Re-Thinking Singapore Writing

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The closure of Kinokuniya at JEM leaves just two branches of the iconic Japanese bookstore in Singapore. Neil Humphreys penned a Facebook post describing his thoughts. While I share much of his sentiments, the reality is that the fiction industry has changed. Things are never going to return to the way they used to be. To thrive in this strange new world, we must adapt. I’m going to address his points one by one and elaborate on my thoughts.

Ok… there is nothing positive about the news that Kinokuniya JEM is closing. It says so much about us. Here’s why …

1) The main issue is rent – our obsession with creating a nation of landlords continues (Way to go in the forward thinking as the rest of the world switches to online shopping.)

The closure of brick-and-mortar bookstores is a global phenomenon. In my childhood, there was a plethora of bookstore chains in Singapore: Borders, Times, MPH, Prologue, Popular, Kinokuniya. In the decades since, the space has steadily shrunk, reflecting global trends.

Mass entertainment has shifted away from books. People today prefer TV, movies, games, YouTube videos. As the world enters a time of high inflation, consumers will want to tighten their belts even further. Given a choice between paying a premium for a print book and paying nothing for YouTube, the cash-strapped consumer will always pick the latter.

Rent may be a major contributing factor for the closure of bookstores, but so is lack of revenue. A bookstore is a business, and without revenue—never mind profit—it cannot survive.

The key question facing all bookstores is this: in an increasingly digitized age, how can bookstores make money?

Popular chose to pivot. In my schooldays, the Popular bookstore franchise catered to schoolgoing children and their parents. Significant amount of retail space was dedicated to assessment books, textbooks, workbooks, stationery and school supplies. The fiction and nonfiction catalog reflected popular books: safe, solid choices to maximise revenue from limited shelf space.

Today, Popular has diversified dramatically. Gadgets and IT, household appliances, multimedia products and more, reflecting growing tastes. Retail space dedicated to books have shrunk steadily in favour of other goods. I’ve explored outlets where books occupy less than half, or even less than forty percent, of the retail space.

Is a bookstore still a bookstore if its primary product is no longer books?

An academic question, because the Popular franchise has endured while all its competitors have flagged.

The industry has changed. Tastes have changed. The culture has changed. For bookstores to survive, they need to adapt to changing macro factors as well, in addition to rent and other overhead.

2) Singapore doesn’t get it. After all these years, we still don’t get it. A bookstore is not like other businesses. The reason it’s been written off as many times as the cinema – and both survive – is because of the experience, the medium. You can watch a movie and buy a book anywhere, but it’s the tactile communal experience. My teenage daughter already spends her weekends hanging out with friends at Kino. Couldn’t be more proud. She’s been raised to believe that bookstores are COOL (and more than just a place to buy the latest ‘how can i get rich quick by buying an NFT, selling a kidney’ self-help fluff.) 😉

The tactile communal experience is well and good, but how does this translate into sales? It isn’t enough to draw readers to the store. The readers have to buy products. If they do not buy anything, then the bookstore does not make money. Without sales, without revenue, a bookstore cannot survive.

The emphasis on communal experience may work splendidly for indie and boutique bookstores. An indie bookstore may focus on a specific niche, and draw a crowd of regulars who will patronize it. A bookstore with an integrated cafe can draw in a wider crowd, upsell books, encourage customers to buy books, and create a diversified income stream.

Can this work for a multinational franchise like Kinokuniya?

Kinokuniya is a Japanese bookstore franchise. It distinguishes itself from its competitors through its extensive foreign language selection, especially its Japanese section in its flagship store at Ngee Ann City. It also has a significant Chinese-language section as well. Over ninety percent of its retail space is dedicated to selling books.

Will that be enough?

In a culture that prizes and prioritizes reading of physical books, sure. The Japanese publishing industry is a global leader in the space, in part due to the tight integration between the light novel, anime, manga, and figurine industries. But does Singapore have that culture? Does the world have such a culture?

Society is increasingly atomized. The bedrock of society in previous ages was the clan, the village, the kampung. Friends and family lived together in close proximity, and lived communal lives. That has shrunk down to the isolated nuclear family, widely separated from their blood relatives. In recent times, this has further shrunk down to solitary individuals or couples exploring their own pursuits.

