How to sell books
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - February 15, 2020 - 12:00am

I enrolled for a Business Management course at Ateneo de Manila University, because my father said it would make me rich. I slaved in Accounting and Business Statistics, but excelled in Marketing.

Our final project was to market a brand of honey. Our group divided the work: one did research on pricing; another on product design; another directed the skit I wrote; and I was assigned to research and development (R & D).

So off I went to the Rizal Library, a golden dome of treasures. This was before the internet, so I riffled through brochures, read encyclopedia entries, researched on health food, and the manifold benefits of honey. I zeroed in on one: it is an aphrodisiac. Even Cleopatra used it to great effect during her colorful reign. I also came up with a tagline – ”Honey will make your honey happy.” And then we prepared our presentation.

There were no Powerpoints then, in those faraway days, and I write this now with a sense of nostalgia. We had photos, colorful drawings on Manila Paper, savvy flash cards, and the short skit I wrote. The other groups droned on about the history of honey throughout the centuries; how many bottles were sold last year; la dee dah. We brought good news on the delights that honey would give to you and me, now or later, if not forevermore.

The jury was composed of only one person – the head of marketing of a multinational company in Makati. She came in red stiletto shoes, white mini skirt, and a blue top. In my mind she was wearing the tri-color of the Philippine flag. She was unsmiling when she ripped through the reports of the other groups.

But her dour face lit up when she began talking about us. “Brilliant,” she began. “It was brilliant to focus on one value proposition that people throughout the ages would like to have: happiness.” Then she talked about how our marketing efforts should fill that (perceived) need to be happy. When she asked who amongst us thought of focusing on honey as an aphrodisiac, and who wrote that cheeky tagline, the lips of my group mates pointed at me.

And that is how I began to entertain thoughts that marketing and communications might be a good career for me.

I was a 26-year-old instructor at the Ateneo’s Department of English when Dean Leovino Maria Garcia asked me to be the executive editor of the new Office of Research and Publications. Its mandate was to publish textbooks and supplementary readings. I said “yes,” only on the condition that from the profits we would start an Ateneo Creative Writing Series.

Dr. Garcia agreed so we had an office at the new Faura Science Building, to the chagrin of someone who loudly wondered: “Why are they getting space away from us?”

Since then, I have gotten used to academic midgets like these, small minds who forget that research and publications is one important cluster of university work. I just kept quiet and published textbook after textbook, with careful editing and covers that grabbed people’s attention. I also gave 10-percent royalty to the author plus five percent to the department. I later took a leave for one year to take my MPhil in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling, and when I came back, Dr. Garcia appointed me as the ORP director.

I worked there for ten years, my contract getting renewed yearly because, as I told the Dean, “Please do not give me a three-year contract. A yearly one is enough. Three years always seems like a long time.” For a decade I published textbooks, supplementary readings, laboratory manuals, the journals Pantas and Budhi, as well as the creative writing of Rofel Brion, Joy Dayrit, Ruey De Vera, Jun Dumdum, Eman Lacaba, Pete Lacaba, Bonnie Melvin, DM Reyes, and Freddie Salanga.

I told the Dean that I would be happy if the creative-writing books just broke even. But we sold out many of them during the first print run. I also bought from the printer the unsold copies of Butch Dalisay’s Oldtimer and Other Stories. It was just mouldering in the warehouse, so I bought the inventory, added the costs of acquisition and marketing, and sold all of it in three months.

We did it through marketing. I wrote to the teachers of the English and Filipino departments at Ateneo and other universities, asking them to require the books for their classes. I talked personally to the department chairs and gave generous discounts to schools with bulk orders. I personally negotiated with National Book Store, Goodwill Book Store, Solidaridad, and Popular Book Stores so they would carry our titles.

I also went to the Rizal Park every Sunday, where I displayed the books on colorful mats while a concert was going on, and sold the books. I went to Philtrade when the Manila Book Fair was just then a small event, at conferences in Baguio and Metro Manila and Cebu and Davao, carrying a big luggage of books, like the traveling salesman that I was. I prepared fliers with smart art and crazy taglines, and gave them away. One such flier had a young man in a white tuxedo who missed his wedding because he was reading a book. The tagline: “Worth missing anything for.”

I lived and breathed books because I loved the job. It would naturally flow on into my life as a writer. I have published three books of poems – Skin Voices Faces, Black Silk Pajamas, Pulotgata: The Love Poems – and they are all sold out, with all of them having  two print runs. The stray copies you see now are the last ones, so snatch them from the tables. The Ladlad series of Philippine gay writing was a phenomenon. I promoted it in print, on TV, and the radio; the series has sold almost 20,000 copies. Anvil also compiled the newspaper columns I wrote into three books and sold them all. I later translated them into Filipino, and sold all copies. I also translated the novels of John Green (“The Fault in our Stars”) and Mitch Albom (“Tuesdays with Morrie”) into Filipino. The first print run flew from the shelves.

And now we have the Age of Social Media, where books are sold online. Even Lazada and Shopee are now carrying books. But the authors should still be involved in marketing their books: a book’s journey is only complete when someone else has read it.

(Danton Remoto is a Professor of Creative Writing and Head of School at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. His official email is danton.remoto@nottingham.edu.my

Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com)

LEOVINO MARIA GARCIA RUEY DE VERA
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