Adam David on small press expo Better Living Through Xeroxography

Taking a page out of my friend Rie Takumi’s book, particularly when she conducted a lengthy interview with legendary Ateneo High School teacher Onofre Pagsanghan and couldn’t include it all in her article.

Parts of this interview, which was conducted via Facebook chat due to conflicting schedules during the event itself, will appear in an article about small press expo Better Living Through Xeroxography IV for GMA News Online. Here is the interview in full.

Q: What inspired you to start BLTX?
A: I wrote an entire essay on this a few years ago, when I used to write stuff for the Philippine Free Press. You can read it here.
The short version of it is: the impetus was the disdain I felt for how mainstream publishers and retailers were ruining the art and industry of publishing with their efforts to maintain their respective franchises and monopolies. I also believed that a lot of the truly good, truly new work were being produced by people who were left by the wayside. I thought that maybe there’s a way to organise most of these people and have their production be available somehow in some way.

Q: How come some years, there isn’t a forum? How do you determine the forum topics?
A: The real practical cause for this is the availability of venues that are hip enough to tolerate our demands – little to no cost, big enough to house at least thirty people, can be open the whole day. Now we’re trying to plan it in such a way that we do at least two major expos a year, one with a forum, and another with a workshop.

So far, the topics are chosen based on their relevance with regards to whatever practical publishing concern needs addressing. The first forum that we did – in Chef’s Bistro Morato, BLTX 2, March 2011 – we covered the most number of topics that we could inside of twelve hours or so, all about practical publishing concerns like how to apply halftone patterns on your art so they won’t produce Moiree effects on the page, what to watch out for when looking for a good printer for your books, how to make your self-publishing effort a sustainable project and not just some fly-by-night operation, etc etc.

The most recent forum – in the Lopez Museum, BLTX 4, December 2013 – covered only one topic: establishing alternative ways of book distribution. Lots of reasons why this is important, but this was mainly influenced by National Bookstore’s impending effort to cut its shelf space down to 30% for all the books they’re selling – all the genres, from both international and local publishers. It’s a very real threat, set to cripple the book industry in a significant way.

Funny thing is, another reason why we’re doing BLTX is so we can make available to people books and komix and zines that they won’t otherwise see in the shelves of places like National Bookstore – well, with National Bookstore cutting down the shelf space, even the mainstream publishers are going to be in that same situation. Happy to announce that some self-publishers and small press outfits already have some solutions for this problem. We felt it is to everyone’s advantage if we shared them to other like-minded individuals and groups.

Q: Why was BLTX at the Lopez Museum this year/how did you get them to agree as a venue?
A: More or less our priorities aligned somewhat, haha.

Personally, though – BLTX was conceived as a happening that can ideally be adapted to any given situation or setting, as long as there are writers, artists, musicians, et al, who are marginalised somehow, by choice or by force. The spirit of the thing is to unionise these people, to empower them, to show them that their efforts, however small, are noticed, can have an audience. In short, the actual physical setting only matters on a secondary level, the first and foremost concern of the project is how to help these people get connected.

The first three BLTXs were set in Ilyong’s, a videoke bar operating in the street I grew up in, hardly an art institution, and the venue’s easy-going drunken non-art circumstances helped shape the small small press community that makes BLTX happen. But sadly, with any and all groups of people with a limited number of members, I felt the concept – and the community – needed some form of shaking-/shaping-up. Thus the choice to stage this year’s expo in the hallowed halls of an art institution, to see if the concept (and community) can survive such a change of circumstances – remember that one of BLTX’s points is that it is portable, adaptable, should be able to work in any place as long as there are marginal publishers etc etc.

Happy to report that even with a number of people vocally disagreeing with the change of venue – and it has to be said, I share all of their concerns – the event was still successful, successful in the sense that this most recent expo not only had the most number of sellers, but setting it as a morning-to-afternoon thing attracted a number of new type of buyers. We were also able to give DIY food people – mainly bakers – space and time to sell their stuff, something we weren’t able to do when we were doing it in the videoke bar. Some people complained that the museum setting didn’t allow for them to hangout, certainly an activity that helps cement communities, but then some people mentioned that the more sober atmosphere of the museum allowed them to interact more with the community people, so I suppose it really depends, too, on what you want to get out of the thing.

But of course, just because we did the most recent one in the museum doesn’t mean we’ll always be doing it in museums from now on, in the same way that just because we did the first three in a videoke bar doesn’t mean we’ll always be doing it in a videoke bar. The concept is for the thing to be portable, and I don’t think there’ll always be a videoke bar or a museum in Baguio if we decide to do it in Baguio, or in Cebu if we decide to do it in Cebu.

Q: How do you know when a BLTX event has been successful?
A: My expectations are always low when it comes to these things – as long as people sell stuff, as long as people buy stuff, as long as people are happy while buying and selling stuff, I think it’s a success. Of course, it’s always good to hear when people report that they earned almost thirty thousand pesos in one afternoon, so there’s that, but there are also people who only managed to sell six copies of their books, so there’s that, too, but I can imagine that that happens in all of these events. But I don’t really know. Maybe the increasing number of sellers every year means more and more people are wanting to join the thing, which is probably indicative of some measure of success in terms of PR word-of-mouth thing, which is probably indicative of some measure of success in a holistic sense.

Q: How do you fund the event?
A: It’s always been crowd-funded for the most part, in the sense that participants pay a uniform fee for the tables and chairs (and food and drinks when we do it in the videoke bar). When we do it in the videoke bar, we charge around P500 per table, as bars have more of a target amount to earn for the night to justify our comandeering the facilities for the duration of the event. For the museum, because they’re more sympathetic with art concerns (however it may fuel their own artistic curatorial capital), I was able to lower the amount to P100 per table, which meant we were only paying for the rental for the tables and chairs (= two tables and two chairs = P80 + P20). All the other expenses – for the recent one, food for the forum speakers, for example – I use my own money, earned from my day job as a longshoreman in Manila (joke: I’m a layout artist for a sustainability-report-design studio).

Q: How would you say BLTX has helped make a dent in the publishing scene, if any?
A: Can’t really say, truth be told. I’m hoping we’re somehow setting some sort of example, showing some people that there are other ways to get their words out. We’re trying to do out best! It’s probably safe to say that there are more self-publishers and small press people now than four years ago, but I can’t justifiably say that it’s all because of BLTX. There are other, bigger entities that also support independent work, like Komikon, and I can safely say without envy or ache in my heart of hearts that they’re far more influential than we are. But that’s just splitting hairs, as our goals are more or less the same, and proceeding towards the same general direction.


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