Inquirer Super

Visprint is dead: All hail Avenida Books–How Nida Ramirez changed PH publishing

By: Ruel S. De Vera

When Flornida “Nida” Gatus-Ramirez was in a freshman at the University of Santo Tomas High School, she would go to their family’s small printing press in Recto to wait for her father Nenido so they could go home together. What struck her then was “the very familiar scent of paper and ink,” she says. “I grew up equating the press to family. I had uncles, aunts, cousins working there when I was still a student. Even when I was already working at Visprint, we still had relatives working with us.” Perhaps publishing really does run in her veins. “Even my kids know that smell,” says the 43-year-old Ramirez. “They were reminiscing just last week about their visits to the office, and they all agreed on that ‘scent’ combined with aircon and how that feels ‘relaxing’ for them.”

Ramirez was the publishing manager of Visprint, Inc., which transformed the landscape of contemporary Philippine publishing by tapping into a diverse readership that was partly intelligentsia and part fandom. It was not only a thriving company, but also a “cool” one. Yet in 2019, the Philippine publishing industry was shocked when Visprint announced in a post on its Facebook page that it would be winding down operations and closing down completely by 2021. At the time of the announcement, it seemed like a long time away and Visprint still would attend events and release new titles before liquidating its remaining stock. But as Visprint went about the business of going out of business, the pandemic struck, and now, it is 2021.

Visual Print Enterprises or VPE at the start began as a photocopying, mimeographing, typing and small press business in Recto in the early 1980s by its, founders brothers Efren and Nenido Gatus. The Gatuses slowly grew the business, printing receipts, forms, posters and flyers. VPE eventually moved to Malibay, Pasay and then to Makati. This is where Ramirez enters changed everything; the company would eventually buy a lot and build a new building in Pasay. There is a chosen few who change the Philippine publishing industry by pioneering new forms and followers. Among them are National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario, Gloria Rodriguez at New Day Publishers, Karina Bolasco at Anvil Publishing, Lory Tan at The Bookmark, Inc., Reni Roxas at Tahanan Books—and Ramirez at Visprint.

Ramirez, who had graduated from UST with a BA in Communication Arts, came to the family business after serving as the secretary of the hotel manager on the cruise ship Sun Vista, which sank off the coast of Singapore in 1999. “My dad invited me to try it out with the company while I decide what to do next with my life,” the Ramirez says. “I started by setting-up a payroll and HR system for the company.” But Ramirez would prove crucial when the company decided to turn to publishing instead of merely printing projects. “It was actually a challenge from the owners,” she explains. “They wanted a regular project for the machines. What they initially wanted was a magazine or a Reader’s Digest kind of publication, something serialized. But I didn’t want the headache and burden of getting sponsors, so I convinced them to try out a book first, to test the waters. At that time, Bob Ong already posted on bobongpinoy.com his interest to have his first book published.” Bob Ong, of course, is the pseudonymous and popular author who had found a following with his witty and authentic writing on his now defunct website, which had received a People’s Choice Philippine Web Award for Weird/Humor in 1998. Ramirez reached out to him and they met in 2000. “There was no finished manuscript, much less collections, just an idea to have a printed edition of my Bobong Pinoy website,” the still pseudonymous Ong says via email. “I posted online that I was looking for a publisher, yet again, because that wasn’t the first time, and Nida replied. Finally a reply with a more concrete offer since Visprint being a printer then already had the machinery. That and Nida herself being a follower of the site made me choose that direction. In 2001, VPE—which would soon be better known as Visprint, Inc.,–published its first book, Ong’s “ABNKKBSNPLAko?!,” which sold so well it was soon followed by his second book, “Bakit Baliktad Magbasa ng Libro Ang Mga Pilipino?” Visprint would soon be essentially publishing one Bob Ong book a year when Ramirez started receiving inquiries from other writers wanting to be pubished by her. “If I start to do business with these established writers, nahihiya akong mapahiya sa kanila,” she admits. “I was also scared to compete with the established publishing houses, so, somehow, I gravitated towards books and genres that were not commonly found in bookstores, yet I find very enjoyable. In a way, we’d be able to get a share of the market that wasn’t being served much. Contrary to what people thought, we weren’t being radical. I was actually playing safe.”