You cannot have a communal experience in a culture that de-prioritizes community.

The Covid era has further dampened communal experiences. Fear of the virus drives people indoors and away from touching things. The government has sharply divided society with vaccine discrimination measures, turning communal experiences and indoor shopping into a privilege enjoyed only by the constantly compliant. People are afraid to take off their masks outdoors, never mind interact with large groups, and the face mask hinders reading of body language so necessary for interpersonal communication.

We cannot dream of a return to an earlier age. We must shape ourselves to the age we live in. We live in an age that favours digital experience and remote connection. An age of weak parasocial connections, where screens in isolated rooms create the illusion of connection across borders. An age of atomization and alienation.

It is well and good to raise children as readers. On the flip side, you can buy a ebook for USD 4.99 and discuss it over Zoom or Discord with your friends, or invite them to your home. If you want the tactile experience, Amazon and Ingram’s Print on Demand technology allows you to buy paperback books much more cheaply than conventional paper books in a bookstore—even accounting for shipping costs.

The fundamental question remains: how can bookstores remain relevant in changing times?

3) We are still – even now – not entirely – grasping the priceless value of reading for pleasure, for joy, for empathy, for a greater understanding of the human condition. (Note to parents: When i get asked what their children should read, my answer is always the same … Whatever he/she LIKES. Read for pleasure. The rest will take care of itself. I promise you.)

Here’s what happens when you create a society that emphasises pragmatism, academic achievement, status and materialism: you lose what makes you human.

Schools will not teach your children this. Primary and secondary education is meant to prepare children for the next higher level of education. Tertiary education downloads the skills and knowledge necessary for the working world. Reading for pleasure is not part of the mission.

In secondary school, I was assigned John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for English classes. I read it in a day. It was expected to last the entire school year. Suffice to say, I got bored. A curriculum doesn’t care about boredom—only about delivering the required content.

Fortunately, my English teacher didn’t even touch the book.

It is a common temptation among parents to treat schools as daycare. This is a grave mistake. The responsibility for raising children lies with parents. Public schools deliver content that suits the government’s interests, which isn’t necessarily your interests, or even the cultural interests of society.

Parents have to instill a love for reading in their children. But Singaporean parents, caught up in a culture of pragmatism and materialism, have been programmed to focus on academia, jobs, income and status. Knowing nothing else, their children pass on this programming to their children.

If you care about creating a culture of readers, then you have to break the cycle. You have to ingrain a new pattern of thinking.

This starts with you.

4) As above, we are destined to become a country of textbook/assessment book stores. What does that say about us? Textbooks do not stimulate empathy, compassion, etc. I get asked, often, what books should their child read to pass exams. I don’t have the answer. I do know that their child is competing against the world with one hand tied behind his back.

Singaporean society makes the mistake of hyper-focusing only on content that can pass exams. In my time, it was called spotting. Students would try to guess what questions would turn up in the exams, then load up on material that could help them answer those questions.

Academic material alone is not enough. Outside hard sciences and mathematics, where the accurate applications of formulae and the regurgitation of laws and properties lead to correct answers, a student needs skills that cannot be learned from a textbook. English and mother tongue examinations test the student’s ability to communicate in the language. Humanities subjects assess their analytical and problem-solving skills. Art exams focus on the ability to be creative within a set of parameters.

You cannot learn these skills from textbooks, and you cannot count on teachers to pass them on.

Books do. Books written by master writers show how to communicate clearly, effectively, even beautifully. This is especially important in Singapore, whose lingua franca of Singlish is essentially English confused with Chinese grammar. Fiction expands horizons and encourages creativity and lateral thinking. Nonfiction shows how scholars and philosophers think, argue and contend with the issues of the day. These are transferable skills, even necessary skills—and their usefulness extends into the working world.

For parents who are so obsessed with having children pass their exams that they cannot respond to any other reason and will not want to see the benefits of reading, just tell them this:

Reading books, any kind of book, helps your child develop the secondary skills that give them an edge in examinations.

For those willing to expand their horizons, you can talk about how these skills help their children compete in the job market. Singapore is a highly globalised society. Their competition is not just Singapore, but the whole world. Without a talent stack, they are doomed to mediocrity. To develop that stack, they need to read widely and understand and cultivate their strengths.

