Singapore literature, or Sing lit as it is known locally, is getting hot—and it is not because of the island’s tropical climate. Recent months have seen many titles, from literary fiction to middle grade series, getting picked up by overseas publishers, including those from the U.K. and U.S.
William Morrow executive editor Rachel Kahan says that Singapore writers “are unique in that they reflect the coexistence of Asian and Western cultures, and though their literary styles may differ, they invariably address the ways that colonialism, traditional Asian cultures, and the rise of ‘New Asia’ are felt in the lives of Singaporeans today.” Kahan, who has published Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s Sarong Party Girls and three titles in Ovidia Yu’s Aunty Lee series, has recently bought the rights to Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (set for a June 2017 launch).
“Cheryl’s title is the first novel published in the U.S. that is written in colloquial Singaporean English, or Singlish, which is uniquely Singaporean,” Kahan says, pointing out that the title’s terrific reception shows that American readers are willing to get very intimate with the language and culture of Singapore. “As for Jaswal and Ovidia, they have a knack for storytelling, with themes that are reliably transcultural: food, family, sex, murder, and belonging. So I don’t worry about the fact that the setting is not in the U.S.” She adds that Singapore authors who write in English tend to be fluent in Western culture, making their storytelling style more easily accessible for Western readers.
Jacaranda Literary Agency founder Jayapriya Vasudevan observes that “Singapore writers tend to produce shorter books, which was a challenge for us to sell.” She adds: “But with changing trends, it is now acceptable to have books of varying lengths. Genre fiction like crime and fantasy from Singapore does well, but literary writing is still an emerging list.” Vasudevan has worked with local authors such as Suchen Christine Lim (The River’s Song), Krishna Udayasankar (the Aryavarta Chronicles series, Three, and The Immortal), Simon Tay (A City of Small Blessings), and Felix Cheong (Vanishing Point). “The River’s Song is sold in the U.K. and U.S., and we hope to sell the rights in a few other territories and languages, including Tamil,” she notes.
The journey has been far from easy. “We spent a few years literally talking about where Singapore is on the map. Now, I think the city-state has a firm foothold in the world of publishing,” adds Vasudevan, who has received interesting manuscripts from expatriates living in Singapore. “What I would like to see from Singapore writers are deeper stories, novels rather than short stories, narrative nonfiction, noir, big family sagas, historical fiction, and memoirs. There are so many stories yet to be written.”
Collaborations and Challenges
The Singapore National Arts Council and the Select Centre, a nonprofit that promotes translations and intercultural efforts, “have been very encouraging to new writers,” Vasudevan says. “Perhaps more workshops, peer groups, and writing competitions will uncover even more hidden talents.”
The call (and need) for capacity building has bolstered many initiatives, such as Sing Lit Station (with its main programs, Singapore Poetry Writing Month, or SingPoWriMo, and Manuscript Bootcamp), the National Poetry Festival, Singapore Writers Festival, the National Schools Literature Festival, and the recently announced National Reading Movement. “Any literary event or initiative—by the government or the public—will certainly help in encouraging more people to write while raising the visibility of homegrown titles and authors,” says Edmund Wee, publisher and CEO of Epigram Books. “The influx of imported titles, especially from the U.K. and U.S., has overshadowed local works, and, as such, getting Singaporeans to read and buy Sing lit will boost our multicultural literary publishing industry. We need to get the momentum going.”
There is “a need to establish collaborations with media producers and distributors to not just find, but also nurture, readers and reading habits,” says Ng Kah Gay, associate publisher of Ethos Books. “We call this the steal-time-away-from-Pokémon-hunting mission. Now that everybody can be a publisher and attention span is incredibly shrinking in this age of digital technology, quality content has become even more precious.”
For Marshall Cavendish associate publisher Lee Mei Lin, the greatest competition in Sing lit publishing “comes from big-name international authors who have mind share leads and enjoy prime book display spaces over local authors. Coupled with the perception that books with international acclaim are better, browsing customers are much more likely to choose such titles over locally published ones. Another issue is our small market of 5.7 million people, where the majority tends to gravitate towards nonfiction.”
