Andrea Pasion-Flores: Pushing the Asian Agenda

andrea“Asians have far too long been the consumer of books from the West and I speak from a country where many kids know the stories of the West better than their own canon, much less the younger writers,” says Andrea Pasion-Flores in this exclusive interview with Kitaab. “I am sure this is not just true for the Philippines but for many Asian countries.”

Andrea is the first literary agent from the Philippines, working from the Philippines. Recently, she joined Jacaranda Literary Agency as an agent. Jacaranda is one of Asia’s most well-known literary agencies with offices in Singapore, India, Kenya and the Philippines.

Based in Manila, Philippines, Andrea is a copyright lawyer and she teaches English at the University of the Philippines as a member of the faculty of the Department of English and Comparative Literature.  She is also the author of a bestselling book, Have Baby Will Date, published by Summit Media. Her forthcoming collection of stories For Love and Kisses will be published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House in January 2014.

Andrea is the former Executive Director of the National Book Development Board of the Philippines, where she was known for her pioneering work introducing high-impact literary events to the country.  Starting with Lit Out Loud (2010),  followed by The Great Philippine Book Café (2011) and Read Lit District (2012) the Philippines is now a permanent fixture on the literary calendar, attracting distinguished writers such as Vikas Swarup, Junot Diaz, Edward P. Jones and Chris Abani.

It was during Andrea’s term at the NBDB that it administered the National Book Awards, transforming it into a larger event, as well as the bi-annual National Children’s Book Awards.

Andrea will be in Singapore during the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival where she will be moderating some tracks during the SWF Publishing Symposium.

You have been a magazine editor, a teacher, a writer and a government administrator. Now you are also a literary agent. How do you manage to wear so many hats?

It sounds like a lot but it really stems from one thing—the love for words, a love for books in particular, the reading and writing of them. You know how you feel when you’ve read a good book and after having finished it, you just want to run out of the house and grab the first person you see and say, “You have to stop what you’re doing and read this!” Of course, we now have social media to satisfy that urge, but that’s exactly how I feel about every good book I come across, especially the books of Asia. I want to go out there and say, “Read this!”

The many hats stem from that one passion, and in my life, when I didn’t know where an MA in Creative Writing and a degree in law would take me, I guess I just pushed on till it led me to all sorts of things that prepared me to go deep into the world of books in the Philippines and, I hope, deep into the big wide world of book publishing as well, carrying with me this Asian-ness that I hope the world appreciates.

Asians have far too long been the consumer of books from the West and I speak from a country where many kids know the stories of the West better than their own canon, much less the younger writers. I am sure this is not just true for the Philippines but for many Asian countries. I am not the first person to feel the need to push the Asian agenda, there are many people who feel this way because our stories are rich, varied, and paint a picture of Asia that’s different from the stereotype. So we have to be out there. We need people to push Asian stories—agents, journalists, publishes, writers, and all forms of media. I think I am the first literary agent from the Philippines, working from the Philippines.

Also, and I know this is difficult, but Asians living outside of the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe have a much tougher time breaking into the mainstream because our stories are probably not what the mainstream expects, but they need to read more of us to be able to appreciate our stories, so it’s a little bit of a Catch 22 that we must get out of. We must educate readers to appreciate our stories, but we can’t do that if they don’t read our stuff. Thankfully, the world is getting there and it’s providing us with tools to get our stories across. I am confident we can all do it if we put ourselves behind this. So, in a long-winded manner, I guess I want to say that my being a literary agent is serendipitous, with all the forces around me showing me towards this direction because I feel it’s about time it happens. People are ready. I’m ready.

What were your major achievements as Executive Director of the National Book Development Board of the Philippines?

Hmmm, this might sound like I’m tooting my own horn. Let me see. First, you must understand that the National Book Development Board of the Philippines is a small agency created to work for the privatization of textbooks in the public school system.  When I got the job, the privatization had been going on for more than a decade already, so much of that work was done. But there was little the agency was doing for trade books, which was, of course, where my passion was coming from. There were small events here and there, but not much of the big things people could look forward to, like literary festivals, publishing conferences. So I started doing those things.

