimate bond between the artists and their audience, setting up a space for a direct dialogue between the writer and the reader.

In a quest to abolish the middleman and “kill” literary parents, David notes however that what BLTX is doing is “nothing new,” citing previous small press inspirations such as Komikon, High Chair, KM64, university writing orgs, and established self-publishers, who have all contributed to the “whittling down of the mainstream press stranglehold in literary production.”

On the surface, BLTX feels like a mere pocket of resistance against the cutthroat and elitist world of publishing, yet it is abuzz with life in spite of its size, proving the vibrancy and vigor of the world of writing that lies outside the institution. CNN Philippines Life talks to David about the history of BLTX, self-publishing in the digital age, and what the mainstream press can learn from the small and independent.

bltx BLTX co-founders Adam David and Chingbee Cruz. For David, "self-publishing is ... also a means to insist that we create art for reasons other than pandering to a market or making a profit." Photo by ARABELLA PANER  

How has BLTX grown from its beginnings in 2010, to the most recent leg of events?

I may be biased, but I feel BLTX has flourished rather well in the last seven-nearly-eight years of continuous activity, as a series of expos and fora, and also as a practice of artistic production. When the 2009 manifesto came out, small press publishing was for the dregs of literature, the writers whose writing will never pass muster in the proper presses for one reason or another — which for most people meant no institutional backing by way of writer-teacher familiarity, no prizes won, no works published in the Philippines Free Press or Philippines Graphic.

A lot of things and events and people contributed to the whittling down of the mainstream press stranglehold in literary production … BLTX's own contribution to this, at least since 2009, is its constant overtly political framing of the practice. Framing it as such is not entirely new, as anyone will realize if they bother to even just scratch the surface of the history of the small press (even just the history of the last 50 years, let alone the history of the last 100 years, last 200 years, all the way to Gutenberg), but it is definitely something worth reminding people of, especially now when you can see the mainstream presses finally reacting to the small press very much as a capitalist does, by buying it out in various ways — republishing the books, publishing authors who work under genres mainstream publishers previously ignored, but later proved to be successful in the small press, hosting their own events patterned after small press events, even adjusting their practice to reflect practice developed and improved upon by small press publishers.

It didn't take the mainstream publishers too long to do all this, they've been doing it these last two years more or less, and once you get National Bookstore hosting a talk on ‘zine-making in Raffles Hotel in one of their annual literary festivals, you know it's high time to remind people again just what all this is actually about.

Small press publishing is fortunately broad enough politically that it can address everyone across the class spectrum, but it also addresses a specific enough concern that it fortunately becomes overtly political. It is in that sense that the small press is truly anarchist.

Is self-publishing becoming more necessary for young writers and artists today?

I wouldn't call it necessary, as I feel it has developed into more of a fact of life thing than a choice thing. In a sense, thanks to the internet and social media as a tool for production, distribution, and self-promotion, self-publishing is now the default condition for everyone and anyone who has dedicated themselves to contemporary cultural production. I think it's always been the default condition, only the terms of engagement were too high for most people, but nowadays it's definitely easier to do, thus becoming more and more the norm than the exception. This is true in book production as it is in music, in film, in games, in software. Even in stuff like craft production, with artisanal stuff like rubber stamps and repurposed furniture and tarp bags, everyone has turned into their own budding capitalist.

Hopefully, a majority of us will still manage to keep our souls intact when the dust begins to settle (and it will) around everyone. It would be a step in the right direction if our efforts go toward a stronger DIY community rather than migrate to corporations, who are always on the lookout for potentially profitable enterprises that they can buy out, co-opt, and absorb. Chingbee Cruz [BLTX co-founder], for example, who writes mainly poetry, turned to self-publishing as a way to produce her work despite the lack of a market. Self-publishing is, after all, also a means to insist that we create art for reasons other than pandering to a market or making a profit.

bltx While a paperless culture is viable especially in the age of digital media, David says "physical will almost always win out." He adds: "With books ... the physical output is the actual medium." Photo by ARABELLA PANER  

How is the local DIY print culture evolving? How different was it from when you started BLTX?

Here in Manila, more people are doing exclusively merch stuff, and by that I mean non-narrative printed materials like stickers, patches, wallets, coin purses, notebooks, t-shirts, pins, buttons, stamps, postcards, and sketchbooks. Desktop and small scale (print on demand) POD have also evolved to look prettier for a relatively cheaper price, but interestingly, the SRP for the merch and ‘zines have steadily gone up the last couple of years to reflect the prettier production. I chalk this up as consequence of Hipster Economics, middle class kids with hobbies turned into artisanal customised craft micro businesses and the self-worth it generates among producers and consumers driving up the SRPs to double or triple what the SRP would have been two to three years ago. This is true of Komikon, certainly in Local Loca, and this year with BLTX.

Around four years ago, you could go through a whole expo buying things and not exceed ₱2,000. Now, ₱2,000 probably means you only bought stuff from two sellers. It has its advantages and disadvantages. I still personally veer towards cheaper SRP with focus on works with narrative content (poetry, prose, komix), but I don't begrudge anyone who would do the exact opposite of that, especially with the consistently high quality of a lot of stuff out there nowadays.

bltx "The El Bimbo Variations" (2008), written by Adam David. Photo by ARABELLA PANER  

A lot of writers and artists now work with digital media. But is it still important to have physical reiterations of these works or do you feel like a nearly paperless print culture could still be viable?

A paperless culture is still viable, not to mention, for the most part, probably more practical nowadays in the ecological sense that going digital means less paper consumption and less actual space taken up by paper objects, and for the most part I support that with my own production —  the Youth & Beauty Brigade, the small press effort Chingbee and I run. We release both the PDF and the printed versions of most of our books, and we do POD and direct market selling with our more major titles in print because doing it POD means you only print the number of copies that you need to have printed, and direct marketing helps you determine just how many copies you need, so no excess copies, no need for warehouse space, not much money out.

But physical will almost always win out. I think the only medium where digital wins is home video. With books (and ‘zines and komix and other printed material), form is also content, the physical output its actual medium. You have to hold it to access it, and with reading material, we tend to have very tactile and spatial relationships with them: we fold their corners to bookmark them, we underline segments, we write on the margins, we photocopy the pages, we tear some pages out, we stick them to the fridge, we smell the pages, we often remember which chapter some segments are in and we often remember them in relation to the book's thickness, etc. ... And we will always have this relationship with printed material. And you'll always want to have something you can enjoy without needing to plug anything to a socket.

bltx BLTX patrons were bombarded by books, ‘zines, stickers, prints, and other interesting items crafted, reproduced, and sold to them directly by their creators, establishing an intimate bond between the artists and their audience, setting up a space for a direct dialogue between the writer and the reader. Photo by ARABELLA PANER  

Also, for all the talk of "online communities," something has to be said for living, breathing bodies getting together to talk about and exchange stuff they made by hand. The community that is BLTX is made possible by the physical things we produce independently — we need to step away from our keyboards, get out of our houses and workplaces, and gather in one place to buy or barter for each other's work, trade information on resources for production (good paper sources, cheap printing deals), and discuss each other's art practices (from why you write or draw the way you do, to how you made the work made available at the expo, to why you're part of which collective). DIY efforts demand and encourage community-building IRL. And as we've always known, and as the widespread protest actions these days are reiterating to us, more meaningful things happen when warm bodies that mass up are involved.

What is the greatest thing the mainstream publishing world can learn from the small independent press?

That it will always be feeding from the scraps of the small press.