A candid and personal examination of the Philippine comics scene from a social, cultural, economic and business point of view.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Towards a Culture of Literacy

Comics publishing involves the business of providing reading products, preferably in print, that cater to the target customer's literacy level.

People with fewer years of education generally earn less and the more people there are who are less educated, result in a generally low standard of living. Consequently, the spending power of such majority is limited. It also follows that the limited few who are highly educated, earn more and have a higher standard of living.

Applied to the business of comics publishing, we see that the more people there are who are highly educated or at least have formed a culture that values and nurtures literacy, are the ideal customers for comics publications.

As reported in a previous entry (VIDE: The Rise of the U.S. Graphic Novel, the Age Wave and the Filipino Youth Market, August 31, 2005), sales of American mainstream comics are waning as against the serious and more literate U.S. graphic novels and Japanese manga sold mostly in bookstore chains. The U.S. graphic novel for example, rose from a $75 million industry in 2001 to $207 million in 2004 while the more youth-oriented, mainstream U.S. comics struggle for sales (as bought by distributors not buyers) of from 20,000 to 40,000 copies a month with only about 10 titles generally from Marvel and DC, selling only at 100,000 copies (and a little over the same) a month. Buyers of these literate and diverse U.S. graphic novels are mostly high school and college educated.

These U.S. graphic novels are priced higher than the traditional 32 paged American comicbook but are within reach of their literate and presumably economically well-off "white anglo-saxon" ADULT readers. The latter 32 paged comicbook meanwhile, though high in quality and whose price has risen in recent years, have become inaccessible to most American YOUTH who are economically disadvantaged and are comprised mostly of Hispanics and African Americans. This change of demographic is significant.

Business Week (November 21, 2005 issue) reports that the number of Hispanics and African-Americans is growing and that most of them are not only economically disadvantaged but have low or limited educational backgrounds, thus:

"How did the U.S. become the World's largest economy? A key part of the answer is education. Some 85% adult Americans have at least a high school degree today, up from 25% in 1940. Similarly, 28% have a college degree, a fivefold gain over this period. Today, U.S. workforce is the most educated in the World.

But now, for the first time ever, America's educational gains are poised to stall because of growing demographic trends. If these trends continue, the share of the U.S. workforce with high school and college degrees may not only fail to keep rising over the next 15 years but could actually decline slightly, warns a report released on November 9 by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a non-profit group based in San Jose, California.

The key reason: as highly educated baby boomers retire, they'll be replaced by mounting members of young Hispanics and African Americans, who are fall less likely to earn degrees.

Because workers with fewer years of education earn so much less, U.S. Living standards could take a dive unless something is done, the report argues. It calculates that lower educational levels could slice inflation-adjusted per capita in areas in the U.S. by 2020. They surged over 40% from 1980 to 2000. (Source: William C. Symonds, "America the Uneducated: A New Study warns of a Slide for the U.S. as the share of Lower Achievers Booms", Business Week, November 21, 2005).

The Business Week article continues to elaborate on the ever growing ratio of Hispanics and Afro-Americans from White Anglo-Saxons:

"Callan's projections are based on the growing diversity of the U.S. population. As recently as 1980, the U.S. workforce was 82% white. By 2020, it will be just 63% white. Over the 40 year span the share of minorities will double, to 37% as that of Hispanic workers nearly triple, to 77%. The problem is, both Hispanics and African Americans are far less likely to earn degrees than their white counterparts.

If those gaps persist, the number of Americans aged 26 to 64 who don't even know how to obtain a high school degree could soar by 7 million, to 31 million, by 2020. Meanwhile, although the actual number of adults with at least a college degree would grow, their share of the workforce could fall by percentage point to 25.5% (charts)." (Source: William Symonds, "America the Uneducated", Ibid.)

The Business Week article ends with this ominous warning:

"The prospects for U.S. education levels are a lot like global warming. Soil erosion occurs gradually, its easy to ignore. But if the U.S. doesn't pay more attention, everything from its competitiveness to its standard of living could sink." (Source: William Symonds, "America the Uneducated", Ibid.)

In the same blog entry (VIDE: The Rise of the U.S Graphic Novel, the Age Wave and the Filipino Youth Market, August 31, 2005) it was also reported--citing an August, 2005 Newsweek article-- that in France and Japan, two great comics producing nations, their respective comics industries are also thriving because of the support of a largely adult book-reading, literate, open-minded, and presumably economically well-off readership. Nowhere is the literacy factor more prevalent in Japan where printed comics or manga are still thriving. For details on this matter reference is made to the previous blog entries: Why are Printed Comics Successful in Japan, September 16, 2005, and The Japanese Manga Industry Revisited, November 25, 2005.

The American, French, and Japanese comics scenes suggest that literacy, or a culture of literacy, is an important foundational element that must exist for a comics publishing industry to thrive. Here in the Philippines however, the situation is very different.

In our country, most of our people are "functionally literate" owing to the overwhelming prevalence of poverty. This means that most Filipinos only have basic knowledge of reading (simple words) and math skills. Their thinking or thought processes are mediocre. Their thinking and appreciation of the complex is generally servile and accomodating rather than critical. And it is precisely this simple-minded, "folksy logic" or absence of refined critical thinking through inadequate educational support systems that has hindered the development of a culture of literacy in our country, as well as made most of our countrymen gullible to the wiles of a corrupt and elite rich few. For more details and statistical data on the issue of "functional literacy" in the Philippines please see my previous blog entry: "Comics Illiteracy: Is there such a thing?", August 23, 2005.

