What Visprint’s closing says about the local publishing industry

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One thing Visprint’s books — which include Bob Ong’s books, “Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah,” and “Kikomachine Komiks” — all have in common is that they push boundaries and challenge perspectives. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — After weeks of speculation, Visprint, the publishing house behind many cult-favorite titles, confirmed via a statement posted Jan. 13 on Facebook that it would be closing up shop by 2021, adding that its founders, brothers Efren and Nido Gatus, would be retiring after. It will be releasing its last four upcoming titles within the year, after which it will no longer be publishing new material and will be focusing on finishing off remaining stocks.

Fans and creators expressed their grief and gratitude; illustrator Rob Cham, creator of the comics “Light” and “Lost,” took to Twitter, saying he owes a lot to Visprint in terms of his career and becoming his gateway to discovering local comics.

“I was shocked,” says Eliza Victoria, who published a number of works with Visprint including the novels “Dwellers” and “Wounded Little Gods.” “My newest book [‘Nightfall’] was just released in December. I never thought Visprint would ever close, as the publishing house continues to reach greater heights.” Just three years ago, she points out, it had been named Publisher of the Year at the National Book Awards.

Screenwriter Jerry Grácio, who published his memoir “Bagay Tayo” and its accompanying poetry collection “Hindi Bagay” under Visprint, wrote a lengthy Facebook post, where he posits that the publisher took a gamble on authors it believed in, beginning as a David facing off against the Goliath that is a lack of faith in contemporary Filipino literature.

“Maaaring hindi nito nagapi si Goliath,” he wrote, “pero ipinakita sa atin ng Visprint ang mga posibilidad kung paanong mababago, kahit paano, ang publishing landscape sa bansa, kapag tinayaan nito ang ating mga manunulat at manlilikha.”

How it began

Visprint started out as a print and photocopy shop which opened along Recto in 1984, and it wasn’t until 2001 that they ventured into trade publishing. “The owners wanted a continuous job for the offset machines so they were initially looking at publishing a magazine-type material,” says publishing manager Nida Ramirez. “The peg was Reader’s Digest but very local. Knowing how massive work a monthly magazine entails, I suggested we try books first.”

It was around this time that the author known as Bob Ong announced his intentions to write a book. “I emailed him an offer, fully disclosing that it would be our first time to try out publishing. He took the risk. And the rest is history.” The resulting book “ABNKKBSNPLAko?!,” the debut of both Ong and Visprint Publishing, became a bestseller and was eventually adapted into a feature film starring Jericho Rosales in 2014. It launched a long partnership between the author and the company.

Many of its titles have garnered worldwide acclaim, with some becoming iconic pieces of Filipino pop culture, including comics like Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo’s supernatural crime series “Trese,” which is being adapted for Netflix, Manix Abrera’s collected “Kikomachine Komix” strips, Carlo Vergara’s LGBT superhero “Zsazsa Zaturnnah,” which has been adapted for both stage and film, and Mervin Malonzo’s mythological horror series “Tabi Po,” which was adapted into a series by Cignal TV in 2017.

One thing its books all have in common is that they push boundaries and challenge perspectives, whether it’s the form they take, the stories they tell, or the conventions they shake up in our way of life. It also helps that according to Victoria’s observation, they tend to market their titles with good-natured humor, coming off as approachable, accessible, and down-to-earth.

“Primarily, the material should be very Filipino [in] theme, settings, or characters,” Ramirez says of their selection process. “We wanted Filipinos to read about Filipinos.”

And now, for something completely different

“Ang vision nina Ms. Nida at Ms. Kyra [Ballesteros, former managing editor] para sa mas de kalidad na popular literature ang nagdala sa Visprint for so long at ang nagbukod-tangi sa publisher na ‘to mula sa iba — na hindi naman talaga mahirap gawin, sa totoo lang,” says author Adam David, who worked with them primarily as a book designer, editor, and blurb writer. “Ang tunay na innovation ng Visprint ay ang umangat nang kaunti mula sa bare minimum effort ng mainstream publishing practice.”

