Helping writers in Singapore

by Zafar Anjum

Singapore is doing its best to promote reading and writing in the city state. The recently concluded Singapore Writers Festival 2005 (held once in two years) was a remarkable success that offered 80 events by 63 writers over a period of ten days.

But literary festivals alone do not inform a vibrant writing culture. Publishing of local talent is also an impotant factor. In terms of local publishing, very few local titles are published in Singapore. According to one report, Marshall Cavendish, Singapore’s largest book publisher, does not publish more than two to six local books a year. Other major publishers promoting local writing such as Ethos and Landmark Books are now more focused on publishing general and reference books that have guaranteed sales. Publisher SNP, which used to sponsor the Singapore Literature Prize of the National Book Development Council of Singapore, has also reportedly scrapped its local fiction list.

However, there are still publishers like First Fruits and Monsoon in Singapore that are providing publishing avenues to local writers. First Fruits concentrates on poetry and so far has published 18 books. Monsoon published Gerrie Lim’s Invisible Trade that has already sold about 50,000 copies internationally. Interestingly, novelists like Catherine Lim and Tan Hwee Hwee have also found international success but their publishers were from the west.

In a recent column, Janice Wong shared her experience of finding a publisher for her non-fiction book (Pretty Prickly Publishers, The Electric New Paper, Sep. 5, 2005 ). Looking for a publisher for her book, she got fifth time lucky after getting cold-shouldered by four publishers. She wrote: “While I celebrate the launch of my book Single Picky Girl later this month, I am concerned about the lack of opportunities for budding Singapore writers. A search of online directory WritersNet turns up 131 local writers looking to be published.” As an example, she mentions NSman Thomas Sim, 19, who gave up after his manuscript of short stories was rejected by 12 publishers over two years.

Janice finally asks: “Publishing a book costs about $15,000 for 4,000 copies. So publishers are not keen to invest in unproven writers. Therein lies the catch-22. How can we prove ourselves if no publisher wants to give us a chance?”

She is right about the catch-22 situation. In Singapore, an average print run for a prose book is about 2,000 copies. For poetry, it could be 500 copies. Non-fiction titles’ print runs would range from 3,000 to 5,000 copies. Looking at the meager number of sales, one can easily understand the publishers’ dilemma.

This is where the government agencies step in. And it seems they have heard Janice’s complaint. To help aspiring writers in Singapore, now the Media Development Authority (MDA) and the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS) have come up with a new grant for first-time writers—The First-Time Writers and Illustrators Initiative. Under this initiative, MDA and NBDCS will offer up to $8000 to 10 short-listed applicants who are Singaporeans or permanent residents above the age of 17 years. The theme for this year is children’s book.

The grant will help cover book printing and marketing expenses. The good thing is that the author will retain the copyright to his/her work. The submitted entries need to be original and unpublished. A panel of judges comprising authors David Seow, Chitra Soundar and Rosemarie Somaiah will evaluate the entries. Here is more information on this initiative.

Finally, Singapore has the potential to join ranks with countries that produce the best writers in the world. There are possibilities of nurturing a vibrant book culture here. Our libraries are well-stoked with state-of-the-art facilities. There are writers’ workshops and there are active reading groups. The biennial writers festival also provides the aspiring writers and the book lovers that chance to come face to face with their favourite writers and learn the craft. As long as Singaporeans appreciate the significance of literature, there is always hope.

September 18 , 2005
Zafar Anjum is the founder editor of