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Interview with Charles Tan: On Bibliophile Stalker, tracking the Best Books No One Knows About

April 22, 2014       Meaningful Life
Interview with Charles Tan:  On Bibliophile Stalker, tracking the Best Books  No One Knows About

Yes, WATTPAD has changed everyone's reading habits for good.  But there still ARE awesome books all around that we don't know about.  Charles Tan, who manages a blog called Bibliophile Stalker which covered the best in pulp and genre fiction like the nightly 6:30 news, and now has a more casual focus...

REACH:   Charles, please tell us something about you as an editor of Bibliophile Stalker, what projects you are doing right now that take up most of your energy and time; and as an insight to readers of who you are, tell us what 3 books you'd physically bring if you went off the grid, say a solar maximum fried the world's tech and you had to haul off from the city.  Like a dessert island question.

Charles:   Hi! My name is Charles Tan and I’ve been blogging since 2001!  I currently work for a local eBook publishing company and one of the editors for this year’s Philippine Speculative Fiction anthologies. My preferences for favorite books change often, although I’m currently into the fiction of Helen Oyeyemi, Sofia Samatar, and Isabel Yap.

REACH:   In a span of 5 rough years, we\'ve seen an explosion in fan-writer community work to the point that WATTPAD has become a legit mine for successful fiction properties to publish locally.  Bless Denny and her troupe of fan writers for daring to dream and live the life of writing for fun.  How do you view this phenomenon?  Does it bode well for local genre fiction to pick up as well after the initial boost to chick lit and pulp romance?

Charles:   I think venues and opportunities for writers are a good thing, and that’s what Wattpad provides.  The (good) problem for successful authors will be to find ways of capitalizing on their success on Wattpad.  Like finding a way to monetize their writing, assuming pursuing writing as a full time career is one of their end goals.

REACH:   Allen Lau, in an interview with REACH magazine revealed that the Philippines IS the biggest user of the APP outside of the U.S. with close to 3 million accounts, and fans now outnumber local facebook users  as far as mobile log ins are concerned.  That is a lot of young Filipinos reading, writing and sharing stories across a platform that looks to be the next business model for publishing; as Allen Lau often suggests, to the chagrin of the \'establishment\' of traditional publishing houses with professional editorial screening.  From a fan of good books and as someone working in publishing, how does this affect how books are made in your opinion?

Charles:   I don’t think it significantly changes how books are made.  Whether it’s print hard copy or electronic books, the publication process is still the same. What has changed is the way publishers and editors have a new source to tap in terms of talent outside of the slush pile. On the writer’s end, it doesn’t really alter their ability to self-publish, but it is another venue for them to do so.

REACH  Bibliophile Stalker started out as an extremely prolific, even monstrous blog for covering genre books and authors in and day out, every week for a couple of years before you decided to cool off and focus on other priorities.  Will the blog ever get back up to speed again like it used to?  Does Jeff Vandermeer ever bug you why you aren't posting as much as you used to?

Charles:   We’ll see. The priority right now is sorting my life. And authors don’t really bug me about it.

BOOKPORN:  Charles Personal Library.  REACH says everyone should have a hoard

REACH:   How was it like when you covered the 'scene' a few years back?  Posting from 10 to 15 links to author websites, author interviews, book reviews and publisher's announcements a day got the attention of a lot of good authors commending your work like Jeff Vandermeer.  Of course there were trolls whom we won\'t even bother with, but that kind of all-out coverage of the genre community was unprecedented because no one else was doing it and people were surprised that a Filipino editor was making a commitment to something as precious as sharing news on good books and good reading.  Right now, Is there anything out there as extensive and as in-depth as Bibliophile Stalker was for genre fiction?

Charles:   If it’s about covering the genre scene, you need to take a few hours each day updating yourself on trends in the industry.  If it’s about developing daily, consistent content, then you need to have a plan and a schedule, and deliver on time for your readership.  It was all too common for me a few years back to wake up 3 hours early every day to make sure the content for the next day was up (in terms of reviews and articles), as well as scouring news at the last minute for links to post.  There are actually several other websites that cover genre industry news. The basis for my blog was modelled after SF Signal.

REACH:   Personally, as a fan of genre, I got a lot of really good leads for good books to grab from your blog, from John Klima's Logorrhea (if only for Hal Duncan's prose stylist masterpiece there) short story anthology to Jeff Vandermeer's canons of mushroom weird.  We miss having you make it easier for us to find good books and works in progress by the best writers everywhere.  Any plans of rigging Bibliophile Stalker into a team for getting author and book news updates so it won't take as much of a toll out of you?  A commercial blog even?

