Akshita Nanda

Lit Prize not on same page as publishers

Record number of entries but critics sceptical the award will have an impact

Celebrity readings of shortlisted works, appearances by authors at bookstores, huge promotional posters. And all for the Singapore Literature Prize, which saw a record 182 entries this year.

But there is still a tough job ahead to revitalise a literary award long overlooked by readers and writers, though it is, ironically, Singapore's biggest recognition for a single book in the four official languages.

This year, a publicity blitz - and an unprecedented $120,000 being given out as individual $10,000 awards for the best work of fiction, non-fiction and poetry in Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil - appear to have captured the attention of publishers, many of whom were scorning the prize as recently as the last edition in 2012.

Only 57 books were submitted by publishers in 2012 for consideration for the prize administered by the National Book Development Council of Singapore, compared with 80 in 2006. This was at a time when more and more books of fiction and poetry were being brought out, as publishers such as Epigram Books, Ethos Books and Math Paper Press committed to an unprecedented yearly list of at least a dozen-odd books each.

Highlighting the gap between the industry and the award, the Singapore Book Publishers Association even organised a rival, certificate-only set of Publishing Awards last year. This netted a respectable 65 entries for the cashless awards in categories such as best novel, best debut work and best non-fiction title. The industry awards will be given out again next year, sources say.

Writers and publishers have numerous grouses against the Singapore Literature Prize, notably the limited efforts to promote shortlisted authors and winners in the past. It is telling that a Singapore Literature Prize-winning book has never made it to The Straits Times' bestseller list in the last five years, though the winner of the Man Booker Prize is always well represented, sales shooting up with every new press release.

Things might change this year with the new publicity offensive: Libraries and booksellers are getting "shortlist" stickers to put on copies of the chosen titles, as well as promotional posters advertising the book covers. Authors are being booked for readings and appearances at bookstores and art galleries before the prize announces its winners on Nov 4.

For the first time, the prize has a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/SingaporeLiteraturePrize) which posts event updates and other related content, including the novel-for-Singapore idea of getting local celebs to read extracts from the shortlisted titles.

So far, so eye-catching. Yet there are more fundamental flaws that award organisers need to address.

Is the Singapore Literature Prize to reward good books, to encourage new writing or to attract international attention to the quality writing coming out of Singapore? Ideally, all three, but the award managed to do this only in its earliest years from 1992 to 1999, when it was given to only an unpublished work of English fiction.

Then sponsored by local publisher SNP Editions, the Singapore Literature Prize worked to encourage writers, including the first winner Suchen Christine Lim, who wrote in the hope of seeing their work in print. The novelist credits her win for opening doors to international writing residencies and remembers bookstores heavily promoting the resulting book, A Fistful Of Colours, when it was published a year later.

When SNP Editions stopped sponsoring the prize, it was relaunched in 2000 by Australian bookseller Dymocks as a cashless prize for published books, but neither the bookstore nor the prize proved to be sustainable here.

In 2004, the prize was restarted as four awards of $10,000 each for published writing in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil, administered by the National Book Development Council of Singapore. Fine on the surface, but writers and publishers pointed out that the prize had fiction competing against poetry and absolutely no recognition for works of non-fiction.

Both these complaints have been addressed this year, thanks to the support of the National Arts Council and other sponsors. There is a new non-fiction category and separate prizes for fiction and poetry. The rather long short-list announced last month stretches to 45 books, and the chosen few have yet to be announced for three categories, non-fiction in Tamil, English and Malay, delayed by administrative hiccups.

However, publishers and industry sources report that all is not as rosy as it seems.

While a larger number of entries were sent in this year, the National Book Development Council has so far declined to say how many were sent in for each category. It is known there were at least 16 sent in for English non-fiction before the three judges resigned over the National Library Board's removal of children's books for allegedly controversial themes, but requests for more data have not been answered.

The mother tongue categories are rumoured to be poorly represented in terms of number and quality of entries and speculation is further fuelled by news that there will be no shortlist for Malay non-fiction, only a winner announced on the official prize day, Nov 4.

Some publishers who declined to be named have told me that they refused to send in titles because rival publisher World Scientific is sponsoring the non-fiction awards in English and Chinese. "How can we say our titles won an award with the name of a rival?" is their point.

Another criticism is that the prize is trying to do too much and therefore does not do enough for the very genres it is trying to promote. Twelve prizes of $10,000 would not have the same impact as, say, four prizes of $30,000 each for the best work in Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil. Offer it annually and change the categories yearly between fiction, poetry and non-fiction, some publishers suggest.

Organisers are certainly trying to write a new, exciting chapter for the Singapore Literature Prize, but writers and publishers are still bruised by the years the winners flew under the radar, with minimal publicity expended on promoting them. What will help them turn the page is if this year's prize does increase book sales and give more recognition to authors.

This should, in turn, make the prize more attractive to corporate sponsors and hopefully sustainable in the long term. A win-win situation, as long as readers are also on the same page.

akshitan@sph.com.sg