Visprint assemble

That’s how Ramirez decided to start publishing trade paperback collections of independently published Filipino comic books—komiks—starting with Visprint’s first non-Bob Ong book, Carlo Vergara’s critically-acclaimed “Ang Mga Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah.” Ramirez’s second komiks release would jumpstart Visprint most successful print franchise. Manix Abrera had been crafting an extremely quirky strip for the Inquirer called “Kikomachine” when he emailed Ramirez proposing a collection in 2004. Ramirez agreed—but there was a problem. “Natakot ako and hindi na nag-reply,” Abrera says. “Tapos after one year, nung nagkalakas ako ng loob uli, in-email ko uli ang Visprint, tapos siya uli ang nag-reply; at naalala pa niya ako!” Abrera came to Visprint’s Makati office with his portfolio and presented his ideas. Out of this meeting came the “Kikomachine Komix” series, which Visprint released all the way to its 14th volume. At Komikon, the Visprint table always had the longest line, because of how many readers wanted to have their books signed by Abrera. After Visprint released David Hontiveros’ “Penumbra” horror novellas, Budjette Tan had contacted Ramirez while organizing an effort to further promote Vergara and Hontiveros’ titles. In the process, Tan began quizzing Ramirez on what is like starting and running a publishing house with Ramirez sending detailed replies. All this time, Tan and Kajo Baldisimo had been working on their Filipino monster-mythology crime komiks series “TRESE.” “I think it was because of that email, as well as Visprint decision to publish the works of Carlo, David, and Manix that made me see them as a brave, new publisher that was willing to take a chance at the comic book medium and the horror genre, which I didn’t see so much with other publishers at the time,” Tan says. In 2005, Visprint published “TRESE Vol. 1: Murder on Balete Drive,” making paranormal investigator Alexandra Trese a star with the series already on its seventh volume.

These are just a few examples of how Visprint carved its own path and went on to push Filipino-language work in popular genres and Philippine comics into the mainstream. In 2015, Visprint was named Publisher of the Year at the 34th National Book Awards; it won four National Book Awards that year. In the process, Visprint has become home to a truly impressive roster of writers and creators, including Eros Atalia, Eliza Victoria, Karen Francisco, Jun Cruz Reyes, Carlos Malvar, Beverly Siy, Roland Tolentino, Alan Navarra, Joselito Delos Reyes, Paolo Fabregas, Mervin Malonzo, and Jessica Zafra, among others.

“We really didn’t plan out or identify the types of books that we’ll be publishing,” Ramirez says. “It all depends on what stories are coming in from proposals. We just had two qualifications: Is it Filipino–about the Filipino or the Philippines? Is the story good? Regardless of the genre or form or author, if they pass these two, then it’s a go.”

Ani Almario, president of the Book Development Association of the Philippines (BDAP) says “Visprint has positioned itself as a unique voice in the local book industry, putting forth new and original material by new and established writers. I think its biggest achievement is in promoting quality writing in Filipino and championing the rights of Filipino book creators,” as well as its focus on creative nonfiction, fiction and graphic fiction.

Creators’ rights is a cause dear to Ramirez’s heart. “To be honest, I never treated any of our books as ‘our property,’” she explains. “We are just one of the medium, usually the first, through which the story is able to reach its audience. Of course, we’re always ecstatic whenever we get news of an adaptation, and we’re very happy for our authors for such milestone. But I treat it as more of the author’s achievement. For us, it is a great way to gather new market for the books.” That new market she’s talking about can be seen in how the first Bob Ong book, “ABNKKBSNPLAko?!,” received a big screen adaptation in 2014 with Jericho Rosales in the lead role. In 2016, another of Ong’s books, 2011’s “Lumayo Ka Nga sa Akin,” was also turned into a motion picture while a third, “Ang Mga Kaibigan ni Mama Susan,” is coming soon. Atalia’s “Ligo na Ü, Lapit na Me” came into cinemas in 2011 featuring Mercedes Cabral. Malonzo’s aswang drama “Tabi Po” was adapted by Epik Studios into a mini-series for Cignal TV’s Sari-Sari Channel. Epik is also developing a live-action take on Abrera’s “Kiko Machine.”

