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Akshita Nanda
Thursday, Oct 9, 2014

Singapore

Lit Prize not on same page as publishers

The Straits Times | Akshita Nanda | Thursday, Oct 9, 2014

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.

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