Charles:   I think that would defeat the purpose of having my own blog. There are other genre fiction websites that include writing teams to deliver content and news. I was even a contributor to some of them. If readers just want a website for author and book updates, they can go to those sites. Or if I wanted to set up a commercial blog, I’d do so right from the get-go.  The value of blogs varies from reader to reader and from author to author. For me, a personal blog enables me to publish material that wouldn’t otherwise be fitting for a commercial blog.

REACH:   Seen a pic on your blog of your library of tomes, and your hoard is as impressive as Smaug's.  We all have a dragon's greed for good books to the point that we always have some books lying around that need getting around to--as in actually finishing the read.  You used to review books sent in by international writers on your blog as part of the weekly coverage on genre, do you still make time to read as much as you used to several years back when Bibliophile Stalker required you to?  Or are you more of a casual reader nowadays as opposed to reviewing books for work?

Charles:   I haven’t been able to read as much as I used to, although I’m trying hard to change that. It’s that the new job does not have a conducive atmosphere for that. And since I’m not able to read as much, I’m not able to write reviews anymore.

REACH:   I've tossed this question to editors Joseph Nacino and Karl de Mesa of Demons of the New Year and got interesting answers....Are reading levels a wall between appreciating good books and readers?   Can literary genre fantasy be as prevalent among the fan writer community and the other way around, smarter readers liking fan-fiction or pulp written using popularly accepted tropes rather than anything else?

Charles:   I think there’s a lot of answers to unpack with your question, including clearing up several misconceptions.  A reader’s “reading level” is both a benefit and a hindrance to accessing books. At my current reading level, there would be some books which I’d read with a more critical eye, whereas in the past I would not even. Similarly, there might be a book that if I read it a few years back, I’d appreciate more than I do today—and vice versa. So it’s always a change, and a necessary change, but each reading level has its own share of advantages and disadvantages.

The fan writing community will like what it wants. It can include literary genre fantasy or the latest media tie-in fiction. That is the point of a fan writing community. I don’t like the distinction between pulp and fan fiction. The former is a style of writing, popularized during the pulp era of publishing, and can include various sub-genres like Westerns, Fantasy, etc. Fan fiction, on the other hand, just describes who authored the work (fans as opposed to professional authors), and is not limited to any writing style or genre. You could write fan fiction using tropes from literary genre fantasy for example. Or one using the best elements of erotica and romance. Saying that a work is fan fiction doesn’t really
reveal to me anything about the work, unless you’re buying into the misconceptions about fan fiction.

I think a lot of readers are smart. And they’ll read what they want to read. Some professional writers start out as fanfic writers for example. Or they have a pet peeve with a particular genre, so it won’t get read, regardless of the quality of the work.

REACH:   We've seen trends in books since Goosebumps became something of a minor phenomenon, followed by Harry Potter, Twilight, Pulp Romance becoming a self-sustaining monster of its own--(the only brick-and-mortar, chainstore of its own is Precious Books), and even Dirty Romance (40 Shades of Grey) becoming a promising genre for readers.  For genre fiefdoms, I believe only Neil Gaiman has a local fanbase as rabid and as established as anything else.  Now, we have the WATTPAD derived bestsellers and their Tsunami of success.  A new generation of Filipinos are showing an insatiable appetite for reading and writing to the point that the local publsihing industry is scrambling to get product out (two big publishers just came out with a  combined 14 (Wattpad branded) short novels in a major marketing push for the fan-writer community.  Social media is headed into a platform of sharing stories now among kids of all ages as opposed to gossip and selfies.  How do you see the resurgence of reading and storytelling making an impact on publishers on all levels?  Is this just a phenomenon  made possible by the technology of mobile (Kids read chapters via Wattpad as opposed to eBooks)?

Charles:   As previously stated, I don’t think it significantly alters the state of the industry. People have been reading fiction online for quite some time—that’s how fanfiction became popular in the first place for example. What Wattpad does is package it into a convenient App so that readers can find content on that particular App, rather than going to the trouble of loading their browser on their mobile and searching for specific content. That’s the beauty of Wattpad, that content is sort-of curated and you can find/browse the selection of fiction there.

Again, this is just another venue for publishers to mine work for possible commercial purposes. Unfortunately, some publishers are also predatory when offering book contracts and deals, but that’s outside of Wattpad’s jurisdiction.

I also don’t see how reading on social media will cause a shift in what works in general. Selfies and gossip for example tell their own kind of stories. Readers and writers who use Wattpad won’t suddenly stop gossiping or taking selfies if they previously did so. Chances are, if those were previous habits, they’d still do so. It’s just that in addition to those tasks, they use Wattpad. And there are those that don’t really emphasize selfies and want to just want their fiction fix, then they continue to do so using Wattpad.