If you want to talk about crossovers, there’s Vergara’s “Ang Mga Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagpalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah,” which was adapted into a stage musical and a live-action feature film. In 2020, Tan and Baldisimo achieved a lifelong dream when “TRESE” was picked up by American comic book publisher Ablaze Publishing. “TRESE Vol. 1: Murder on Balete Drive” came to North American comic shop shelves in November with “TRESE Vol. 2: Unreported Murders” announced for an April 2021 release. Most recently, Netflix release a first look at Alexandra Trese in the Netflix Original Animated adaptation of “TRESE.” In its short life span, Visprint has released 134 titles, with an average of 16 titles a year. Bob Ong’s books alone have sold 2 million copies and accounted for 60 percent of the company’s sales. Then came the Facebook post. “The first time I found out about it, I felt really down,” BDAP’s Almario said. “I had always admired their courage and innovativeness in publishing. At the annual MIBF, our exhibits were always on the same aisle so I always saw Nida personally attending to their books and their authors, and talking to their readers. All their books seemed very personal and well thought of.” It really hit home for the original Visprint author. “I’m a very sentimental person and I rather things stay just as they are,” Ong says. “I don’t visit the office as often as the other authors, but I’m probably the saddest for everyone, especially the staff, who just had to move on.” Abrera shares the sentiment in a very Abrera way: “Super super nakakalungkot!”

So what happened? Why did this well-loved, game-changing and obviously successful publishing house decide to call it quits?

Bait-and-switch

It turns out the decision to shut down Visprint came much earlier than people expect: 2018. “The owners, Efren and Nenido, wanted to retire,” Ramirez explains. “They were already in their 70s, and still very actively involved in the daily operations of the business. They wanted to spend the remaining years of their lives living a relaxed life and one they can still enjoy. The option to hand over the business to the heirs was raised, but due to personal reasons, and to avoid any further conflicts that could arise, they opted for the simpler route: Close the business and give everyone their rightful shares.”

Ramirez had to make a decision of her own: “Visprint is more popularly known as the publisher. But in reality, the bigger side of the business is the printing press. I won’t be able to handle or operate, much more, pay for the press.”

Starting with the 2018 Manila International Bookfair, Ramirez began informing the creators one by one, but by 2019, inaccurate information was starting to leak out, so Ramirez decided to announce the planned shutdown on Facebook. She wasn’t quite prepared for the reaction.

“The shock I was prepared for,” she says. “Pero yung outpouring of sentiments and gratitude, yun yung hindi. Yun ang nakakaantig talaga. I’ve always been aware of how the fans love our writers and books. I know the stories they tell of how books and authors saved them, changed them. But to receive testimonials of how much they love Visprint, and how they’d try any book we publish just because they trust us, or dreaming of being published one day by us…that was beyond my imagination. We got a lot of bookshelf selfies, and photos of their Visprint collections in the different social media platforms. I think that was the most media coverage we’ve received in our lifetime.”

It saddens her deeply, as can be expected: “I spent almost 20 years of my life in Visprint. Diyan na ako nagka-asawa, nagka-anak, at pumuti ang buhok. It is, of course, very painful. But there wasn’t really much time for me to mourn, until now, because closing down the business is loads of work more than running it. It’s not like I can just pack up and go. When the owners finalized their decision in 2018, my biggest concern was the authors and the books. I told the management how the process will be slow and tedious, hence the two-year period. And up until now, it’s still not yet done.”

But you can’t keep a good publishing manager down. “Prior to the 2018 decision, I was already ‘dreaming’ with a few friends the possibility of putting up a literary and rights agency for Filipino authors and artists, an annex to Visprint’s publishing services,” she admits. “It’s when the owners told me, along with the other directors, that they don’t intend to hand it down to the heirs, that I had to adjust this plan and do full-on publishing.”

So how did they come up with the name Avenida Books? “This is all because of Carlo Vergara,” she recalls. “We met over lunch in 2018, and after discussing other concerns, I told him about Visprint’s closing and my plan to start a new publishing company. He asked me if I already have a name for it, and I said no. He suddenly blurted out, “Alam ko na! Ave Nida!” with matching praying gestures and all. I found it hysterical, we all did. However, the name stuck. Everyone that I told about it actually loved it (after realizing the pun and laughing about it). So, sige na nga. What’s even funnier is Carlo couldn’t even remember the incident when I told him about it months after.”

In fact, Ramirez pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch at the 2019 Komikon. At the event. She released Visprint’s last title, “TRESE Vol. 7: Shadow Witness”–and Avenida’s first title, “Kikomachine Komix Blg. 15: Bulwagan ng Misteryo.” “It was very intentional,” Ramirez explains. “I intended Avenida to come in unannounced, because I know the people will be focused on the last year of Visprint, and I don’t want to interfere with that.”

