June 2007
Literature and Literacy

No chicken feed profits

PSICOM publisher Arnel Gabriel [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

WOMEN’S literature has been around for ages, but the subgenre now known as chick lit didn’t really come to life until the late 1990s. Here in the Philippines, industry insiders place its debut to have taken place in 2002, which is about the time Summit Books began publishing English-language novels for young, female urbanites. Since then, chick lit has become one of the top moneymakers of the local book industry, with its books having print runs far beyond those of other local titles. The usual print run for other books is 1,000 copies each. Summit, which is credited even by its rivals as having gotten chick lit going, has printed at least 10,000 copies of each of its 12 chick-lit titles. Three of these have enjoyed second print runs.

PSICOM Publishing says its own line of chick-lit books has yet to surpass the sales of its horror novels, which happen to be its bread and butter. But it doesn’t deny chick lit has been good to its cash register. Encouraged by Summit’s success, it printed 5,000 copies for each of its chick-lit titles, four of which have already gone into second printing.

PSICOM publisher Arnel Gabriel readily admits that they “copied” Summit’s chick-lit formula. His company has published seven chick-lit books so far, and plans to release another five. PSICOM has already made at least P1 million from its chick-lit titles, which it sells from P85 to P120 each. (Summit sells its chick-lit books for P150 each.)

Gabriel says if they sell 5,000 copies of a book, it’s a good showing. If a book sells 10,000 copies, it’s a bestseller. Anvil Publishing, meanwhile, says it considers a book a bestseller if it sells 20,000 copies, but allows that the number determining a bestseller varies across genres. It also says it does not publish chick-lit books, although it distributes erotic literature, which it says is the closest thing it has to chick lit.

Local chick-lit books target middle- and upper-class Pinays. Although written in English, they are sprinkled with Tagalog expressions, and set in upscale urban locales, such as Starbucks cafés, and Shangri-la and Ayala shopping malls.

Tara FT Sering, Summit’s erstwhile book editor, says that the chick-lit label is a marketing term that was used to differentiate it from other books featuring female protagonists. “If there’s a chick lit meant for single women, then that means the protagonist is a single woman, largely urban, the language is contemporary, it’s a light read, it has as much entertainment value as it does literature (value),” she says.

While Sering defines chick lit mainly in terms of its market, some also subscribe to a broader definition of chick lit: a narrative of a modern woman, written for women, by women.

According to a 2000 population survey conducted by the National Statistics Office, there are over 11 million Filipino women aged 20-39. This is also approximately the same figure for single Filipinas, which means that there is a large, viable market for chick-lit books.

Sering believes that chick lit makes reading less stuffy, and that it appeals to people who are not traditionally readers. The slim volumes — they don’t usually go beyond 200 pages — can be read in short spurts, while waiting for friends, or perhaps an MRT ride.

Chick lit has been derided for not being a part of literature, something Sering knows all too well. When her work Almost Married was awarded the 2004 National Book Award in the Young Adult Category, it sparked a controversy.

“I really appreciate it, and I really like it,” says Sering of the award. “But yeah, they gave it to me in young adult, which I think may have been the wrong category.” Almost Married featured characters that were 28 years old, and it explored themes like marriage, motherhood, children, and sex. Sering notes that these are not young-adult preoccupations.

Avid chick-lit readers, like Ivy Nicanor, 27, compare themselves to the characters in their favorite novels. Nicanor says that she can relate to experiences of the protagonists, who are usually her age.

For Jamie Ortega, 25, there is also an aspirational aspect to chick-lit books. Aside from finding similarities between the job-seeking of the protagonist of a Cara Lockwood novel and her own experiences, Ortega says that she would someday like to work as a public relations agent, which is the occupation of the character in the Lockwood novel.

Aside from Lockwood, both Nicanor and Ortega recommend Lauren Weisberger, the author of The Devil Wears Prada, as a good chick-lit author. Ortega also likes Meg Cabot, as well as local titles from Summit and PSICOM.

Fittingly enough, Sering is a fan of chick lit, pointing to Marian Keyes as one of her favorite authors. “I love it,” she says of chick lit. “Because it’s like watching a TV show — entertaining (and) fun.” She says, however, that it is hard to find good chick lit, which she describes as being well-written and offers significant insight.

Both Gabriel and Summit Books Group publisher Aurora Mangubat-Suarez believe that there is a niche for chick lit in the local market. Adds Mangubat-Suarez: “People will always be attracted to a good story well-told. When it’s well- and attractively packaged and clearly marketed to the right audience, then it will definitely find readers.”

Sering, for her part, says that for all its success, chick lit still has a long way to go here in the Philippines, unlike in other countries, where she thinks “they’ve really milked the market.” She is not sure whether or not she’ll write another chick-lit book in the future, as she is busy finishing her master’s thesis in creative writing. Just like a chick-lit heroine, she had upped and left her Summit post two years ago when she turned 30 and wondered “what else was out there.”

It remains to be seen whether or not chick lit is just a passing fad. But for now, people looking for a light, funny read on young women’s adventures need only to head to the nearest bookstore and look for a bright pastel cover.