Consider him the mass-market mystery man, a publishing phenomenon whose blockbuster book sales are equaled only by the anonymity he maintains. He is Bob Ong?not his real name?the most unusual best-selling Filipino author you?ve never met.
Here is what can be proven about the enigmatic Mr. Ong: he has written five books, ?ABNKKBSNPLAko?!?, ?Bakit Baliktad Magbasa ng Libro Ang Mga Pilipino?? (Why Do Filipinos Read Books in Reverse?),? ?Ang Paboritong Libro ni Hudas? (Judas?s Favorite Book), ? ?Alamat ng Gubat? (Legend of the Forest), and ? ?Stainless Longganisa? (Stainless Native Sausage) ? all with a combined sales of almost quarter of a million.
His defunct Bobong (Dumb) Pinoy website received a People?s Choice Philippine Web Award for Weird/Humor in 1998. His books are a favorite among Filipinos of all classes and students ? even if they?re not required reading. He has never appeared at any book launching, not even his own, nor on TV.
That Ong has achieved such success in an age when celebrity is often a requisite of effective marketing is indicative of his following. But the fact that he has successfully kept his true identity a secret is even more astounding.
?Even those who know who he is won?t admit that they do,? says Nida Gatus, Ong?s editor at the publisher Visual Print Enterprises. VPE and Ong himself are fiercely protective of that anonymity. Ong only communicates through the Internet. No phone interviews. No photographs. No personal appearances. Ever.
At one time, it was rumored that award-winning poet Paolo Manalo is the real Bob Ong. The literary editor at the Philippines Free Press, who teaches literature at the University of the Philippines, denies this. ?I?m flattered that people think I?m Bob Ong but I?m not him,? he says.
Manalo, who actually ran a ?Who is Bob Ong?? contest on his blog, offers his view on why Ong is so popular: ?Bob Ong is able to articulate the concerns and attitudes of a generation of students who are aware of the very real and absurd contradictions in the world they live in. He writes with the same casual and ironic tone that made his writings on the old website accessible and popular [with] Filipino readers. The materials he used in his books are those familiar to this generation of Filipinos. One might even call them urban culture lore."
Writing and being
It could be Ong?s conversational writing style, easygoing yet percussive, with moments of insightful realization. There?s also humor and introspection with remembered details that lead one to believe that he holds the secret of life in the big city, be it in his essays (?ABa?) or in his fiction (?Alamat?). It is ground-penetrating radar of common sense. That Ong derives his ideas from his life in a self-deprecating and thoughtful manner only means that the secret to Bob Ong?s writing lies in Bob Ong?s being.
Most important was Ong?s choice to write in everyday Filipino. ?Consider language as a tool,? Ong explains over e-mail. ?English would be a saw. Filipino, a knife. My aim is just to peel singkamas (turnip) for merienda. A second language can never replace the first.?
Aside from Ong?s own responses, the best information about Ong?or BO as he refers to himself?can be found within the pages of his books.
Even at his tale?s true beginning, it isn?t a prototypical writer?s story. Ong didn?t grow up fancying himself a future author. In fact, he didn?t enjoy writing as a child or reading as much as would be expected. After a failed attempt at a college degree, he went on to complete a two-year course in a vocational school and another course in writing. Learning is something he loved, though. Though not a stereotypical reader, he savored books and TV and found that his daily life gave way to pithy anecdotes brimming with perspective.
?Some of the stories in my books have been written as early as 1999,? he explains. ?I am my writing style. I don?t write for decoders of treasure maps. I?m an equal-opportunity writer who wants to be read by anyone who can.?
Ong worked as a web developer and a teacher. And he wrote. His distinctive prose pieces began to be published online, and he put together the first crucial piece in the puzzle: the award-winning Bobong Pinoy website. ?I created BP because I needed it for my job,? Ong says. ?The twist: although impressed, my boss would?ve fired me had he known I was the one behind it.?
In the process of his getting seriously into writing, Ong?s alter-ego was born. He didn?t coin the name. ?Someone else did,? he says. ?That somebody mistook me online for someone by that name. It was a light bulb moment days after when I noticed that the name was actually in ?BobOng Pinoy.? No tough decisions there.? Through his site, Ong gathered fans quickly.
Gatus, who had just joined Visual Print Enterprises in 1999 as an administrative manager, was one of those fans. ?It wasn?t the usual amusing reading and you?re done with it,? she says. ?You just have to read it again and again, because each time is a different experience.? VPE was a commercial press that was interested in publishing its own titles and Gatus thought Ong?s humorous and insightful pieces were perfect for the project. ?I come from the consumer side,? she says. ?I feel obliged to share them with other people, because they?re really good. It?s such a waste to keep them to myself.?