5) What did you do during lockdown? You read books. You watched Netflix. Every show you watched was written by someone who read thousands of books when he/she was young. See the connection?

This is where Humphreys and I must depart.

Odds are, those shows and books come from the Pop Cult. The Pop Cult is an incestuous network of never-ending meta- and self-references. It is an ouroboros, constantly eating its own tail, its horizon beginning and ending with the borders of its eternally-stuffed mouth.

The biggest blockbuster shows of recent times are adaptations, reboots, sequels, tie-ins with existing intellectual property, or the same story of female empowerment in different dress. Original IPs are a rare breed, and grow rarer by the year.

The most popular books are sequels, tie-ins with existing multimedia franchises, or the same stories of female and/or left-wing fantasies by an increasingly diverse and increasingly uniform band of writers with the same acceptable identity politics. Or, in the indie space, the same stories of male and/or right-wing fantasies by an increasingly diverse and increasingly uniform band of writers with the same unacceptable identity politics.

These books and shows were not written by people who read thousands of books. They may not even be written by people who read, especially in the case of TV shows and movies. They are the products of growing numbers of tiny minds dipping furiously from a shrinking puddle. They have no frame of reference beyond what they feel is politically acceptable to consume, beyond their competitors in the space, beyond the hard limits imposed by slavish adherence to tropes and genre conventions.

People have paradoxical desires. They want the novel, and they also want the familiar. This age emphasises the familiar. Nostalgia and pattern recognition induces a powerful hit of pleasure, and pleasure drives sales. It’s an easy way to make money without the hassle of learning the craft.

It’s why isekai harem fiction is everywhere. It’s why LitRPGs are so popular. It’s why every IP in the Pop Cult is functionally interchangeable with every other IP.

The Pop Cult treats entertainment as fungible. When books, movies, and other cultural products are all interchangeable, when they are the same stories told countless times, those who worship them are locked into the worldview of the Pop Cult. The products of the Pop Cult reflect its limited worldview, and train others to adopt that same mindset through fleeting dopamine hits.

Do you want more than this? Do you want more than just a never-ending stream of nostalgia, reboots, adaptations, and samey stories? Do you want to see the breadth and the beauty of the world? Do you want to see the manifest potential of humanity? Do you wish to glimpse infinity and eternity?

Read more.

More than the Pop Cult, more than what the critics praise, more than just what is easy and effortless and fungible.

Read.

6) We constantly do these self-flagellating think pieces. Why don’t we have a Booker Prize winner? An Oscar winner? A Emmy winner? We can win University Challenge – which is absolutely magnificent – but a Booker/Oscar/Emmy etc? Can’t see it. Need a nation of book shops for that. A thriving book community. It starts there, book in hand, chapter by chapter, daydreaming. The paradox is exasperating. Best public library system in the world. So much money devoted to it and rightly so. So proud of NLB. But where’s the spillover?

This is the Singaporean trap of chasing awards and prizes.

Prizes confer prestige, because they are seen as markers of quality. In pursuit of this prestige, progressives and old boys’ networks have steadily hollowed out the prizes until they mean nothing at all. When prizes are no longer markers of quality, people stop choosing products with those prizes.

Case in point: before the slap heard around the world, how many people were aware that the Oscars were ongoing?

Many awards have been compromised by networks of patronage and privilege. Modern-day prize winners ride on the coattails of those who have gone before them, whose who have genuinely won those accolades in a time when prizes truly signified quality. We saw this with the Hugo, the Nebula and the Eisner Awards. Other awards are following in their footsteps.

Most prizes are meaningless. The only prizes that matter are those awarded by fans—not the giants that dominate the industry, not the old names that dominate the space, not the activists who seek to skinsuit yet another award—but those who genuinely enjoy the medium.

The best writers do not write for prizes. They write for people.

It isn’t enough to have a nation of bookshops if bookshops do not sell what people want to read, if books that people want to read are not published in the first place, if writers do not write what people want to read. The manga Demon Slayer outsold the entire US comic industry. Instead of cramming political soundbites into the panels, it is filled with action and adventure. It was aimed at boys and teenagers, not people who hate comics. The Social Justice Warriors that dominate the traditional comics industry will not publish a story like Demon Slayer, which is a major contributor to the ongoing slow-motion collapse of American comics.

