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Interview with Reni Roxas, Publisher
and Editor-in-Chief of Tahanan Books

Reni Roxas, Tahanan Books
Tahanan Books publisher Reni Roxas (third from left) with her dream team
(L to R): managing editor Frances Ong, sales manager Josie Castro,
and comptroller Candy Santiago.

In the anthology Hanggang sa Muli, Reni Roxas writes about her weekly pilgrimage to a Filipino store in Queens, New York years ago, and how it became “small celebrations of coming home” for her. Not surprisingly, this deeply held belief in “home,” and everything it stands for, resonates throughout the books she painstakingly puts out. In the last 20 years, Reni’s publishing company, Tahanan Books, has produced over a hundred titles, ranging from picture books, to reference titles, to gift books.
   Named for the Filipino word for home, Tahanan is a nine-time winner of the National Book Award for Children’s Literature. It has also received the Ceres Alabado Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature as well as a number of Gintong Aklat awards. In addition to publishing folk tale anthologies, biographies of great Filipinos, and other Pinoy pop culture titles, Tahanan packages publications for third parties. It produced for UNICEF a ten picture-book series on the rights of the child; a career series for young people for Museo Pambata Foundation, Inc.; and in 2009, a picture book for the Asia Rice Foundation.
   Tahanan operates under a new flagship name, Ilaw ng Tahanan, referencing mothers who are, essentially, the light and life of the home. Tahanan's website may be accessed at www.tahananbooks.com.

While working at Walker & Company,
I asked African-American author Patricia McKissack to do a book about the Pullman porters. The book went on to win the Coretta Scott King Award that year.

OOV: What made you decide to go into publishing?

Reni: My path to publishing was rather circuitous. Certainly, the Spanish proverb “God writes straight with crooked lines” applied to me. I wanted to become a TV reporter. I took up mass communications at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, and completed a master’s degree in telecommunications at Syracuse University. While in Syracuse I won a paid summer internship to CBS News in New York City. The summer internship led to a full-time job. CBS in the 1980s was an all-mighty network, back in the day when TV networks ruled the media landscape. It was a glamorous place to work in the most glamorous city in the world. What was there to complain about, right? But after only a year of working in what I came to regard as “The Viper’s Pit” (the competition was poisonously fierce and toxic), I realized I didn’t have the killer instinct needed to survive in broadcast news. So I left. And I asked myself what was the next best thing? I loved children’s books and bided my time till I had my foot in the door. And since NYC was a publishing mecca, eventually I landed an entry-level job at Dial Books for Young Readers—for almost half my CBS paycheck! But there, hidden away in the “next best thing” lay my métier, my life’s work.

OOV: Tell us more about the beginnings of Tahanan Books.

Reni: During the 1980s, I worked for several publishing companies in Manhattan. For eight years I tried to learn as much as I could as fast as I could about the business of children’s books. While working at Walker & Company, I asked African-American author Patricia McKissack to do a book about the Pullman porters. The book went on to win the Coretta Scott King Award that year. It was an automatic purchase by libraries across the country. And who benefited? The publisher, of course. That got the entrepreneur in me thinking. Hmmm….It would be nice to be a publisher….

In 1991, I received a letter from Lory Tan of Bookmark (Philippines). The letter was an open invitation: Come home to Manila and start my own publishing company, and Bookmark would handle sales and distribution. It was the sweetheart deal of a lifetime. So we quit our jobs, my American husband and I, and took a leap in the dark with our two-month old baby in tow, arriving in Manila in September 1991. My husband at the time, Marc Singer, helped me with the publishing business. At first, we were terribly frustrated with the poor quality of local printing. I remember, for our very first picture book Alphabet Bears, we literally babysat every stage of printing, from color proofing to printing to the folding. Only when all the sheets were printed and drying, did we leave the printing press. In a few days we got bound books, and every single one of them had the binding staple on the gutter positioned askew. The staple machine operator was either new to the job or had had a bad day. The lesson taught us that printing was a merciless operation, and it was better if we did it ourselves. In 1994 we started up Island Graphics, a printing and color-separation company, which Marc ran for ten years. Island printed all of Tahanan’s books to the highest of standards. Getting into the printing industry ourselves showed our devotion to the quality of our books, a reputation I’d like to think we continue to uphold today.

OOV: When you come across manuscript submissions, what immediately grabs your attention?

Reni: I look for a fresh voice. The writer’s voice has to ring true in my ear. And all the better when there’s a touch of humor.