The publisher also treats its authors with care and respect, which Ramirez describes as “very open and cordial relationships.” This includes non-restrictive contracts that don’t require them to sign away their author’s rights and allow them to keep their copyrights intact.

“My experience with Visprint has always been positive,” Victoria says. “I appreciate their transparency and their attention. Their contracts are author-friendly and royalty statements are clear.” It doesn’t hurt, she adds, that she is a fan of other Visprint authors, “who are great company during book-signing events.”

“Bilang designer at editor, sila ang isa sa napakakaunting professional publisher na nakatrabaho ko dito sa Pilipinas,” says David. “Laging malinaw ang usapan, may espasyo para sa diskusyon kung may isyu, may lakas rin ng loob para pumatol sa mga counter-intuitive na desisyon tulad ng paglimbag ng libro na walang pamagat sa front cover. At nagbabayad sila nang maayos.”

On its website, Visprint declares, “We endeavor to offer Filipino authors the writing space they deserve, and to provide the Filipino readers with more books which touch the Pinoy in them.” It made good on this promise, giving new voices and renowned creators an alternative platform with more room for experimentation and out-of-the-box concepts, while readers got more options to choose from and got to discover what Filipino creators are capable of.

While the once-independent Visprint is now a traditional publisher, it nonetheless shows the importance of smaller presses, which value creativity and expression over market value and pave the way for anyone and everyone to publish and engage with all kinds of material about anything and everything. It also highlights how it pays to root for the underdog.

“We have a vibrant self-publishing and small press scene that provides a platform for a plurality of voices,” Victoria says. “But Visprint as a traditional publisher provides the services that authors like myself may not have the time or expertise to do themselves — editing, printing, distribution, marketing, and accounting.”

Ramirez also views small presses as necessary. “Because of their accessibility and openness to newbies and indies,” she says, “‘untested materials’ or unknown authors are discovered and exposed to the public.”

The end of an era

When David first heard of the possibility that Visprint would be closing, he says, “Hindi rin naman sumama ang loob ko sa balita dahil nangyayari naman ang mga ganung bagay.” When people associated with the company were told of the reason behind the closure, however, David says that “nakumpirma lang muli na ang lagay ng mainstream press ay nasa dikta talaga ng mga kapitalistang nagpapatakbo nito, hindi sa mga may-akda, hindi sa mga mambabasa.”

As has happened too many times before, Visprint became another testament to the fact that even in publishing, a company’s integrity and genuine passion for its work and the fervent support of the people who believe in it aren’t deemed as important as profitability. And ultimately, sometimes the best option is to end on its own terms and stay true to its ideals.

“It is [accessibility and humor that] made Visprint popular among young readers, that introduced teenagers to local lore that hopefully will turn into a life-long love for stories written by Filipinos,” Victoria says. “And that will be the legacy Visprint will leave behind, a generation of young readers who will remember our culture and our myths, who will protect who we are, especially in these difficult times.”

According to Ramirez, Visprint has made a mark with the stories that a whole generation of readers grew up with. And upon its closure, she says, “we hope that more publishers will be less hesitant to try out new stories or new ways of telling them.”

There is a need for bookstores to champion Filipino authors and publishers by expanding their selections and making it easier to discover local titles, so that they can fulfill the demands of readers — because, according to Victoria, there is a demand.

Visprint ended its statement by imploring readers to appreciate, support, and foster a new generation of writers and comic creators, not only in seeking them out to buy and read their work, but also in helping them get the recognition they deserve. “Pag-usapan, punahin, kilalanin ang iba’t ibang uri ng akdang nababasa ninyo,” the post said. “Nasa kamay ninyo, mga mambabasa, ang kinabukasan at pagpapatuloy ng mga akdang Filipino.”