There is little spillover between a world-class library network and having world-class writers because to have a culture of writing you must have a culture of reading, and you cannot have a culture of reading if your culture does not support reading and writing. The mere presence of libraries do not encourage reading; that has to come from the bottom up, from parents and educators and community leaders.

The best writers are obsessed.

The best athletes, scientists, artists, they are all obsessed. It is this single-minded focus that propels them to the top. They need to maintain that obsession for years, even decades on end, with little reward and little hope of greater reward. It is an ultra-high-risk strategy for life, deliberately discarding almost if not all other opportunities for a stable income in exchange for a shot at excellence.

This is not a mindset that Singaporean culture will accept, never mind support. Singaporeans are obsessed with stability, with regular income, with status, with the ability to afford material goods. While the ability to support yourself is certainly important, you cannot reach the pinnacle of your artistic potential if you are constantly burdened by endless overtime, face time, and mentally exhausting white collar work. You cannot even create a book if you listen to the naysayers instead of your heart. If you succumb to the culture of academia and materialism, and bury all aspirations to artistic excellence, you will never make it as a writer.

7) It’s making me lie. When young, budding writers ask, ‘can I make it as a writer in Singapore’, I almost have to fudge the answer. Yes, there are grants, subsidies, SingLit opportunities and so forth. But the books still need to be stacked somewhere. Singaporean authors are literally running out of places to display their works. (yes, there are e-books. But again, nothing like the tactile experience. i will NEVER forget the first time I saw my book on a shelf, December 2001, MPH Stamford Road. Yes, the bookstore is long gone.)

What does ‘making it’ mean?

If it means making a viable living from writing, grants and subsidies are not enough. They cannot sustain you for the long term.

To be a professional writer, you need to be artist and entrepreneur, marketer and creator, creative and pragmatic. There was a time when publishing houses took care of the business end of things so that the writer can focus on writing. That time has long ended. Even in the big publishing houses, writers are expected to build their own brand, their own social media presence, their own audience. All the big publishers will do is support their existing efforts—not do it for them.

With this in mind, there are three ways to make it as a writer.

The first is to write a runaway bestseller. This is practically every author’s dream, but it only happens to a tiny percentage of writers. If this happens to you, wonderful. But don’t count on it. Not during your first time out. Luck is not a strategy.

The second is to write lots, and lots, and lots of books. A trilogy is the minimum you need for a book to realistically make an impact. A trilogy of trilogies is more likely. People like what is novel and familiar. They want to follow the same character through a journey, and they want the confidence that a series will not sputter out and die half-way through. People who like Book 1 are likely to buy Book 2. People who like a series will look up other series by the same author. The modern author tends to make money not from new releases, but from his backlist. The more books you write, the luckier you get. But this is a long, lonely path. The accepted wisdom is that you need to write 20 books before you can earn 50K USD in royalties a year—and not just any books, but books targeted at the market. This is not a strategy Singaporean society will accept. It is too long-term and too uncertain, versus the surety of a fixed salary every month.

The third option is leverage. Write a book, then leverage it into high-ticket opportunities. Coaching, speaking opportunities, workshops, information products. Fiction writers leverage their series through merchandise. Obviously, this strategy only works if you have skills, merchandise or other goods and services to offer.

The Singapore market is too small to support a runaway bestseller that does not reach foreign shores. Singaporean publishers have no conception of publishing enormously long series, and local bookstores do not normally stock indie titles. Besides, as bookstores shrink, so does available retail space for books. Leverage might work, but I’ve only ever seen nonfiction authors use this successfully.

Do you want to make a living as a full-time fiction author in Singapore? You have to be lucky, skilled or crazy. Or all of the above.

There may be nothing like the tactile experience, but the tactile experience isn’t going to matter much. Print books are pricey, and as the world faces inflation and high prices, customers are going to slash their budgets. High-priced books are going to be at or near the the top of the list. Print on demand books offer a cheaper and more convenient alternative to bookstores.