PW spoke with Lee and several other players to further understand their publishing programs, big authors and titles, future plans, and thoughts on Sing lit.
The 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence in 2015 gave Armour Publishing even more cause for celebration. Its Timmy and Tammy preschool series was chosen as a part of the SG50 Baby Jubilee Gift Pack given to all Singaporeans born in 2015. “It was the only children’s book series selected, and, just like that, we sold 200,000 copies,” explains executive director Christina Lim, who has sold the e-book rights to Ruth Wan-Lau’s 24-volume series to South Korea.
Armour’s other prolific children’s authors include Joy Cowley and Ken Spillman. Lim says Cowley’s 24-title Well-Being series is the press’s bestseller, adding: “It has all the ingredients to be a perennial favorite: pages filled with fun stories, beautiful illustrations, teasers, and new words while promoting good values. It was so popular that we followed it with a four-volume Growing Up series.” Spillman’s 12-book Virtues series, another bestseller, uses engaging story line and quirky protagonists to deliver positive messages on virtues such as compassion, courage, patience, and honesty.
In fact, many of Armour’s children’s titles—David Wong’s The Koi Pond and The Missing Chopsticks, Mabelle Yeo’s The Blue Budgie Can’t Stay Still, and Anita Sebastian’s Ranger Anne series, for instance—teach kids meaningful values. “We would like to publish more of such short stories, or those based on local contexts, by homegrown authors, and promote them overseas,” adds Lim, who cofounded the company in 1991.
Those early days were both exciting and challenging, Lim recalls. “There was just so much to do, but it was certainly tough to find authors willing to write for an unknown company like ours,” she says. “We had to compete with established local and international publishers, and that has, to this day, driven us to constantly work on improving our content quality, and get renowned authors such as Joy and Ken to write for us.”
It was director Eliza Teoh’s refusal to relinquish the rights to her first title that led to the formation of Bubbly Books in 2011. A former journalist and editorial consultant, Teoh had the necessary contacts to set up on her own and “proved that it is possible to have a publishing model where content creators are fairly compensated for their works and still get to keep their IP.”
Now a full-fledged publishing house, Bubbly Books has released several bestsellers. The Ellie Belly series, written by Teoh, for instance, has more than 90,000 copies in circulation, with rights sold to China, India, and Turkey. Others include Caline Tan’s Robozonic series; RunHideSeek, a dystopian YA trilogy by Teoh’s daughter Gabby Tye that has sold 20,000 copies; and Jessica Alejandro’s Extraordinary Losers series, which is being turned into a television series.
“We have 30 titles now, with six to eight new additions annually,” says Teoh. “Current book trends are stories with local settings familiar to Singapore children. But the market for the seven-to-11-year-old age groups is becoming crowded. Having an authentic voice and a distinctive narrative style are crucial to make a title stand out in any segment, or for any age group.” One such book is Radhika Puri’s new YA title, The Fibonacci Revelation, about a coded poem alluding to Singapore’s dark past. “RunHideSeek does very well locally—with rights sold to China—because the voice is authentically teen,” she says. “We will definitely be doing more YA titles in the coming year.”
Teoh says Bubbly Books seeks to add educational material within a title in fun ways, so that children learn without even knowing they are learning. “We will continue to publish entertaining and good books that children want to read, and that parents are happy to spend their money buying,” she says.
This is the publisher behind Singapore’s richest literary award, with prize money totaling roughly $29,000. There were 69 entries for last year’s inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize. O Thiam Chin’s novel Now That It’s Over bagged the top spot. “This new award is meant to recognize good writing, motivate more budding authors to write, and give Singapore’s literary publishing scene a big nudge,” says psychologist-turned-journalist-turned-designer-turned-publisher Edmund Wee, who has published seven of the shortlisted and longlisted titles, including Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Sugarbread, Imran Hashim’s Annabelle Thong, and Daryl Qilin Yam’s Kappa Quartet.