She had read in one of Ong?s monthly mailing list materials that he was interested in putting together a book. The two touched base in 2000. In 2001, ?ABa? came out?to supernatural results. The latest figures available to Gatus peg Ong?s current sales at 215,500 books. Gatus says that not only have students picked up Ong?s books on their own ? teachers have used them in classes; the books have been mined for book reports, theses and seminars. ?We?ve even been asked to supply books to a couple of churches to sell in their bookstores,? Gatus adds.
Additionally, Ong decided that all the proceeds of the two books would go to chosen charities, something he would like to continue. ?It is only through charity that I can tell myself that my work matters,? he says. ?It protects me from writing purely for profit.?
And through all that, Ong steadfastly refused interview requests as well as offers to speak at graduations. At the start, it proved to be a challenge for VPE in terms of marketing his books. ?The first and only time we thought of the need to market him was during the release of ?ABa,? since he was unknown beyond the Net,? Gatus explains. ?But we had his online followers to rely on. It was slow at first, but once ?ABa? became known, even non-netizens were already reading Bob Ong.?
Now the books basically market themselves. Gatus says Ong simply announces that he has a new book coming out in a few months, ?and fans would already be visiting bookstores and pestering the clerks ? way before the books go to press.? Now the bookstores themselves call up VPE to verify the rumors of a new BO book in the pipeline. If anything, the prospects of new BO books, unknown identity and all, are better than they?ve ever been.
Meanwhile Ong is doing what many think isn?t possible in the Philippines: he?s living off his writing full-time. Aside from the leap of faith it required, Ong says that writing full-time ?depends on what kind of life you want for yourself. Some people don?t mind extreme living conditions so long as they?re free to do the things they love doing the most. I am only writing full-time now because it?s either that or I keep an 8-to-5 job and quit writing altogether.?
And that?s one thing Ong certainly does not want to do. He likes that people, particularly students, are reading his books. ?It wasn?t intentional but I feel proud of it,? Ong says. ?Converting non-book readers from all walks of life is a glorious feat.? He is abashed and amazed by his success and continues to write about the joy of writing.
In that sense, ?Stainless,? whose cover is adorned by a chain of pens, is a love letter to Ong?s affection for writing. This is, after all, a book that is dedicated to the trees that surrendered their lives for the book to be published. ?It?s the book that talks about the other four and wraps everything up,? Ong explains. ?It is no more a book on writing as it is a book on dreams and aspirations.? Among his shelf of books, ?Stainless? stands out as being the most personal yet.
Personal and private
Aside from very detailed personal information everyone wants to keep private, Ong likes to say that, everything about him can be found in the books. He says that he?s nothing like people think he is. ?Quiet and oftentimes boring,? he says by way of description. ?You wouldn?t see the Bob Ong you wish to meet. Other than stories that tend to be wordy when told in person, I?ve got no other entertaining qualities.?
Gatus adds that Ong ?knows what he wants, and is very much in charge of his life. He is very meticulous.? He savors surfing the Net and loves music, and thus spends his time burning CDs containing all sorts of mixes.
One could also consider thinking up new ideas as being another Ong passion. He?s constantly trying to come up with different ways of doing things. Gatus says that the topsy-turvy chapters of ?Bakit? were completely Ong?s idea.
?Funny, because I tried that on the school paper before and our adviser just shook his head and said no way,? he says.
Writing is what continues to fuel Ong?s days. ?You read, you watch, you observe, you think, you feel?you can?t help it,? he says. ?Insight comes from all these. From all these, you write.?
The interest regarding his real identity bewilders Ong. ?Some readers won?t give up the idea that I might actually be a group of people and that my personal anecdotes are fictitious,? he says. ?I made references to real people, places and events. I?ve already met some of my readers. There?s nothing mythical about me.?
Yet Manalo says that the mysterious duality of Ong?s identity has its own charm: ?I?m glad that we have writers who maintain a secret identity and enjoy a fan following. Many of the writers of Tagalog romances hide under pseudonyms.? Further, Manalo points out, even if his readers don?t really know who he is, they buy his books anyway. ?Maybe this means his identity is not important, it is his writing that matters.?
The possible rewards of fame have crossed Ong?s mind. ?Of course, you also do wonder at times how it feels to be a rock star,? he says. ?But I look at fame and success as Frodo?s ring, it?s not for everyone.?
Instead Ong devotes himself to remaining productive, hopefully even writing two books a year instead of one. Right now he is working on this year?s book, a book of ?fiction regarding an issue I feel most strongly about.? If you want to know what that issue is, you?re going to have to wait for the book just like the rest of Ong?s legionnaires.
There are several reasons why he elected to maintain his secret identity, but perhaps the most essential is that he wants to keep doing what he does the way he wants to. It?s continuing to create on his own terms. ?I don?t cope well with big changes,? Bob Ong writes. ?It?s just not for me. Fame comes with a price I?m not willing to pay. I just want to write while living the average Filipino life. I don?t want to be robbed of that.?
(For more about Bob Ong, log on to www.visprint.net or e-mail Ong himself at firstname.lastname@example.org.)