“The (Covid-19) pandemic has set us back by at least three to five years,” says Edmund Wee, founder of local publishing house Epigram Books.
“There are no plans for growth. We need to consolidate for the next few years in order to survive this pandemic.”
If not for the Covid-19 lockdown, Epigram — one of Singapore’s most prolific publishing businesses — may have moved into the black for the first time in 2020.
The setback for this publishing house would spell a major setback for Singapore’s literary scene.
In pre-pandemic times, Epigram Books would publish between 40 and 50 titles a year. Now, they might have to halve that number.
Epigram Books: One Of SingLit’s Greatest Champions Overseas
If Epigram Book shuts down, Singapore would have lost one of its greatest advocates for Singaporean and Southeast Asian (SEA) fiction.
The publishing house has been critical for elevating SingLit’s international profile.
One of its most notable achievements was helping Singapore with its first Eisner Award, the comic book industry’s equivalent of the film industry’s Oscars.
Under Epigram Books, Singapore won its first Eisner award with local artist Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, clinching three trophies in 2015.
Sonny’s comic made it to The New York Times and Amazon’s bestseller list, and debuted in the States to international acclaim. However, that wasn’t without its challenge, of which Epigram helped played a vital role in overcoming.
During its launch, the National Arts Council withdrew its grant of S$8,000 after the comic was accused of “potentially undermining the authority of the government.”
The comic was picked up and published by Epigram, who championed the novel despite the controversy generated over its launch.
Since then, Epigram has launched a branch in the United Kingdom, mainly to ensure that SingLit and SEA fiction would be eligible for international literature prizes and recognitions.
To further introduce SingLit to wider audiences, Epigram also struck a deal with Swedish audiobook company Storytel in 2018 to convert 45 titles to audiobooks.
The Publisher Is Also One Of SingLit’s Main Engines
Accolades won’t be enough to keep a literary scene going. Would-be authors need to sustain themselves on more than pen and ink.
Back in 2015, Epigram stepped in to support aspiring authors with the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, Singapore’s richest literary award.
The winner of the Epigram Prize walks away with S$25,000 in prize money and a publishing contract.
That’s more than twice the amount of prize money granted to winners of the government-funded Singapore Literature Prize, which was cut from S$10,000 to S$3,000 this year.
“At the time of its launch (of the Epigram Prize), there were few writers pursuing long-form fiction,” Edmund explains.
Most of the writers were doing either poetry or short stories. Writing a novel takes more time. An incentive was necessary to encourage them, and we have been proven right.– Edmund Wee, Epigram founder on the Epigram Book Fiction Prize
A collaboration between Huggs Coffee and the publisher, the Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop opened in 2019, which now stocks over 400 titles written by or published in Singapore.
There was not enough exposure for local books. A bookshop selling only Singapore books was the way forward.
The quality and quantity of Singapore books have improved significantly, but they were still struggling to fight for space and prominence at bookstore chains.– Edmund Wee, Epigram founder
Epigram’s Closure Will Be A Terrible Scar To SingLit
Epigram isn’t the only player on SingLit’s scene.
“More Singaporeans are writing (fiction) and more of them are getting published by international publishers in the West,” Edmund observes.
“Singapore publishers are also publishing more, and better.”
Prominent local authors like Alfian Sa’at and Adeline Foo have published award-winning novels with Ethos Books, another key literary player.
Independent bookstores like BooksActually have also played a vital role in promoting SingLit.
The bookstore has set up their own publishing arm, Math Paper Press, to publish local work that may not turn a profit, but is important to “put out there.”
Singapore also provides funding opportunities for those working in the literature ecosystem in Singapore.
Grants capped at S$20,000 are available for eligible authors and publishers under the National Arts Council.
Singapore is also becoming more open to alternative literature. Notably, the winner for 2020’s Singapore Literature Prize under the English Poetry category won for her work on feminism and queer identity.
However, government support remains limited, says Edmund. Market reach is also confined to a relatively small audience in Singapore.
Apart from Epigram, Ethos and BooksActually, few publishing houses specialise in SingLit.
Epigram is also the only publishing house to have a branch located in one of the hubs of the publishing industry, the United Kingdom.
If Epigram closes its doors, Singapore’s small literature scene may be struck with a crippling blow.
Edmund Is Keeping The Lights On For Epigram
Regardless, Edmund is prepared to resort to any and all measures to keep SingLit and SEA fiction alive.
Failing a turnaround, he is prepared to turn Epigram into a literary foundation to promote and support local and SEA literature.
The founder of Epigram is almost fanatically devoted to the literary arts.
“Literature at its finest will transform lives,” Edmund says.
But why Singapore? Why would I want to publish literature from the UK or the US or even Australia? Most fiction in SEA is in their national language and inaccessible to other SEA countries.
If they could all be translated into English (SEA’s second language), then the literature of SEA can be read by all. If we can’t read each other’s stories, how will we ever understand each other?– Edmund Wee, Epigram founder
As it stands, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the outlook for SingLit is grim.
Retail businesses are struggling, and the arts industry — a fledgling industry in Singapore — is particularly at risk.
However, the industry has managed to survive through sheer passion and willpower in spite of decades of censorship and little support from public entities.
Epigram Books’ profits has been in the red for the past decade. In that time, the little publishing house has marched into the realms of international and local bestseller lists.
If SingLit publishers and authors have been able to withstand Singapore’s art-starved economy, who says they can’t find a way to sit out Covid-19?
Featured Image Credit: T Singapore