The business of reading: How the children of writer Virgilio Almario turned Adarna House into an online enterprise

Monique Tolentino

The children of poet, literary critic, and National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario and his wife, Lyn, grew up immersed in arts and literature – and for the past years, they have been at the helm of the family business, Adarna House. Eldest child Asa Montenejo is its president, Ani Rosa Almario, its vice president for product development, and only son Agno Almario is vice president for sales and marketing

In an interview with PayMongo, Ani and Agno talked about business, books, and family.

Adarna House – the publishing house that created books for Filipino children – began from a commission in the mid-1970s to produce children’s storybooks in support of a program that aimed to nourish the minds of children. Already an accomplished writer having published collections of poetry in 1967, Makinasyon at Ilang Tula, Peregrinasyon at Iba Pang Tula (1970), Virgilio Almario, also known by his pen name Rio Alma, organized a group of authors, editors, illustrators and researchers for the project. This became the Aklat Adarna Series, before later evolving into the publishing house that it is today.

Agno and Ani Almario were never pushed to join the family business

Ani studied economics and always thought she would end up in the corporate world like her mother who built an impressive business career before shifting her management talents to Adarna House. Ani took the same course and worked at SGV Consulting but only lasted around 6 to 9 months. The grind wasn’t for her. Fulfillment was elusive.

Ani told her parents that she wanted to join Adarna. At that time, they only had a handful of employees. Ani headed the product development team and eventually found herself leaning towards the educational value of their books. She decided to do her masters in education and put up the progressive Raya School. Today, she integrates the two businesses together almost flawlessly.

Agno, meanwhile, studied philosophy. After graduation, he worked for a bank and like his older sister, he thought he would be part of the corporate world. But coming from a family of artists and teachers, he found little to no inspiration in that world.

“Usually, business-oriented families talk about business at the dinner table. Kami hindi (We don't). We talk about art, we talk about education. It was really a different context. Ang pinaka memorable na discussions namin (at the dinner table) ay kapag pinag-usapan ang sining at panitikan (The most memorable discussions we had are when we talked about the arts and literature),” he said.

After his second year working in a bank, Agno found himself enamored by the startup culture. He taught himself how to code and program.

“I thought the most logical way for me to venture into business was to join the family business, to leverage the resources there, and to create new opportunities,” Agno said.

Business foresight

Agno contributed by building Adarna’s first digital team and headed the company’s digital platform where one can subscribe for P200 a month and get access to all of Adarna’s titles. This service became relevant especially during the pandemic as most schools relied on delivering their materials digitally.

Agno also pushed for the company to enter e-commerce. Even before the pandemic, Adarna was able to commit a number of resources to building their e-commerce platform via Shopify - which is powered by PayMongo.

He was able to expand and put up a software firm called Buri Technology—an e-learning development film that helps institutions build digital training materials as well as content production services.

While most brick and mortar businesses struggled to shift online, Agno had the business foresight to do this early on.

“We look to the west. We look at how they’ve been progressing. The macro-trends are there. We see it in western society, in China through Alibaba, e-commerce is there. But I was really surprised when I saw the numbers from Lazada's birthday sale," Agno said.

The cross merchandise volume of Lazada at the time was P4 billion and went up 10x the succeeding year. Something clicked and Agno felt that local customers were now more accepting of buying and selling goods and services using the internet. Immediately he knew that Adarna had to enter e-commerce.

“During the quarantine, we were able to release a fully digital publishing brand. We have competencies to build businesses from scratch as an industry. The publishing industry can still become huge," Agno said.

His sister couldn't be prouder. “Si Agno talaga, sobra niyang forward-looking. Kaya noong nagkaroon ng pandemic, ayos na yung e-commerce namin (Agno is very forward-looking. That's why when the pandemic struck, our e-commerce was already in place), while other publishers were behind or confused, Agno already had it covered,” said Ani.

Access to books

According to the National Book Development Board's most recent readership survey, there has been a decrease in interest from the younger generation when it comes to reading. About 38.86% of children and young adults said they were willing to spend P99 and below for a book while 36.39% said they were willing to shell out P100-199. Only 21.35% of respondents said they were willing to buy a book for P200-599.

However, online sales for Adarna have been seeing steady growth.

“I’ve never seen a child turn away from a book. The first time they see a book they’ll immediately eat it (haha)…and then they’ll browse it, look at the pictures, and go over it again and again," Ani said, adding:

"I think the real issue there is access. There’s no way for the general public to access books or to read because there is no reliable public library system. But from conversations with other publishers, trends in purchasing, and therefore, trends in reading of Filipinos have seen an increase in books on politics, history, a lot of children's literature, and a lot of new fiction.”

With children’s books titles like “Ito ang Diktadura (This is the Dictatorship)" and “Si Jhun-Jhun, Noong Bago Ideklara ang Batas Militar (Jhun-Jhun Before the Declaration of Martial Law)", Adarna has been receiving a lot of appreciation from parents and teachers for making it easier for children to understand such big concepts. Even books with simpler titles like "What Kids Should Know About Filipino Architecture" have had great reception from both children and adults who enjoy reading them.

"They realize how rich Filipinas is. They start appreciating who we are as Filipinos when they read our books. We're happy our books can do that for people," Ani said.

Most of Adarna’s titles are from local artists. Although they have a few translations, Adarna House’s thrust has always been to boost local creative talent. One of their most recent titles is "Dancing Waters", the story of how Vice President Leni Robredo grew up from a child watching the dancing waters in Naga City to being elected to the second highest position in the nation. Half of the sales from this book will be donated to the Community Learning Hubs of the Office of the Vice President (OVP).

Bigger plans for publishing

With no sure timeline of things going back to “normal'', bigger plans for Adarna are in the works.

“Every branch should have a direct to consumer relationship. E-commerce is merely a conduit to executing that concept. If people want to consume digital books, we want them to subscribe directly to our platform. If they want to purchase physical books, they can do so through our e-commerce channels. If schools want either physical or digital learning materials in a digital medium that allows them to view student analytics and customize activities, we will provide that. That’s where we're headed, and the trajectory we’re in, so we will just continue that,” Agno said.

Essentially, Adarna will become an umbrella company of all these ventures with the vision of education and literature.

For Ani and Agno, the shift from the corporate world to joining the family business and eventually branching out to their own endeavors was inspired by their love for the country.

“My motivation has always been, really, the Philippines," Ani said.

“What really drove me was this desire to create something greater than myself. In a sense, I use entrepreneurship as a canvas to express my desire to create. I really wanted to build a product that many people will be able to use. Gusto kong maipakita sa mga tao na kaya mong mag-buo ng kompanya na galing sa Pilipinas na nakakagawa ng maraming mabuti at magagandang bagay (I want to show people that one can build a company from the Philippines which can do so many good things),” Agno said.

Ani just finished reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and is currently reading White Love and Other Events in Filipino History by Vicente L. Rafael.

Agno is currently reading No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention and The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam is a book by Barbara W. Tuchman.

Published date:
June 9, 2021
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