SINGAPORE: Are you a regular train commuter whose eyes are perpetually glued to mobile phones and tablets? Why not read a book for a change - and a local one at that?
Starting Feb 24, pocket-sized books that come with a NETS FlashPay card, which can be used on public transport, will be sold at bookstores. These so-called Ticket Books, which are priced at S$15, will include new stories and poems by Singapore authors.
It is one of the unusual initiatives under #BuySingLit, a brand new campaign collectively launched by Singapore’s book industry players to encourage people to support and buy local literature.
Organised by more than 30 partners, comprising publishers, booksellers and distributors, the campaign includes more than 40 activities under its umbrella. These will mainly take place from Feb 24 to 26, and will include book fairs, guided tours, meet-the-author sessions, workshops and storytelling sessions, among others. To give prospective buyers a gentle nudge, S$10 vouchers to buy books will also be given away.
The event is supported by the National Arts Council (NAC) and managed by the National Book Development Council of Singapore.
BOOK INDUSTRY COMES TOGETHER
While there have been a number of Government-led and ground-up initiatives to promote Singapore literature through the years, such as the annual Singapore Writers Festival, National Poetry Festival and Epigram Books’ Fiction Prize, #BuySingLit is touted as the first time Singapore’s book industry has come together with its own event.
“Very rarely do we have the entire book trade working together,” said Mr Goh Eck Kheng, veteran publisher of Landmark Books, at the event launch held on Thursday (Feb 2). He added that there have been similar industry book fairs in the early 1970s, but through the years, these have transformed into “more commercial and less literary” events.
Storyteller Nek Selampit will be holding a storytelling workshop as part of #BuySingLit. (Photo: National Book Development Council of Singapore)
The decision to launch the campaign also comes on the heels of the 2015 National Literary Reading Writing Survey, which cited that only four out of 10 Singaporeans have read a literary title in the past 12 months, and only one out of four had read a Singapore literary title.
Mr Paul Tan, NAC’s covering chief executive officer, described the campaign as “timely and even overdue”.
With books coming in from all over the world, coupled with the popularity of online shopping, the strong competition makes #BuySingLit “absolutely critical. I’m glad the industry has come together.”
Mr Kenny Leck, owner of independent bookstore BooksActually and its publishing arm Math Paper Press, hopes it will become an annual event that will complement the Singapore Writers Festival.
“It can become another stronger push (for Singapore literature),” he said, adding that it has the potential to become another event in the annual literary calendar where local publishers can launch and sell new titles.
SHRINKING READERSHIP AND SHELF SPACE
Many have described the Singapore literary scene as currently undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Citing the popularity of works by authors such as Sonny Liew, Ovidia Yu and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, director of Kinokuniya Singapore, Mr Kenny Chan, said, “The Singapore brand is strong enough. There’s a lot of local stuff, but not many places to find them.”
Indeed, during the event launch, publishers and booksellers cited dwindling shelf spaces and shrinking readership - especially for non-English titles - as some of the challenges that beset the local book industry.
Ms Tan Wain Ching, owner of independent bookstore City Book Room, pointed out that back in the 1980s, the print run of a Chinese language novel would be between 2,000 and 4,000, which reflected the public’s interest. Nowadays, it would be between 500 and 800.
MPH Bookstores' chief operating officer, Abdul Rahim Awang, said that Singapore literary titles have “no homeground”, as local titles struggle to find space versus international ones. However, he pointed out that when they set up a dedicated space for Singapore titles in their branches last year, the books sold well.
Indeed, proactively promoting local literature could very well be the way to go - and sometimes it is a matter of not just finding the right space but the right way of doing so, especially when it comes to the younger generation.
REACHING OUT TO A NEW CROWD
Storyteller Ms Kamini Ramachandran, who regularly works with authors such as Verena Tay and Cyril Wong, pointed out how it is important to understand the language of the so-called millennials. “You have to play their game,” she said, citing how she uses bite-sized, slick videos of her reading Singapore literary works as a way of connecting to a younger crowd.
Holding literary events create an added experience among prospective book buyers. (Photo: BooksActually)
Mr Leck pointed out that while there is an issue of readership, industry players should also be doing more in terms of social media marketing, for example. And he is also not one to shy away from any potential opportunity to draw people in.
Recognising BooksActually’s image as a “hipster” haunt, he admitted to embracing and tapping into this as a way of perhaps getting non-Singapore literature readers to take a chance on the local books they sell. One of their events at #BuySingLit, a book fair, will be held at Gillman Barracks, which is slowly becoming a popular venue for events catering to younger crowds.
Mr Leck's aggressive, everyone-is-a-potential-buyer approach has proven that Singapore literature can sell. Last year, up to 40 per cent of total sales at his bookstore came from local books. His in-house Math Paper Press titles alone accounted for 32 per cent.
For Kinokuniya’s Mr Chan, one of the key things to keep people interested in dropping by the bookstore is consistently holding a range of activities beyond simply putting up the books on display, such as book signings. “It’s the experiences that make people want to come back,” he said. And hopefully, leave with a bunch of books.