It was also a good thing that the Manila Critics Circle was looking for a home for the Philippines’ National Book Awards, and they thought the NBDB was just the place for it. So I helped push for that. And because I had been going to the Asian Festival for Children’s Content in Singapore and was invited to be a member of the board, after every AFCC, I would come home wishing there was something for children’s literature that could be done, too, because children’s lit in the Philippines just needed its own space. So, in partnership with a local organization also passionate about children’s lit, I helped push for the National Children’s Book Awards to be administered by the NBDB. Before I left the NBDB, because the members of this current board are sympathetic towards children’s literature, with a chair who is herself a children’s book author, they were only too happy for the NBDB to organize a children’s literary festival.

Also, when the Philippine copyright law was undergoing amendments, I made sure there were provisions in there that were friendlier towards books and authors. I think every year for more than the six years I was at the NBDB, I, with other groups working with the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines, kept plugging in the agenda of books, authors, collective management of authors’ rights, et cetera. It’s simple really: to be able to keep writing, the author must be able to sustain himself through his creations, and that is through the protection of his copyright, building the perception in the minds of people that the author’s work is valuable, and should be appreciated as much as one appreciates the services of a doctor or a lawyer, expecting that people should pay for their products, products of the mind. It’s how the author will sell books, sustain his craft.

There were other things in between, like putting poetry in the train system, working with the industry to remove duties and taxes on imported books, exhibits and performances in the malls, etc. All of them were ways by which the public could get a taste of Philippine literature.

How do you think the literary scene in Philippines evolved over the years? How does it compare to other markets in the region such as Japan, China and India?

Okay, I’m going to mix talking about literary titles and publishing here without actually talking about book history. So be forewarned!

I think, like many markets around the world, literary titles are not the bestsellers. I remember reading somewhere that there is only one country in the world where literary titles are bestsellers, and that is Chile. I think they stand proud—and sadly alone—with that distinction. However, as with many countries, it is the literary work that is the heart and soul of a nation, and though our literary writers see little to no gratification from their writing, they keep on, knowing that they are not writing for money (though that should change someday, we hope). Actually, Philippine independence was brought about by two novels (Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo) of our most prominent hero Jose Rizal.  Of course, whether this lofty place in history translates into sales for literary titles is another thing altogether.

A recent survey of the NBDB showed how book reading has gone down over the past few years. I know that that is due to many factors brought about by the many challenges faced by a developing country, other than the onset of the Internet. Internet purchases, for example, is not big in the Philippines yet to make an impact on book-buying, nor has there been a comparable phenomenon as books sold through serialized content over mobile phones as there is in Japan. So, talking of trade books, I think I can say that the Philippines is primarily a print-book market still.

Books written in Filipino (which is the Tagalog-based official language) sell more than books written in English. And, like many markets, such as Japan for example, the market of most books is primarily the youth market—because they have the time and the disposable income to buy books, so you can just imagine what kinds of books sell. However, like the rest of the world, if there is a fantastic story out there worth reading, people buy it, which just tells you, as long as people read, there will always be a market for the books writers want to write because people are as diverse as the many kinds of content created. So it’s a matter of matching the book with the publisher and reader, connecting.

As for China, this historically and culturally rich, fascinating country has long mesmerized the world and, really, the many stories of human adversity and triumph that this country has and continues to create is just fodder for literature and books. Now that it has become a super power, it continues to capture our attention as well.

In the Philippines, I think we see now and then novels set during the time of Martial Law (declared by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972). That is a great source of pain for the country. Cory Aquino (our current President’s mother) ran against Marcos in a snap election, lost in that rigged election but was catapulted to power through a peaceful revolution on EDSA. Our President’s own father Ninoy Aquino was assassinated during the Marcos era. He was part of the opposition. Perhaps, one of the novels in Filipino that dealt with this period of the country’s history might be translated into English for the world to read. (I am working on getting a few of those stories out!)