REACH:   You're also a big comic book fan and make the effort to highlight promising local independent comic book efforts in Bibliophile Stalker.  Comics are still kept alive by both cartoons and live-action hit movies and the relationship seems to be as symbiotic as it is because both cartoons and movies would be crap if comics were not around.  What would turn local comics back into the runaway freight train it was 3 decades ago?

Charles:   First off, I think it’s a misconception that comics are kept alive by cartoons and live-action movies. Comics are comics, and they’re kept alive because they continue to be published as comics. Animation and live-action movies will also continue to be successful producing their own original content, but they also find success adapting other works, be it books, comics, video games, TV, etc. into their own medium. 

It’s also erroneous to believe that cartoons and movies would be crap if it weren’t for comics. There are a lot of impressive and excellent original content coming from cartoons and movies. It’s just that Sturgeon’s Law applies to every medium, including comics, animation, and movies.

As for the comics scene, there’s no going back to the industry three decades ago. And it wasn’t necessarily a healthy industry either, so I don’t want it to back to the same state it was three decades ago. A lot of people think what transpired thirty years ago was a good thing, and to a certain extent, it had its benefits for the medium and for the fans. But it also had its disadvantages, especially to comic creators.

REACH:   In U.S. comics, there is an effort which we've noticed from the biggest publisher DC comics to attract new readers to their comics through stories that appeal to them.  DC has rebooted everything from hero origins, costume designs, and even dumped years of continuity in favor of keeping stories that attract new readers--and this has annoyed a loyal but diminishing fan base of DC continuity.  But the Zack Snyder movie reboot of Superman was as good as it could get.  As an editor yourself, and with a weakening retail market for comics per se, is continuity a sacred cow that cannot be harmed or is it exactly a sacrifice to keep readership growing?  

Charles:   Continuity is a tool, and it boils down to execution.  Just like anything else, if you don’t execute it well, then it can become jarring or intrusive to the reader, regardless of whether you do reboots or maintain continuity.  Just like any tool, there are inherent disadvantages to continuity, but for some readers, continuity is important. Some even subscribe to the belief that a mediocre story that’s set in continuity is more enjoyable than a fantastic story that’s not set in continuity. That’s why some readers might not like fanfic as much as others; or even how some fanfic readers might prioritize canon fiction to non-canon fiction.  There’s also the misconception that the comics retail market is weakening. That might be true for DC Comics, but DC Comics does not represent the entire comic industry. While one giant weakens, other publishers are gaining influence in their place.

REACH:   How is your work for local fiction anthology, Philippine Genre Fiction series going along?   Are the submissions getting better?  Are there new writers contributing?  What story themes and tropes seem to be popular nowadays as opposed to 7 issues ago for your stable of contributors?  Will Philippine Genre Fiction, not just the brand, but the entire reader and writer community get as much attention as the fan-writer community is getting now or in the future--from story offerings to publsiher support and of course, a more dedicated, and active fan base?  Is there anything stopping kids from liking science fiction and horror written smart and stranger than what kids are used to reading?

Charles:   I’m not really actively involved in Philippine Genre Fiction. I’m co-editing this year’s Philippine Speculative Fiction volume but that’s just for this year, and I’m not the series editor for those books.

As for the readership, Filipinos have always enjoyed fantasy, and horror and science fiction. It’s just that due to the effects of colonialism, they tend to prefer those comic from the Western countries, as opposed to the local ones, for whatever reason, whether it’s distribution or accessibility.

REACH:   We also got the chance to ask Wattpad's Allen Lau if he would ever write a novel if he had the time for it and he said he would write a science-fiction novel if he could.  If you got the chance to write your own book or story, even if it were a one shot deal, what would you write about?  Space opera?  Sword & Sorcery?  Horror Erotica (I'd write this just because)?  New Weird?

Charles:   I’d write what was appropriate for the time. It could belong to any of the genres you mentioned. I’d keep in mind what would interest the target audience and publisher, as well as my own writing skill and mood at the time.

REACH:   Thank you for the chance to get an email interview and please tell us any events you are promoting, books or magazines that our readers might be interested in, which involve you as editor or writer.  In your own words or a blurb of sorts, tell our website readers to check out Bibliophile Stalker, even the older content, just because they might find a treasure of a read from the reviews and links you collated.

Charles:   Thanks for the interview! I still blog occasionally at Bibliophile Stalker, and I hope eBook readers check out Flipreads, a Philippine-based eBookstore with lots of local content.


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