Epigram doubles pot for Singapore’s richest literary prize to $40,000

Winner of Epigram Books Fiction Prize receives $25,000, up from $20,000, and three finalists get $5,000 each, from nothing before

Mr Edmund Wee, managing director of Epigram Books, has doubled the pot for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize to $40,000.
Mr Edmund Wee, managing director of Epigram Books, has doubled the pot for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize to $40,000. PHOTO: ST FILE

Singapore's richest literary prize just got richer.

A year after its debut, the pot for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize has doubled, and all four finalists on its 2016 shortlist will get a share.

The winner will walk away with $25,000, up from $20,000 last year. And the three other finalists, who received no cash award and only publishing contracts last year, are set to receive $5,000 each this time around. This makes the total prize money this year $40,000.

The crop of quality submissions last year sparked home-grown publisher Epigram Books' decision to up the stakes for the prize's second year, its founder Edmund Wee tells The Straits Times.

"When we started the prize last year, we were a bit worried. Would we get enough submissions? Could we even find one winning manuscript?" he recalls with a laugh.

Hopefully the prize money will encourage more people to take out their manuscripts – this time maybe from under the bed.


"That's why we said, 'Okay, we'll just put whatever we can afford into one prize for one winner.' But we had so many good submissions last year, so we felt the shortlisted manuscripts should also get some cash, not just publishing contracts."

Last year, there were 69 entries for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, Singapore's only prize for unpublished English-language novels.

These were whittled down to four for the shortlist, with O Thiam Chin bagging the inaugural prize for Now That It's Over, a book that tracks two couples torn apart by a tsunami during their vacation in Thailand.

While the other three contenders on the shortlist - Balli Kaur Jaswal, Sebastian Sim and Wong Souk Yee - did not receive a cash prize, their submitted manuscripts were published by Epigram Books this year.

Sim's Let's Give It Up For Gimme Lao!, published in March this year, and Wong's Death Of A Perm Sec, which hit the shelves the following month, have entered a second run, after selling out their first print run of 1,000 copies.

O's winning book and Istanbul- based Jaswal's Sugarbread were published last month.

Epigram Books will also be releasing three titles from last year's long list: Kevin Martens Wong's Altered Straits, Imran Hashim's Annabelle Thong and Daryl Qilin Yam's Kappa Quartet.

When the $20,000 prize was announced last year, it toppled the biennial Singapore Literature Prize - which offers $10,000 each for the best in fiction, non-fiction and poetry published in any of Singapore's four official languages - as the country's richest literary prize.

Now that the stakes have been raised, Mr Wee says his team is in for a hard slog.

"We have to work harder asking for help from sponsors and donors. We have to work harder at selling the books. We have to work harder when we're editing the books, making sure they're top quality," he adds.

"It all just means more hard work - and I hope it pays off, and supports and inspires our literary community."

But for the prize to be sustainable, he hopes to see a main sponsor who can "sign on and support it for maybe three years or so".

Last year, expenses for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, including the $20,000 cash award and costs for the gala dinner and publicity videos, added up to about $40,000, minus publishing costs.

Mr Wee and his team raised more than $20,000 from nine donors, such as book distributor APD Singapore and Jia Foundation, the family foundation of private equity investment firm Tembusu Partners founder Andy Lim, and former Cabinet minister Lim Hwee Hua. The remaining costs were borne by Epigram Books.

Now that the stakes have gone up, Mr Wee estimates that expenses this year could rise to $70,000. So far, 27 individuals, firms and organisations - including Jia Foundation and real estate firm Mapletree Investments - have pledged amounts ranging from $250 to $10,000, but he is still courting donors.

When asked if he would consider making the annual prize a biennial one instead, his answer is a firm no.

"That's not the way. Part of the reason the prize was started was that we wanted to thank artists for making art - and also to help them make a living," he says.

"Recognising our writers by giving them this award once every two years is not enough."

He announced the new stakes for the prize last night at a forum titled The Great Singaporean Novel: Fantasy Or Reality, which saw three of last year's finalists - O, Wong and Sim - on a panel discussing the growth of Singapore literature.

The 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize is open to entries until Sept 1. The shortlist will be announced two months later and the winner named at a gala dinner on Nov 24.

There have been two submissions so far, but Mr Wee points out that entries for the prize last year started pouring in closer to the deadline.

"Of course, there is a slight worry that maybe last year was a fluke. That everybody heard about the prize and pulled out their drawers and submitted their manuscripts. Maybe there are no more manuscripts in these drawers," he says.

"But we won't know until the deadline closes. We're keeping our fingers crossed. And hopefully the prize money will encourage more people to take out their manuscripts - this time maybe from under the bed."

• For details about the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, go to ebfp.epigrambooks.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2016, with the headline 'Fiction book prize money doubles'. Print Edition | Subscribe