More importantly, the prize favors novels. Wee is determined to get a Singapore writer on the Man Booker Prize list by 2020. That has prompted him to focus more on long-form narratives in recent months despite his successes with middle grade series such as Adeline Foo’s Diary of Amos Lee, Lesley-Anne and Monica Lim’s Danger Dan series, and A.J. Low’s Sherlock Sam series (now published by Andrews McMeel in the U.S.).
After five years, Epigram has more than 250 titles to offer, including reissues of Singapore classics (Stella Kon’s The Scholar and the Dragon, Goh Poh Seng’s The Immolation), the Cultural Medallion series (translations of national award winners not originally written in English), and Playwright’s Omnibus (including collections by Ovidia Yu and Desmond Sim). Then there are award winners such as Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (named the 2016 Book of the Year in the English Fiction category by the Singapore Book Awards; also published by Pantheon) and Amanda Lee Koe’s Ministry of Moral Panic (Best Fiction for 2014). A.J. Low’s new middle grade series, Diplomatic Shenanigans, has just been added to the catalogue.
Wee’s next big move is the establishment of a London office, set for launch any day now. “It is tough to sell rights, and convincing overseas publishers that our titles are not bad—I won’t say ‘very good’—is hard,” Wee says. “So it makes more sense to publish them ourselves in London and have better access to the larger English-speaking market in the U.K. and U.S.”
Providing a platform for new writers continues to be the goal at 19-year-old Ethos Books. “But it will be a much more selective process given the emerging voices in poetry and literature,” says founder and publisher Fong Hoe Fang, whose team will also be “taking on more of the promotional activities for our titles and writers instead of relying on bookstores to accomplish that.”
Ethos’s 250-title catalogue reflects many such new voices from Singapore (such as Danielle Lim’s The Sound of SCH, about a 30-year journey with mental illness, which shared the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize for English nonfiction), as well as cosmopolitan and global perspectives (such as Noelle Q. de Jesus’s Blood: Collected Stories and Timothy O’Grady’s Children of Las Vegas).
Fong says Singapore humor and satire are getting hot: “We published three of Felix Cheong’s Singapore Siu Dai—literally, Singapore Less Sweet—and since they sold quite well, we came up with a box set, which, surprisingly, is being stocked in much larger quantities at major local bookstores.”
Associate publisher Ng Kah Gay says the past two years have seen a shift in genre preferences: “Poetry, which is about individual voices, has always been strong. But now we are seeing more fiction and longer prose that addresses cultural, societal and governmental concerns. Claire Tham’s The Inlet, now available in Italian, and Josephine Chia’s When A Flower Dies are two such examples.”
Fong says, “Each Ethos title is a bestseller on its own—otherwise we wouldn’t have picked it.” But there are certainly reader favorites: Me Migrant (a poetry collection by migrant Bangladeshi construction worker Md Mukul Hossine); the poetry anthologies Little Things and No Other City; Corridor and Malay Sketches, short story collections by Alfian Sa’at; and the anthologies Here and Beyond and Telltale. “There is an inclination towards the familiar, but it is also obvious that Singaporean readers are becoming more experiential in their book choices,” says Fong, adding that No Other City remains the city-state’s bestselling poetry anthology since its 2000 publication.
Winning the Best Children’s Title at the recent Singapore Book Awards is a coup for Lingzi Media. Lee Kow Fong’s The Search, a picture book celebrating friendship and love, has since been sold to China and Vietnam, and the English edition is currently being prepared for launch and rights negotiations.
Though Lingzi is new to the local Chinese-language picture book market, it has been publishing and distributing books for 20 years. “We are the only pure Chinese-language publisher in town, adding 50–60 new titles annually to a list of nearly 400 titles, half of which are for children and young adults,” explains executive director and chief editor Denon Lim.
“We print between 1,000 and 2,000 copies, but if the author agrees to visit schools for talks and the title gets into the recommended reading list, then we may go higher than 4,000,” Lim says. He finds that children’s and YA titles (such as the newly released Ai Yu’s The Blue Balloon and Xiao Han’s The Railway Home) are becoming more important, both for local school sales and regional rights deals.