India has a long history of writing and reading in English, so the market for books in English is formidable, not to mention, because of the population, books enjoy a fairly good amount of sales. Also, a rich culture has a lot of stories to tell, which is why there are so many good writers from India, too. This is something it shares with China.

As for sales, I’ve noticed that any kind of book in China seems to cost only a tenth or a quarter of how much books cost in the Philippines. Books in India are about forty to fifty percent cheaper than books in the Philippines. I am sure there are many reasons for this, but volume surely plays a huge factor.

Indonesia, with a population of about 240 million is a fantastic market. Imagine being read only by a tenth of that population! Of course, if you want to sell in Indonesia, translating your book to Bahasa is necessary.

You will be in Singapore in November for a publishing symposium. Why this symposium is important?

The Singapore Publishing Symposium will bring to Asia publishers from all over who will share their expertise learned through years in the business, which is always a reason to go to any conference, but I think a very important part of conferences is that we will also get to know each other, see what each of us are doing. I’ve come to learn that though the book publishing world is big, it is still small in a sense that personal relationships are important, getting to know people, having coffee or a few drinks with them goes a long way, and this very personal relationship cannot be replaced by Skype (though this helps!).

Also, I think it is extremely important to bring to Asia, even at a pace of one or two or three or four publishers or editors or literary agents at a time, for them to get a feel of Asia. They need to be in Asia to feel the vibe and to appreciate the stories. So these conferences are small and continuing steps to get our stories out there. Singapore is playing a major role in bringing Asia to the world, and the world to Asia. It’s very exciting!

What kind of writers should attend this symposium? What can they expect to achieve or learn out of this exercise?

All kinds of writers should go (aside from publishers from the region!). I would attend sessions like The Pitch. I would want to test my ideas on the professionals, see how it feels to push my manuscript to a publisher or agent. I think many writers lack the selling chutzpah to push their work—and I use the word selling in its most prosaic sense. No matter how fantastic a book is in terms of its literary merit, publishing is still a business that, aside from being wonderfully written, our books are products that must sell. For writers, this is going to be a tough panel because we have to deal with rejection. Then, when accepted we have to face the possibility of being heavily edited. This is tough for a writer because we’re not selling things that come out of an assembly line, we’re peddling our intellectual creations. It’s personal; a rejection feels like a rejection of the person. But we have to overcome that and learn from it. So, if I were there this would top my list. But we have to toughen up for this particular panel—but, imagine if your work actually gets picked up! That would be a coup!

As a lawyer, may I push for the master class on copyright (yes this is as selfie J)? I know this will not be the most popular panel because it is not as exciting as genre writing, for example, which might be a concurrent session. However, if you don’t read the fine print because you don’t know what to look for, you will be sorry (and poorer!).

Asians are very bad at this. We don’t like talking about money. It’s so distasteful. We trust people too much, then bear disappointments, expecting them even. (That’s why agents are important!) In the Philippines, for example, most writers will just sign a contract without reading it only because they want to be published. Thus, they cannot make a living out of writing, thus the low regard for the profession. That should all change.

Now that you are an agent, will you attempt to write more books?

Yes, I have to because I am also in the academe, and to get ahead in the academe I have to publish (or perish!). I am actually in the midst of a novel. Since I write short stories, this is slow going for me. I’m cheating my way out of it by writing five interconnected stories of women who met tragic, violent deaths though I am trying to make that lighter by putting in an element that I hope will work.

I know I have been neglecting this part of my life and I did promise myself that when I leave the NBDB, I would get back to it soon. I am seriously thinking of NaNoWriMo to help me through this. I wanted to do NaNo every year I was in the NBDB but could not find the time. If I am unable to join it this year, I will impose a PerDecWriMo (Personal December Writing Month). Ha! Okay, corny. In any case, I cannot live with myself if I don’t write, so I will certainly do that. My collection of short stories (coming in January 2014 hopefully) took more or less ten years to complete. I’m not daunted by the time it takes to write something I hope is worth reading though I know I should be quicker about it.


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