On the Validation and Value of Filipino Writers

I had meant to publish this back in September. But then life got in the way, and I forgot to do so. As usual.

Ummmm. Better late than never?

My MFA classmates and I often give each other a heads up on calls for submissions, national writing fellowships, and the books we have read and obsess over (among other things) via our Facebook group chats. The posts pile up real quickly when everyone’s online, and when there are several calls and contests going on at the same time.

A few months ago, we were talking about two calls for submissions: one for next year’s Fantasy: Filipino Fiction for Young Adults anthology, and one for this year’s F. Sionil José Young Writers Awards. Several classmates were considering submitting to one or both calls. Since I don’t write YA or fantasy fiction, and I don’t fall under the “young writer” category anymore, I wasn’t paying attention to that part of the conversation.

However, I got riled up when the talk shifted to writers’ compensation. The YA anthology project is paying its writers a pittance of P500 for their work. In stark contrast, the Young Writers Awards is handing out P50,000 for its first-place winner, P30,000 for the second-placer, and P20,000 for the third-placer.

I couldn’t help but start cursing; to borrow a line from that popular local Cornetto campaign, hanggang saan aabot ang P500 mo? With the cost of middle-class living in so-called Imperial Manila, ubos kaagad ‘yan bago ka pa mag-lunch!

I then got asked: what about the P50,000 prize for the second submission call? Good enough? I answered: Yes, if you win. Otherwise, make sure you can submit your rejected story to other contests and publications (not to mention have full copyright over it), preferably before you submit your work. Because Rule 21 of the Carlos Palanca Awards. Remember that mess?

I’m not familiar with the compensation given out by other publishers and contests, but the general unspoken rule in this country regarding writers is that we normally get paltry pay for our ideas and hard work. In turn, we just “have” to accept that writing (for national literature or in media) will never make us enough money to be comfortable in life. As much as we’d all love to be like Neil Gaiman or Chuck Palahniuk or any of the authors who’ve made bestseller lists and branched out to other media, that’ll be a pipe dream for most of us.

The biggest question on my mind was this: as a writer, how much am I worth? Should I give my work away for chump change, or be selective and push my chance of being published close to zero? Write away for “exposure”, or wait for other opportunities? My answer would be to be selective, and tell those offering exposure to go fuck themselves. Sure, I love art and the written word, but their appreciation’s subjective. What I appreciate may be utter shit for you, and vice versa. My words and ideas could be worth P500 to you, but to me they deserve much more than that. Let’s hit five digits at least, thank you very much.

Then again, in real life, we can’t always be choosy, or unyielding with our guidelines. But that doesn’t mean we can’t clamor for change, or accept low fees and exposure as standards. I think everyone would agree with me when I say a higher fee for contributing writers for media, anthologies, contests, etc. would be much appreciated.

The second-biggest question? Why do we (OK, other writers) keep submitting our (their) work? I can only think of one answer: Validation. As much as writers say we write for ourselves, and we don’t care about attention and praise, the truth is that we do care a whole fucking lot about it, and we always will. It’s as important as our desire to write, and it keeps us going.

I remember a discussion in poetry techniques class several weeks back about writing being a paradox. Writing is isolating in itself, and writers intentionally shut the world out. But at the same time, we want to connect, and know for sure that our readers and peers give a damn about what went from our minds to the page.

In short, even if it’s only P500 on the line, many would still go for it if it means approval from the public and the recognized names in literature. For these people, that recognition has more value than the offered monetary value.

TL;DR: It depends on what you’re willing to forgo or sacrifice. Prioritize value, but you’ll have to wait for an indefinite time period for validation. Go for immediate validation, but the money won’t be enough. I think it’s rare that you’ll have both proper compensation and validation. I could be wrong, though.

But why the low numbers in prize money, anyway? I’ve been running my mouth here, but it’s best to ask the publishers themselves because I sure as shit can’t answer for them. I’d offer a few guesses, though. Maybe it’s because of budget constraints. It’s not cheap to make, launch, sell, and store print books, you know. Converting a manuscript for digital publication and online retail will also run up a tab, believe it or not. And then there are the requisite fees for everyone who worked on the book, not just the writers and copy editors and publishers. The time cost is significant as well. Editors will have to sift through countless submissions and write acceptance and rejection letters. Writers wait for a month or more for feedback. You can’t get that time back when your submitted story or stories would’ve fared better on another anthology, magazine, or contest.

I’m also thinking it could be because there aren’t that many sponsors willing to financially back anthologies and writing contests. Of course, mainstream presses, huge bookstore chains, writers’ groups, and organizations can pony up if they can and want to. But it’s not as easy for smaller publications and presses, particularly if they don’t have an established writer/editor’s name on the cover.

But it’s not enough to have proper funding, and to write and submit stories. Writers and publishers could explore other ways to get literature out to the masses, and give better compensation at the same time. I’ve been seeing books and anthologies on Kickstarter and Indiegogo (like The SEA Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia); maybe crowdfunding would be a better option for some projects?

People need to read, too. Readers often download books illegally through sites like TUEBL, get them on sale, photocopy entire books, etc. Writers won’t ever get decent pay if readers aren’t willing to pay for good work!

And enough with the damn hugot and kalandian books, please. Let’s start going for more substantial, thought-provoking work from writers, local and international. On the opposite end, I understand why the literary greats are recognized as such, but I also believe that MFA-less writers and total unknowns can do the same high-quality work. But that’s for another discussion… if I get around to actually writing it. 😉