But let me qualify that at Tahanan, publishing an unsolicited author is rare. Most books on our pub list are commissioned. Recently, we signed on three (unsolicited) projects that just magically fell in our lap. That is unusual, and providential.

OOV: What are your bestselling books?

Reni: Oddly enough, our bestselling titles are not the children’s books, but Pinoy pop culture gift books. Our all-time top seller is Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz’s You Know You’re Filipino If…A Pinoy Primer and Don’t Take a Bath on a Friday: Philippine Folk Beliefs and Superstitions. This was followed up in recent years by The More the Manyer: Pinoy Cliches and Other Words of Wisdumb. Among our children’s titles Bahay Kubo, the classic Filipino folk song beautifully illustrated by Hermes Alegre, is a perennial favorite.

OOV: What were your biggest rewards as a publisher? Toughest challenges?

Reni: Well, we’re still here. 2012 marks Tahanan’s 20th anniversary, and in that span of time, we’ve won nine National Book Awards, the most recent one for Ay Naku!, a picture book of only 65 words that won this year’s NBA. Longevity is a reward in itself.

Another intangible reward is the loyalty and enthusiasm of my staff, even though they work in a tiny office in Makati an ocean away. When it comes to managing them I am notoriously hands off. My modus operandi can be described in words borrowed from a wise mentor: “I don’t care if you goof off in front of me so long as you do the work behind my back!”

My toughest challenge came only in the last year when a project fell through. The toughest thing about it was that it involved dear friends of mine. Just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about publishing, there is still much to learn. I still have what I call “publishing adventures.” It’s up to me to turn them into teaching moments.

OOV: In hindsight, what would you do differently?

Reni: I wish we’d been more prolific. In 20 years, we published 114 titles. I wish we published double that number. But publishing is not just about quotas and numbers. It’s about content. I’d like to think that a good chunk of our pub list consists of evergreen titles…books that hopefully will be around for years.

OOV: Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Reni: I don’t see myself publishing books.

In a perfect world, I’d like to be teaching creative writing to 11-year-olds. Eleven is a great threshold age. When you’re 11, your heart and mind are still open. And I know a surefire way to keep them keep those little hands writing. Every student who turns in an earnest piece of writing is going to get a “That is AMAZING!” exclamation of praise from me. Because, in a way, anything you can come up with at that age is amazing.

OOV: Who are your favorite authors? What books have you read recently?

Reni: Growing up, I devoured all of the Agatha Christie mysteries. I’m a big fan of Jane Kenyon’s poetry. She showed me how everyday language can be poetry. For self-help books, my favorites are Diane Rizzetto’s Waking Up to What You Do and Charlotte J. Beck’s Nothing Special (“When nothing is special, everything can be”). The novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende kept me spellbound. I just finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s excellent short story collection Unaccustomed Earth. And I’m now reading The Life of Pi on my Kindle before I go see the movie.

OOV:  Please tell us more about your future projects.

Reni: I’m excited about two projects that have been incubating at Tahananfor years: a beautifully illustrated picture book titled Alpabeto Filipino by Nicanor Tiongson and Crispin Dayao, Jr. (due 2013), and the great children’s book writer Rene O. Villanueva’s posthumous Bum Tiyaya Bum: Philippine Nursery Rhymes (2014).

Tahanan’s sister company, All & Sundry, recently launched a line of stationery using artwork spun off from Tahanan books. For the first time ever, our stationery outsold our books at the last Manila International Book Fair. That’s what I call a mixed blessing. Can’t say I’m happy with the implications. I remember Reme Grefalda saying that we are a nation of writers, but unfortunately, we are not a nation of readers. Could this mean that we are a nation of notepad scribblers?

But if you want to know what’s been a labor of love for me lately is developing a line of “crossover” books. Part of Tahanan’s mission is to publish books that appeal to Filipinos living overseas, books that are meaningful to them and speak of their issues. We started with A for Adobo: An Alphabet Book of Filipino Food. This year we launched Hanggang sa Muli: Homecoming Stories for the Filipino Soul in Seattle, San Francisco, New York City, and London. Everywhere I launched this book, the sentiment was the same. We may have lost a country but we gained a home. And it doesn’t matter where we end up in the world…we take the whole darn Philippines with us anyway!

OOV: What would you consider your most important legacy?

Reni: A Filipino father came up to me one day and said: “My kids grew up on Tahanan Books.” That’s legacy enough for me.

© Aileen Ibardaloza

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Interview with Reni Roxas, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of Tahanan Books
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