In 2003, the National Book Development Board (or NBDB) commissioned the Social Weather Stations to conduct a survey on the reading attitudes and preferences of Filipinos. It is considered the most comprehensive study on book readership in the country conducted from March 10 to 25, 2003 with 1,200 respondents composed of 300 voting-age adults from every study area. Of the total respondents, 63.6% are from rural areas, while 36.4% from urban. Of the total respondents, 7.7% belong to classes ABC, 67.4% class D, and 24.8% from class E. Details of the survey may be viewed at: www.nbdb.gov.ph. Signifcantly, the NBDB survey found that:

"...readership of non-schoolbooks is higher among Filipino adults from the upper socio-economic classes who have reached high levels of education and attended private schools, are younger, either single or without a partner, and live in the urban areas. Moreover, those who live near libraries and bookstores read more often."

There's more:

"Readership of non-schoolbooks among members aged 7-17 tends to be higher among females, classes ABC, those with a library at home, and those whose household heads have high education."

To recall, of the more than 80 million Filipinos as of 2005, the income distribution by class in our society is: AB-1%, C-9%, D-55%, and E-33%. The 2003 NBDB survey goes on to state, that:

"The percentage of those who bought non-schoolbooks for personal reading in the past year (2002) increases with social class, educational attainment, and personal monthly income. 58% of Filipino adults who bought non-schoolbooks in the past year (2002) spent only a maximum of P200. 16% spent more than P1,000. Among classes ABC, 38% spent more than P1,000. xxx xxx

While Filipino adults generally recognize the value of reading books, many (43%) can let a whole year pass without reading a single non-schoolbook. On the other hand, 15% read 2-3 non-schoolbooks and 14% read at least 10 non-schoolbooks. Books are read more for gaining knowledge and infomration, and thus perhaps book reading is considered something to do when the need arises. Watching TV, movies and videotapes, listening to the radio, and going to malls seem much more fun to do. Perhaps parents, educatiors, publishers, and advertisers ought to do more to portray book reading as fund to do too. Filipino adults generally find books to be good gifts and although considered costly, a book is not regarded as a luxury item but as a necessity."

Comics are non-schoolbooks. Today, they are not the most read non-schoolbooks. That distinction belongs to the Bible (38%) and romance novels (26%) which are read mostly by adults and by female youths aged 7 to 17 in classes ABC, those whose household heads have high education and who have a library at home. Specifically, what these young female youths read most are the Bible (22%) and romance novelettes (22%). The highest percentages of romance novel readers are from Balance Luzon (27%) and Visayas (27%), class E (28%), females (37%) and 18-24 years old (46%).

With this profile of local readership, it is no wonder that our local comics industry is dead. The great majority of our countrymen are functionally literate or mediocre. Their incomes could generally afford only the basic necessities of life; and with more reason today amidst the present prolonged economic and political crisis not really felt by the elite rich few. Comics today--espcially the solely entertaining kind-- are largely ignored by today's cynical youth who are more socially conscious and have a high sense of interconnectivity through present telecommunications technology. The few who do read printed publications are mostly economically well-off, highly educated, class ABC females and most do not read comics, especially the globalized Filipino comics made by mostly male Filipino comics creators. Worse, the same NBDB survey reports that for those who read, 91% READ TO GAIN KNOWLEDGE while only 9% READ FOR ENJOYMENT or ENTERTAINMENT. Moreover, Filipino adult readers of non-schoolbooks acquire them more through BORROWING (52%), receive them as gifts (40%), borrow from libraries (24%), renting (18%) and buying (a measly 15%). Majority of survey respondents from all study areas and all socio-economic classes do not borrow from libraries.

Both the Philippines and the United States have a serious literacy problem. Although for the Philippines, the situation is more acute. This is why the business of comics publishing is down and this is where most of the efforts should be concentrated to revive it.

Could not Filipino comics then, contribute to this effort of uplifting our people's literacy level by stamping out today's culture of mediocrity? Could not today's generation of Filipino comics be made available to the greater many who need it most rather than to the globalized corrupt, elite few who support more the cultures and achievements of other advanced countries rather than their own?

Practicality of the moment dictates that comics production cater to the educated few and rich elite. But if one's objective is to revive a near extinct industry, should not one's plans be commensurately long-range, long-lasting and beneficial to all? This, I believe, is more to a local comics publisher's enlightened self-interest than the former. Most businessmen prefer a business environment populated by literate, principled, and innovative people rather than an environment run by unprincipled, unimaginative, and mediocre people.

Next: Alvin Toffler's 6 characteristics of Third Wave Media, The Knowledge Economy, Inadvertent Content and Alan Moore.


Anonymous Myshka said...

Interesting blog. We took up Toffler when I was in College/Business Administration. Reading your blog, I was surprised to learn that there were actually comics industries in other countries. I didn't know you could make a living out of this. Its also quite surreal that you're applying Toffler and all this other "formal" stuff in your analysis of something as mundane and inconsequential as comics. Its surreal, but as I read it, you do have a point. Can one really make a living out of comics in today's infomration age?

Good blog.

11:35 AM


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