What Happens To SingLit If S’pore Closes Chapter On Epigram Books?

“The pandemic (Covid-19) has put 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 over the next few years in order to survive this pandemic. “

Without the Covid-19 lockdown, Epigram – one of Singapore’s most prolific publishing companies – might have stepped into the dark for the first time in 2020.

The setback for this publishing house would mean a major setback for the Singapore literary scene.

In the pre-pandemic era, Epigram Books published between 40 and 50 titles per year. Now they may have to halve that number.

Epigram Books: one of the biggest SingLit champions abroad

If Epigram Book closed, Singapore would have lost one of its greatest advocates of Singaporean and Southeast Asian (SEA) fiction.

The publishing house has been instrumental in raising SingLit’s international profile.

One of his most notable accomplishments was helping Singapore with its first Eisner Award, the comic book industry equivalent of the movie industry Oscars.

Under Epigram Books, Singapore won its first Eisner Award with The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by local artist Sonny Liew, winning three trophies in 2015.

Epigram Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Image Credit: jaziimun

Sonny’s comic hit the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists, and debuted in the United States with international fame. However, it was not without challenges, which Epigram helped play a pivotal role in overcoming.

When it launched, the National Arts Council withdrew its S $ 8,000 grant after the comic was accused of “undermining the authority of government.”

The comic was picked up and published by Epigram, who defended the novel despite controversy over its launch.

Since then, Epigram has opened a branch in the UK, mainly to ensure that SingLit and SEA fiction would be eligible for the international literature awards and accolades.

To further introduce SingLit to a wider audience, Epigram also struck a deal with Swedish audiobook company Storytel in 2018 to convert 45 titles into audiobooks.

The publisher is also one of the main driving forces behind SingLit

The distinctions will not be enough to keep a literary scene alive. Potential writers must feed on more than pen and ink.

In 2015, Epigram stepped in to support aspiring authors with the Epigram Books Fiction Award, Singapore’s richest literary award.

Epigram Books Fiction Prize Award
Image Credit: Epigram Books

The Epigram Prize winner leaves with S $ 25,000 and a publishing contract.

That’s more than double the amount of prizes awarded to winners of the government-funded Singapore Literature Prize, which has been reduced 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 fiction,” says Edmund.

Most writers wrote poetry or short stories. Writing a novel takes longer. An incentive was needed to encourage them, and we were right.

– Edmund Wee, Founder of Epigram on the Epigram Book Fiction Award

To reintroduce SingLit to locals, Epigram also created an online store called LocalBooks.sg and a physical bookstore called the Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookstore.

Epigram Huggs Bookstore
Image Credit: Daniel Food Diary

A collaboration between Huggs Coffee and the publisher, Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookstore opened in 2019, which now stores more than 400 titles written by or published in Singapore.

There was not enough exposure for local books. A bookstore selling only Singapore books was the way to go.

The quality and quantity of Singapore books improved dramatically, but they still struggled to fight for space and notoriety in chain bookstores.

– Edmund Wee, founder of Epigram

Epigram shutdown will be a terrible scar on SingLit

Epigram isn’t the only player on the SingLit scene.

“More and more Singaporeans are writing (fiction) and more of them are being published by international publishers in the West,” observes Edmund.

“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 its own publishing arm, Math Paper Press, to publish local work that may not make a profit, but that is important to “distribute”.

Singapore also offers funding opportunities for those working in the Singapore literature ecosystem.

Grants capped at S $ 20,000 are available to eligible authors and publishers from the National Arts Council.

Singapore is also increasingly open to alternative literature. Notably, the winner of the Singapore Literature Prize 2020 in the English Poetry category won the award for her work on feminism and queer identity.

Epigram books
Image Credit: Lifestyle Asia Hon Kong

However, government support remains limited, Edmund says. The scope of the market is also limited to a relatively small audience in Singapore.

Apart from Epigram, Ethos and Books In fact, few publishers specialize 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, Singapore’s small literary scene risks being struck with a crippling blow.

Edmund keeps the lights on for Epigram

Either way, Edmund is prepared to use whatever measures are taken to keep SingLit and SEA fictional alive.

Failing a turnaround, he is ready to turn Epigram into a literary foundation to promote and support local literature and SEA.

The founder of Epigram devotes himself almost fanatically to the literary arts.

“Literature at its best will transform lives,” says Edmund.

But why Singapore? Why would I want to publish literature from the UK, US or even Australia? Most SEA fiction is in their national language and inaccessible to other SEA countries.

If they could all be translated into English (SEA’s second language), then SEA’s literature can be read by everyone. If we can’t read each other’s stories, how will we ever understand each other?

– Edmund Wee, founder of Epigram

As it stands, particularly during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the outlook for SingLit is bleak.

Retail businesses are struggling and the arts industry – a nascent industry in Singapore – is particularly threatened.

However, the industry has managed to survive thanks to its passion and willpower, despite decades of censorship and little support from public entities.

Epigram Books’ profits have been in the red for the past decade. Meanwhile, the tiny publishing house has walked the realms of international and local bestseller lists.

If the editors and writers of SingLit have been able to resist Singapore’s art-starved economy, who says they can’t find a way without Covid-19?

Featured Image Credit: T Singapore

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Jothi Venkat

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