The Write Stuff

 

Encouraging young children to stay excited about reading books has been a major initiative of the National Book Development Council.

The Internet has changed the way many of us read and write but the National Book Development Council of Singapore is committed to ensuring that local writers and their works continue to thrive, while also encouraging the reading habit among the younger generation. By Lynn Tan

 

I

t’s probably not at the top of everyone’s minds when it comes to reading and writing in Singapore, but the National Book Development Council of Singapore (Book Council) has been a silent driving force since 1968.

With its help, reading and writing has been promoted here through programmes, workshops and festivals which ensure the Singapore literary arts scene remains alive and well. “It used to be a lot harder to be a writer in Singapore. You pretty much had to go at it alone and just hope for the best,” says the Book Council’s assistant director Adan Jimenez. “Nowadays, there is a lot of help that an author can take advantage of.” While it started out promoting literacy and library development, the Book Council now has its focus set on pushing creative writing and content creation, and there are many avenues of help for writers and ways to get their works read. For instance, the National Arts Council provides grants and funding to authors throughout the many steps involved in getting a book to the hands of a reader — from creation and travel, to publishing and marketing. It also organises the Singapore Writers Festival, held annually in November, to showcase local talents alongside internationally-renowned authors. The National Library Board makes sure all local writers are represented in libraries here and promotes many authors through the Read! Singapore programme, now in its 10th year. The Ministry of Education has also chosen local texts to be taught in schools so that children can be made aware of, and appreciate, local literature from a younger age. There are also spaces like The Arts House which are devoted to showcasing creative pursuits and where authors can hold book launches and talks.

There are grants and fundings that are available to authors today, says the Book
Council’s Assistant Director, Adan Jimenez.

Challenges facing authors

According to Jimenez, one challenge authors face is the issue of reach. He says: “Singaporean publishers and distributors do not have a very wide, international reach yet. They publish and sell almost exclusively in Singapore and occasionally in ASEAN. This means Singaporean texts only reach a few people, no matter how good they might be.” Another challenge is language, which limits how many countries a book will be read in, depending on what native language is spoken, he adds. Singapore has four national languages, but throughout Asia there are dozens of languages, if not hundreds more, he adds. What this means is that a Malay-language book for instance, may only be read by those in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, while a Tamil-language book may only be read by those in Tamil Nadu in India, Singapore and Sri Lanka. Jimenez says: “Chinese- and English-language books have a better chance of travelling due to the proliferation of the languages but even they will not be able to reach everybody. This is why translation is so important.” These two challenges lead directly to the third, which is the issue of making a living. Jimenez says: “Because of reach and language, a book becomes a bestseller as soon as it sells 3,000 to 4,000 copies but the author will not make a lot of money from it. Author royalties around the world do not make up a substantially high percentage of total sales.” In Singapore, book royalty rates start at about five per cent. For a sale of between 3,000 to 4,000 copies of a book, an author can expect to make only about $1,500 to $2,000 in royalty payments, paid out over a period of time. “This means an author will need a full-time job to pay the bills. In order to reach that bestseller status, local authors have to put in a lot of their own time to help market the books by doing bookstore events, school visits, workshops, maintaining a website and social media presence, and many other things. “Writers will often quit the job that doesn’t pay them well enough and focus on the other, and most of the time the job that they quit is writing,” Jimenez adds. Despite the daunting challenges, the literary scene has made some progress over the decades. There is now a deeper penetration in regional and international markets. Suchen Christine Lim, Alvin Pang, Arthur Yap, Kuo Pao Kun, and Ovidia Yu, for example, have all been published by Western publishers and made inroads into countries such as Australia and Britain. Many of the works of our pioneer authors like Edwin Thumboo and Kirpal Singh are discussed in international universities and schools, while local authors are regularly invited to international literary festivals, helping not just to promote their own work but Singapore literature in general.

