WHY AUTHORS PERSIST IN THEIR CRAFT

Given Singapore’s small market, writers definitely cannot live by royalties alone. The standard royalty rate for a book with a 1,000 copy print run in Singapore is S$950. 

“There’s no real way to get paid to be a writer full time here,” said Mr Pasakorn. 

While writers can apply for funding, such as the Creation Grant under the National Arts Council, there is always uncertainty about when their next paycheck will come. 

“Will I be able to feed myself next month if I really sit down and do a project uninterrupted without having to go back to a day job?” said Mr Pasakorn.

As such, many writers still keep their day jobs.

“We live in Singapore. It’s not like there’s some sort of backwater or countryside where the cost of living is 10 times cheaper, and people live there together in one big kampung,” said Mr Yam. 

“I do like nice things. I like having an iPhone,” he quipped.

Similarly, while Ms Zhao has seen great success with her book deals, she is still holding on to her day job in the technology industry.  

“I think if writing were to become my only source of income, I would feel a lot more tempted to write what I think will be popular and what will sell well, not in writing what I love,” she said. 

Besides royalties, writers may also receive an advance – a sum of money paid to an author upfront when they sign a contract with a publisher. This is usually the arrangement for more established writers and the amount can be a four- or five-figure sum.

However, the industry norm is that one has to “earn out” one’s advance before earning royalties, meaning an author would only receive additional payment once total royalties are higher than a book advance.

The same goes for prize money from writing competitions tied to publication contracts.

For example, if the prize money is S$25,000, the writer would have to sell enough books worth S$25,000 before they can start collecting royalties in book sales. 

Even with substantial prize money, quantifying the creative effort required to write a book can be challenging and simplistic. 

“I wrote Kappa Quartet in a year. I wrote Lovelier, Lonelier in four years. It’s still S$950 in terms of royalties,” said Mr Yam. Additionally, his latest book, Be Your Own Bae, collects stories that were a decade in the making. 

“How can you compensate for all that time with so little money?… But we do it anyway because we love it.” 

Sharing Mr Yam’s sentiments, writer Mr Myle Yan Tay said: “If I think about the hours I get into this versus the monetary returns, I’m going to go insane.” 

For Mr Yam, “the true success of a book isn’t necessarily measured by its commercial success, but by how it is critically received”. 

He added that how a book influences and shapes the way other people write in the country is perhaps a better way of measuring success. 

Balancing a day job with a full commitment to writing can be challenging, but Mr Kon finds it fulfilling and exactly what he needs.

“I feel it’s an indelible part of who I am. For me, it’s always been a labour of love.”

NEXT CHAPTERS

With the Singapore literary scene generally vibrant despite some challenges, writers whom TODAY spoke to said more could be done to boost SingLit.  

While Mr Nair and the literary community at large are happy for writers who have made it big overseas, he wondered why those same opportunities are not available in Singapore.

“Do local publishers need more support? Is it about the public? Or is our market just too small, and we cannot support writers?” Mr Nair said.

“If we can support creatives, artists and other fields, I don’t see why we can’t support our writers.”

Ms Lee Koe said that there could be more support given to writers in honing their craft, starting with better book advances so that more people can be full-time writers.

She added that the key is to enable more Singaporeans to produce high-quality and engaging works of art.

At Sing Lit Station’s recent call for manuscripts for its annual Manuscript Bootcamp, Mr Yam said the numbers remained healthy, with 16 creative non-fiction scripts submitted.

The creative non-fiction genre is less popular than fiction, so Mr Yam was quite pleased with the turnout.

“In that sense, the literary scene is still very vibrant. It’s still full of people with dreams, with ambition and the energy to match it,” he said.

To that end, Mr Yam believes that Singapore’s literary scene will never be short of good local works.

“The gap lies perhaps in Singapore’s unique problem of having a very adversarial relationship with its own artists,” he said.

Mr Yam noted that Singaporean readers would much rather read books by overseas authors. “They wouldn’t give the time of day to local authors, and I think that’s too sad.

“I think SingLit is so precious, it is the literature of five million people who exist nowhere else on this earth,” Mr Yam added.

To be sure, there have been considerable efforts to encourage readers to pick up a piece of work by local writers.

These include initiatives by the National Library Board (NLB), such as Nodes and Read! Fest, where the public can engage with Singaporean writers through author talks, discussions and hands-on workshops.

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