There is a visual incongruity that one experiences when meeting Mina V. Esguerra for the first time.
In person she’s relaxed, giggly and so girly that she seems way younger than her 35 years. Yet she’s the most important figure in the genre of Filipino romances in English, and one of the most prolific Filipino authors today.
It all clicks together when she starts talking. She laughs when recalling that people expect her to be the most romantic person around because of her books. “There are certain expectations that my husband likes to perpetuate. He likes telling people he’s married to a romance novelist,” she says, referring to her husband, writer Michael A.R. Co. “Then he has an evil wink when he says that…. It’s fiction. Why expect horror writers to be scary? Or crime writers to be criminals? Because that’s what’s holding back a lot of people… it’s this persona that will take some kind of hit when relatives find out or their friends find out what they did.”
Esguerra hasn’t held back. Aside from the many short stories which have been anthologized, she has written 13 books since 2009.
She estimates that her books have been downloaded over 50,000 times. She’s also been very busy giving classes, talks and workshops on writing romances, inspiring others to follow her lead.
Beyond what she’s done, it’s how she’s done it that matters. Esguerra is the very definition of what is called a “hybrid author,” someone who publishes both on a print and a digital platform. She has done all that and more.
She began writing after being inspired by early favorites such as the “Sweet Valley Twins” books by Francine Pascal, and watching episodes of Joss Whedon’s TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
After graduating from Ateneo with a degree in Communication, Esguerra began working for an Internet business as a copy editor and managing websites, including a stint working with Asian Development Bank (ADB).
She continued writing stories in her spare time—romances featuring Filipinos as lead characters. She had worked in the genre known as chick lit, which is now called new adult. In 2009, it bore fruit when Summit Books published her first book, “My Imaginary Ex,” and the next year her second, “No Strings Attached.”
In 2010, she self-published for the first time, making her novel “Fairy Tale Fail,” through Amazon.com as an experiment that proved successful; that e-book alone has been downloaded more than 10,000 times.
This gave options for readers of Esguerra’s work. They could buy the Summit print books in Philippine bookstores. Or they could order e-books or physical books printed on demand from online sellers like Amazon.com. Or they could order copies from Esguerra herself, who has copies printed and sends them out by herself under her imprint Bright Girl Books.
Esguerra holds the rights to her work. “It was accidental,” she says. “At the start, the first contract I got from Summit was one title at a time. I could have published with anyone else during that period. Whenever I start something, I make sure I own all of the rights.”
Then she discovered it made so much sense. “Over time, I just found many advantages to it because I’m the type who wants to be in control over the creative part of the work. Many authors don’t care. They’re OK with giving it up to the publisher and the publishers worries about it. I actually care. I want to have a say in everything.”
She also isn’t satisfied with the speed of traditional publishing. “I kind of got used to everything being slow in publishing. A book might take a few years or a lifetime to write. And then when I started playing in that playground of Amazon and self-publishers abroad, that’s when I realized it could be faster, it could be more efficient. It could be more reader-centric and market-centric. These are the books I like to read. And soon I wasn’t content with just one or two books a year. So I took matters into my own hands.”
Then there is Esguerra’s penchant for repackaging her old stuff in new editions to make them available to those who have read her new work but not her old one. She’s just made available a new e-book edition of her three books with Summit (“My Imaginary Ex,” “No Strings Attached” and “That Kind of Guy”) called “Perfect Boyfriend.”
It’s also a canny business decision, like finding money at the bottom of your closet. “One day it will make money,” she says hopefully. “Not yet, but it will. It’s also about being more aware about copyright and my own rights as a creator.”
Her next step brings her full circle, as she is set to release two print editions with local publishing power Anvil Publishing, Inc.: “The Harder We Fall” and “Never Just Friends.”
These two books represent the area she’s working in now: steamy romances. These are romantic books much like her previous works, except that there are sex scenes. The other big difference is that she’s writing about American protagonists.
It started as yet another experiment, with Esguerra writing “Playing Autumn,” a novella with an American protagonist as part of an e-book anthology that did well. “It opened me up to the market,” she says. “I realized that ‘Fairy Tale Fail’ with its 10,000 downloads was nothing compared to the potential of what the actual romance market is, worldwide, and they’re not necessarily looking for Filipino protagonists yet. However, they’re perfectly fine reading Filipino authors apparently. What we learned there is that it’s really the readers’ decision to choose work that they can relate to. Whoever tells it, apparently, they don’t care.”