There will always be people who enjoy the tactile communal experience. There will be bookworms who will carve out a significant amount of their budget for print books from bookstores. But for many more people, cost and convenience are going to matter more—a lot more.

The modern fiction author operates under these market conditions. He must adapt accordingly.

8 ) We are a relatively affluent nation. We can offer rent/GST rebates – there’s a valid debate to be had about GST and books by the way – as part of the educated, nation-building process. I understand that Kinokuniya, like all bookstores, are not charities. But they are major local employers and, much more importantly, priceless educators. We meet the world through bookstores. Take them away and we become a very small island indeed.

Landlords buy land and rent it out with the expectations of revenue. They will be hit by inflation and tax hikes like everyone else. Asking them to accept a rent rebate is to ask them to cut their own bottom line. How can we create a win-win solution?

Perhaps an easy answer is to point out that high rents will drive tenants out of business, turning a revenue stream into a cost center. Yet the landlord will also have their own overheads to cover, so there’s only so much rent they can lower. This is going to require delicate negotiations, not government fiat.

While GST rebates may alleviate price concerns for customers, they can only do so much for bookstores. Books have to be purchased, imported, packaged, stored, transported, tracked. The franchise incurs a cost every step of the way. Those costs are going to go up, courtesy of rising fuel prices, geopolitical uncertainty, inflation, and other such hassles. The bookstore will have to pass on the cost.

GST and rent rebates are stopgap solutions. This isn’t to say that they don’t have merit, but this will only slow the bleeding.

Take away brick-and-mortar bookstores, and online bookshops like Kindle and Kobo will remain. With dramatically reduced operational costs, they will continue to remain operational, and they can afford to list wider catalogues than brick-and-mortar bookshops. While it would be a major blow, customers will not be significantly deprived of book options.

The fundamental question remains: how can bookstores compete with online shopping and other entertainment options?

No Easy Answers

Bookshop closures are simply one symptom of a complex and ongoing global phenomenon. There are no easy answers. Popular found a way to survive, for now, but what works for Popular may not work for other companies. This issue requires a holistic approach from everyone involved in the space.

Writers

Writers encourage readers, and readers become writers. More than just encouraging a culture of reading, encourage writing as well. Singaporean writers, do not confine yourself to Singapore and SingLit. Go indie. Market yourself not just to Singaporeans, but to the world. Focus on continual self-improvement and sharpen your skills.

Recognize that you are competing with YouTube, social media, games, movies, anime and TV. Books became popular in an age of limited entertainment options. Today, with a plethora of choices, all of which are easy and effortless to access and consume, you need to figure out how to stand out. How to capture and retain attention, how to reach out to your intended audience, how to keep writing relevant in an age that threatens to abandon it.

Do not hope to place your books in bookstores. Hope, rather, to be the best writer you can be, to reach out to as many fans as you can. The rest follows naturally. For example, by publishing on Amazon, you can place your books in the catalogs of specialist distributors that supply libraries and bookstores. Bookstores will only buy books they believe will sell. They will be more likely to place your book if you have an established brand and excellent reviews. It will be nice if a publisher takes care of book placement for you, but don’t count on it happening, and explore what other options you have available.

If you want to truly make it, you have to be more than a writer. You have to be an entrepreneur. You need to write what people want (or need) to read, deliver that book, create a community, and expand your presence. It is easy for a writer to be a writer and an entrepreneur to be an entrepreneur, but commercial success lies in being able to unite both words.

And if you want to go the indie route, you have to think like a publisher too.

Publishers

Stop selling paper.

Western publishers are infamous for selling paper, not stories. After covering capital costs, it costs exactly nothing to sell an ebook. Yet American publishers insist on pricing ebooks similar to paperbacks. They are trying to nudge readers into spending the extra few dollars on a paperback. Yet this simply shuts out avid readers with lower budgets.

Publishers need to segment their markets and address their needs. Many readers prefer cost and convenience. Others enjoy the feel of books. Some like to have a paperback backup to their digital books. By focusing on selling paper, publishers are leaving money on the table.

As inflation rises, people will turn to cheaper alternatives to print books. The higher-priced the books, the less likely people will want to buy them. The less likely people will buy books, the lower the publishers’ revenue.