This is something that Tan definitely did not know about: “Wow! I didn’t know this! At least I think I didn’t know about it. So, is this the equivalent of being the last band to play on stage? It feels like a great privilege to be the last act of a great publisher that has had a significant impact on the Philippine publishing industry.” Abrera loves being part of the birth of Avenida: “Super nakaka-pressure! Hindi ko naisip na yung ‘Kikomachine Komix 15’ pala ang magiging unang ilalathala ng Avenida. Pero gusto kasi ni Nida low-key lang, as in–surprise! Iba na ang publisher, Avenida na. Wala nang pasabi or pa-event.” Ramirez then spoke to the authors she wanted to be part of Avenida. “I told most of them my plans for Avenida, including what our limitations will be,” she says. “I told them it is my dream to republish all their works, but I don’t have that capacity now or anytime soon. What I will do initially is to publish sure hits in order to establish the company’s capital. Eventually, I hope, like Visprint, we’ll grow fast and be stable enough to take on more titles, and take more risks.” Ong is an obvious choice. “To be allowed to continue to enlighten and entertain through this medium is always a blessing,” Ong says. Tan says, “I don’t think ‘TRESE’ wouldn’t gotten this far with her support and help. So, if she was going to start off on her own business and she needed to begin with a handful of titles, then it only felt right that we help her out and be part of her new adventure.”

Arise Avenida

The Avenida Books slate has already begun rolling out: the first volume of the anthology title “TRESE: Bloodlines” is just out. “We have ‘Kikomachine Ikalawang Katipunan,’ supposedly slated for early December, but is currently on hold due to printing issues, ‘Kikomachine Komix Blg. 16,’ early 2021, ‘TRESE’ volumes 1, 2 and 3 in time for the Netflix anime release and reprints of Bob Ong’s bestsellers in 2021.” While Ramirez admits its hard to tell Visprint and Avenida apart right now because Ong, Abrera and Tan were also Visprint authors but is eager to find new authors to distinguish Avenida. “Of course, we aim to be as popular and as big as Visprint someday–who wouldn’t?”

Ramirez makes it clear Avenida Books is no Visprint 2.0: “Capital would be a big difference. Visprint has deep pockets, Avenida has a coin purse. Avenida also has less control over the printing process. Working with our own printing press back then, we have more options and easy access to paper suppliers. Also, because we were printing our own books then, we have more room to adjust costs and SRPs. We had a warehouse to stock our books. With limited resources, Avenida will have to be more creative, resourceful, and diligent. I’d like to think, though, that the plus is I’m bringing in more experience and know-how to Avenida. You know the biggest difference though? The pandemic. This changed the landscape of book distribution and purchasing in the country. Visprint relied heavily on bookstores, Avenida is now focused more on online selling.”

Almario agrees wholeheartedly: “I was happy when I found out that Nida decided to continue publishing through Avenida. I can only hope that they will continue to publish new voices and new material the way they did as Visprint. I also know that Avenida will think of great ways to market and sell books amidst the pandemic.

Almario believes Ramirez is an integral part in the Philippine publishing landscape. I think that it’s important for publishers to always have a ‘face.’ And Nida is the face of Avenida—someone who is principled, definite about what she wants to publish, respectful of the reader, and genuinely caring towards her authors. She brings out the best in her authors and challenges her fellow publishers to up their game.” Tan believes, “with Avenida, I’m sure she will continue to find and support the authors who are looking for a platform where their stories can be seen and read.” Abrera says, “Laging susubukan muna, at mafi-feel mo na love din niya talaga ang book industry, at adventurous si Nida, kaya kakaiba ang books na nailalabas nila, hindi ‘usual.'”

Now that she is at the helm of Avenida, Ramirez looks back at Visprint with emotion. I feel very grateful. We never dreamt of going big or being popular. But more than the popularity, it’s knowing that a number of our books are not just enjoyed by the public, but are (now) recognized and included in the academe. The books are being taught and discussed in class. The books have turned into stage plays, musicale, movies, an international series. Considering that during our first few years, our books are considered “trash” by some, and some professors even reprimand their students for reading Visprint.”

But now Visprint is gone; and the dream of Avenida Books shines bright for Ramirez. “Hopeful and excited,” she says of her new gig. Is she planning to revolutionize Philippine publishing a second time? “No big dream of revolutionizing anything. Just doing what I know and love.”