Lingzi Media’s nonfiction list is also extensive and growing, with titles covering politics (Chin Kah Chong’s The Lee Kuan Yew Whom I Know), social issues (Tham Yew Chin’s Golden Kangaroo, a book on aging), and history (Choong Chee Pang’s From Nanyang University to Beijing University).
“The adult Chinese book market in Singapore is challenging and small, with readers preferring imported titles from China and Taiwan, or to read in English. But this also means that local competitors are fewer than those in the English-language book market, especially in the school segment,” adds Lim, who has made it a goal to publish educational comics to encourage students, specifically those in lower grades, to read Chinese. “We are committed to promoting local works, distributing quality content, and sustaining long-term development and longevity of the Chinese publishing industry in Singapore.”
This has been home to many of Singapore’s best-known authors, including Gopal Baratham, Minfong Ho, Neil Humphreys, Philip Jeyaretnam, Catherine Lim, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, Suchen Christine Lim, and Rex Shelley. Literary titles under the Marshall Cavendish Editions imprint have “unique selling points that differentiate them from others in the market,” says associate publisher Lee Mei Lin. “Fiction about familiar places and objects serves to excite local readers, while nonfiction titles are tailored with content that is more relevant to them,” she adds. “Then we select those with global appeal and send them to international reviewers and book competitions, which in turn help to raise local interest.”
Lee says the team does not focus on a specific genre: “We publish compelling stories while taking note of current trends in the international book market.” For now, the emphasis is on promoting Simon Chesterman’s Raising Arcadia (the first book of a YA trilogy about 16-year-old student-cum-detective Arcadia Greentree), Audrey Chin’s As the Heart Bones Break (a Vietnamese man’s struggle for balance and answers), and Chan Ling Yap’s A Flash of Water (one girl’s journey from chaotic China to Malaya in the 1880s).
Having distributors in places like the U.K. and U.S. has certainly eased the task of launching and marketing Singapore originals. “Our titles are also available from Amazon, Book Depository, and major e-book platforms,” Lee says. “Literary fiction is still very much dependent on the author’s profile. So, with the support of the Singapore National Arts Council, some of our authors have gone on literary tours or attended international writers festivals to further spread the word on their works.”
The policy for this 50-year-old company is to continue doing what it has done best, and that, says Lee, “is to publish excellent literary fiction. We are currently working with young and vibrant experimental writers who we hope will take Singapore fiction into the next phase of its development.”
Math Paper Press
Poetry and short prose are the focus at Math Paper Press, for which Alvin Pang’s What Gives Us Our Names, Leow Yangfa’s I Will Survive, Pooja Nansi’s Love Is an Empty Barstool, and Krishna Udayasankar’s Objects of Affection are recent bestsellers. “We publish about 30 titles per year, but we are not good with publicity, marketing, or selling—a weakness shared by many local publishers and booksellers,” says cofounder Kenny Leck, pointedly referring to Math Paper’s lack of a catalogue despite having published 160 titles since 2010. But then again, this is the same person whom has recently introduced book-vending machines to the city-state in a bid to “get books out there, at least visually, to create excitement and entice people to read.”
Royalty and rights negotiations are kept simple. “The author owns the rights, and royalties—at 5%, 7%, or 10%—are paid upfront based on the retail price of the total print run. We usually go for 1,000 copies—even for debut works—and often manage to sell the stock within a year,” says Leck, who operates the indie bookstore BooksActually with the help of two full-timers and three resident feline mascots. “We are a ragtag team operating on a dicey model, where bookstore sales fund the publishing program, but it works for us.”
In fact, the model has been very successful: four out of the six poetry titles shortlisted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize came from Math Paper Press. Two titles (Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde’s I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist and Cyril Wong’s The Lover’s Inventory) eventually shared the top prize.
Singapore’s reading culture, Leck observes, has improved over the years, “with more young adults and junior college students picking up poetry and literary titles. But there are a lot of new voices out there, and not nearly enough literary publishers.” To encourage budding writers and entice young readers, BooksActually regularly hosts literary sessions and exhibitions, and sets up pop-up stores around the island.