The impact of technology on the literary field

“Globally, the impact of e-books has been enormous. Here, it is minimal at best,” says Jimenez. e-Books from Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble are not yet available in Singapore because of pre-digital territorial rights distinctions still being worked out by the global publishing industry. “Therefore, local writers still write and local publishers still publish with a physical book in mind,” he explains. “Most readers still read physical books, but more people are buying physical books through online retailers. Compared to brickand- mortar bookstores, online stores do away with high rental costs and also sell other products besides books.” This explains the downsizing and even closure of many local bookstores in recent years. However, Jimenez emphasises that the continued presence of bookstores in Singapore shows that there is still a market for the physical experience. But technology has obvious advantages. “It makes research a lot easier for writers, as well as allows for instantaneous communication between writers, artists, editors, translators, and publishers, regardless of physical location,” say Jimenez. What this means is that with today’s technology, a publisher in New York City can publish a book written by someone in London, sketched by someone living in Manila, coloured by someone in Perth, and edited by someone in Brasilia. Technology has also made it easier for readers to get books. They can just order them online without physically making a trip to the local bookstore. This is a double-edged sword that threatens the survival of bookshops as a trade-off for the convenience of online shopping. “Bookstores are very important for the writer-reader dialogue and for readers to discover new titles. If they all disappear, we as a society will have lost something very important,” Jimenez warns.

Staying relevant

To constantly win new readers, Jimenez feels that authors just need to keep telling great stories to capture imaginations. Despite shortened attention spans, people here and abroad are still reading physical texts as enormous as The Goldfinch or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy, which made it to The Straits Times Bestseller List, as well as the Books Kinokuniya Bestseller List. Jimenez says: “These are just different ways to tell stories.”

Attracting the young

Another positive take on technology is that most electronic gadgets have e-Book apps so they are not an enemy to reading. Jimenez feels that the key to keeping children interested in reading is, as in most things related to children, their parents. Children will develop a love for books if parents walk the talk and constantly encourage the reading habit in their kids. He said: “And I don’t mean reading just assigned texts from school. Children also need to be allowed to read things that they enjoy, even if these texts are not often considered “good” or “literary” by society. “If children are forced to read, they will equate reading with something they were forced to do, instead of something they chose to do.”


“Children will develop a love for books if parents walk the talk and constantly encourage the reading habit in their kids.” — Adan Jimenez, the Book Council’s assistant director


About the Book Council

  • The National Book Development Council of Singapore (Book Council) was registered as a non-profit society on December 19, 1968 and started operations on February 13, 1969.
  • It is committed to addressing the needs of publishers, book suppliers and libraries, as well as the reading and writing communities in Singapore.
  • It is behind the Singapore Literature Prize, which recognises the best published Singaporean works across three categories in all four national languages, while the Scholastic Asian Book Award seeks to recognise and publish the best children’s manuscripts from across Asia.
  • The formation of National Book Development Councils was first mooted by UNESCO in the mid-1960’s at a series of regional meetings in Asia, Africa, the Arab States and Latin America. The meetings assessed longterm book needs and assisted in working out national policies and strategies to overcome book hunger in these areas.
Bringing fiction to life

They hail from different countries but share a common love for books. But that was not enough for four undergraduates from the Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, who literally wanted to bring to life characters in some of their favourite works of fiction. In February, they staged an event at The Arts House at The Old Parliament called For The Love Of Books! where visitors moved around in small groups to interact with actors frozen in tableaux from books. When each tableau was unlocked, the actors would take on characters of chosen works, much like a living library. The works included The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and If We Dream Too Long by Goh Poh Seng.


(From left) NTU students Rini Hapsoro, Vicky Wong, Jade Zhou and Sneha Gururaj
staged an event called For The Love Of Books! in February.

The idea was part of the final-year project and labour of love undertaken by Sneha Gururaj, 22, Rini Hapsoro, 21, Vicky Wong, 23, and Jade Zhou, 22, who hail from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and China, respectively. They decided to turn their passion for literature, reading and the arts into a campaign to help spread the love for books and reading. Said Gururaj: “The four of us were sitting at an old coffeshop one afternoon and we realised that bringing books to life could be an innovative way to instill an interest for reading among young Singaporeans. “It was our hope that the event would make reading a less passive and more interactive and engaging experience.” Gururaj said that it is important to introduce reading to the young as an entertaining leisure activity, which can also be fun. She considers technology as a positive influence in promoting reading because there is now a greater awareness about literature and authors. Reading communities online have made book swaps and sharing quick book reviews and quotes possible. In addition, social media sites have fan groups that enable like-minded readers to come together and share information about their favourite genres and titles or do a quick shout-out to friends about their reading habits. All these have made reading more accessible. “We feel that our event has transformed reading from a solitary activity to a theatrical experience that you can share with others. We hope that our efforts will spearhead other initiatives that will encourage more reading efforts in the local scene,” Gururaj adds.


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