The decision to include sex scenes is a step forward in her development as a writer. “I didn’t write sex before because the characters were Filipino,” Esguerra explains. “There are issues about depicting that kind of thing and I would get it not just from people who know me or from my relatives. I would also get it from readers, that they were uncomfortable reading about the sex lives of Filipinos who are portrayed to be good people. It seems like there is a cognitive dissonance there. I understand how it might seem weird for people who know me, but I like to read this stuff. This was something I also had to come to terms with.”
She plans to write books featuring Filipino protagonists with sex scenes. Whatever happens, don’t expect anything like E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Esguerra disliked the book so much she never finished it. Even as someone who reads steamy romances, it’s not something I would be into.”
One of the other things that helps Esguerra meets as many readers as possible is her embracing new technology in publishing and social media. “The freelance jobs that I did and the job I had for 10 years prior to this were managing websites,” she explains. “I had experience with the basics and of course back then in the old days when we were hard-coding HTML, this is a lot easier.”
Beyond the e-book and print on demand platforms, Esguerra uses Wattpad, something she wishes she had when she started out. On Wattpad, Esguerra has two complete books available and has over 30,000 followers. She gives her books for free—with a purpose. “I will give free e-books to those who ask,” she says. “What I learned from the people who did well in self-publishing on Amazon is that they gave a lot of books for free, and that’s how they get loyal readers.
“Now I actually have 13 books so I don’t mind giving one for free, because there are a dozen more they can pay for if they want. If they don’t, they just keep finding free, because I want people who can’t afford or those who don’t have credit cards to read me… That was part of the original strategy that remains to this day. All they have to do is ask.” (You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Esguerra has emerged as a champion of her genre. Since 2013, she’s been lecturing and mentoring as part of her campaign to get more people writing romances. She’s even made her lessons available for free.
In her first class, 15 out of 100 students finished novel-length projects and 11 of those have since been published. It means that Esguerra is a franchise and now has a multiplier effect: Her students are following her lead.
She no longer works for ADB but continues to do freelance work at her own pace.
She explains that she’s doing what fellow writer Samantha Sotto did when Sotto was working on her book “Before Ever After”: She writes while waiting for her 3-year-old Eliana to finish school, or on weekends, when she can ask someone to babysit.
Looking forward, Esguerra is set to be even more productive this year: “I set a number of workshops I’m going to do, set a number of books that I plan to release and the number of countries I want to explore in terms of selling foreign rights. It’s still creating work that can be used, so I can benefit from partnerships made with all these channels that carry content.”
Esguerra is happy to announce that she just signed her first foreign translation rights with a publisher in Turkey. Aside from the two Anvil books, she’s also releasing an expanded new edition of “Playing Autumn.” She’s working on her 14th novel, “Someone Else’s Fantasy,” a spinoff from “The Harder We Fall,” also later this year.
Esguerra’s new adult work is available in every conceivable format in every country, and soon in another language. Through her Anvil books, she will be back on Philippine bookshelves. She has inspired an entirely new generation of readers as well as writers in a genre that had previously been underrepresented.
She’s moving the industry, building an empire that now intends to perpetuate itself through both her hard work, the technology she’s embraced and the students she’s mentored. She’s filled in the gaps.
Romances in Filipino have always been among the most lucrative genres in Philippine publishing, but the romance in English lagged behind. But that was all before Esguerra.
She recalls a recent discussion with other romance writers at a Christmas party. “We felt there was a gap. We know that Filipinos love reading romances, we know that Filipinos have no problem reading American, British or historical romances. But not in English by a Filipino author. There is probably a knee-jerk reaction that it won’t be as good, it’s going to be corny or boring because we don’t do exciting things here romantically,” Esguerra says.
“So we decided we’re going to change that. We came to the conclusion that we do exciting stuff here. Romance here is exciting for Filipinos, so I guess it’s just the way that we tell the story. We have to get readers over the idea that it’s not as good as these romantic authors they line for by the hundreds. We’re not there yet, I think, but we’re trying. I want readers to pick up a romance by a Filipino author in English and say proudly that it’s better than the others they’ve read.”