Traditionally, books need to be printed, then stored, then sent to the outlet. With Print on Demand, books are printed at the point of order. This reduces logistics costs, since the publisher only pays for what they need, not what they hope to sell. Publishers should explore the use of POD to reduce costs—and then pass on those cost savings to bookstores, who then pass those on to customers.

Another approach is to reach out to men.

Everybody knows that men don’t read. That’s because the publishing industry is dominated by female writers represented by female agents who submit to female editors who focus on female readers. When there are no books for men, men don’t read.

Isn’t it odd that the media says that men don’t read, and yet English translations of shounen and seinen fiction are highly popular among the otaku crowd? That’s because shounen and seinen fiction are written for men, and otakus tend to be men.

To ignore men is to ignore half the world. If you have the opportunity to reach out to men, do it.

Bookstores

Bookstores need to focus on what they can offer that an online experience cannot. Emphasise this in marketing collaterals, and organize retail strategy accordingly. For example, Kinokuniya is famous for its Japanese language section. But is there a sufficiently large Japanese-reading population to justify the cost of stocking that section? If not, then it should seriously consider stocking more profitable products, or encourage Japanese cultural outreach.

If a bookstore wants to emphasise the tactile communal experience, then it must confront the atomization of society. This means regularly organizing events and shared sessions to bring readers together—and thus draw them into buying products.

Cost-cutting can only go so far. Ultimately, bookstores must figure out how to increase sales and revenue. Without that, all is lost.

Government

Don’t bother turning to the government for help.

Tax rebates and whatnot aside, do not count on the Singapore government for help. It may pay lip service to the idea of growing Singapore’s literary scene, but so long as Singapore’s culture is obsessed with academia, jobs, materialism and status, the government will not treat mere literature as a priority.

SingLit

Stop being so parochial and stop chasing awards.

The SingLit scene is supposed to support all Singaporean writers, yet I’ve been told no Singaporean publisher will publish my stories. After all, they’re not literary enough, and they’re not set in Singapore. Any story that does not qualify as sufficiently literary or Singaporean for SingLit will be ignored, even if it comes from the hand of a Singaporean.

Even if it comes from Singapore’s first Hugo and Dragon Award nominee.

I didn’t earn those accolades by randomly hammering away at a keyboard. I spent decades in the single-minded pursuit of my craft. If the SingLit scene wants to see more writers, then it must focus on craft development and nurturing existing talent.

Case in point, the Singapore Writers Festival is the cornerstone of the SingLit scene. One full month dedicated to celebrating the spoken and written word in Singapore’s four official languages—or so it says. There are talks and conversations, walking tours and film screenings, workshops and panels.

The majority of them are dedicated to everything but the craft of writing.

Look at the 2021 SWF programme. Now look at Dragon Con. Dragon Con only runs for 5 days, and it isn’t even a writing-focused convention. Yet there are way more panels and workshops on genres and on writing in Dragon Con than all of SWF.

Writers create a culture of readers by writing books people want to read. That makes craft development so critical for writers at a societal level. Celebrating new writers are well and good, but if they do not proceed to write more books, much less more good books, then they are simply flashes in the pan, published once, then perpetually forgotten.

From the Bottom Up

The face of popular entertainment is changing. The publishing industry is changing. Writers, readers, publishers and bookstores must change with them.

It is a complex phenomenon, and when facing a complex phenomenon, the best solutions come from the bottom up, not the top down. Solutions will be driven by individuals and private businesses, entities with the agility and the flexibility to rapidly adapt as the situation changes. It will not come from institutions and organisations deadset in their ways, unable to pivot as the world pivots.

While the closure of bookstores is concerning to me, as a reader and a writer, I am not terribly affected by them. The Internet has opened many opportunities to access books and readers. I have reorganized my life and writing strategy to take advantage of the opportunities presented by changing times. I do not pin my hopes on a culture that does not prize reading; my current priority is to create a sustainable business in a culture that does.

How can bookstores stay relevant? How can writers and readers thrive? How can books themselves remain relevant? These are difficult questions, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I do know this:

When times change, thinking must change too.

Saga of the Swordbreaker marks a radical re-thinking of the cultivation genre. Sign up for my newsletter here and receive a free prequel ebook!

Re-Thinking Singapore Writing
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