Why fiction doesn’t sell in Singapore

When I say being a writer in Singapore is difficult, it is an understatement. And by this, I mean that being a spinner of fictional yarn in Singapore is almost, well, mission impossible.

But before I go into the “whys”, let me assure the readers that Singapore does have its iconic writers and publishing stars. Catherine Lim, Russell Lee, James Lee, and many others do make their mark as writers, poets etc.

But where are the writers of other genres? Where are the JK Rowlings, Stephen Kings, David Eddings of Singapore? Surely we have writers who can take on a similar mantle? Well, of course we do. But let’s not forget that these writers too have taken the long and hard journey to get to where they are today. If they have it tough in countries where fiction writing is slightly better off and profitable, imagine how much tougher it is for writers in Singapore where non-fiction and self-help books are, well, selling better.

Sad, right? But very true. Here’s why…

People buy books to answer questions or to fulfill a need.

According to The Intern’s completely unscientific look at book-buying, people may buy books due to “guilt, self-pity, indulgence, or a feeling of righteousness, or need, or even terror.”

The Singapore Department of Statistics found out in 2002 that while children were enthusiastic borrowers, there was a lower percentage of adults who borrow books (usually non-fiction). I bypassed thousands of fiction books at the Library Book Sale to pick up a book on fundraising because I needed some info on the topic.

People buy books to be fashionable

Of those who do borrow or buy fiction, there are only a rare few who will pick up a book by a local author. The rest will cite their favourites among books by foreign authors.

Why? Because books by foreign authors are proven successes that one should read in order to keep up with the trend. I for one had never read Harry Potter until it came out as a blockbuster movie.

The Watchmen? Never heard of it before the blue naked man came alive on the silver screen. LOTR? LOL. I bought it only to ensure my beloved Legolas doesn’t die halfway on me after I was entrapped by Orlando Bloom’s appearance in the live-action. AND so I can boast to anyone who’ll care to listen that I’ve READ IT, HAVE YOU?

People do judge the book by its cover

Covers of local books don’t really inspire me to buy them. Yup, I’m that shallow. If I don’t like a cover, I won’t turn the book over to read its synopsis no matter how gripping the storyline may be. I’m sorry to have to say this but first impressions do make all the difference and you can definitely tell which are the local books from a mile away just based on their covers.

Even some local non-fiction books look boring, with one exception: Norma Sit‘s Gorgeous, Sexy & Rich: Money for Women in Good and Tough Times. On first look, I actually thought it was a beautifully designed book from a foreign author!

I’m not being biased or anything but, who doesn’t automatically think a good looking book comes from a foreign author? If you’re not one of those people, then good for you.

That’s why non-fiction and self-help books do so well in Singapore. Because in commercial terms, they are after all more viable.

So do local fiction (and manga) have a place in the Singapore market? Or even in the world? Leave me your thoughts in the comments.=3



6 thoughts on “Why fiction doesn’t sell in Singapore

  1. This is interesting, because I just wrote a rant/ramble regarding this on my LJ. It’s hard being a writer of sf/f in Singapore, because people look at you strange and think that you are a weirdo. And yes, memoirs and self-help books are so popular in Singapore, because – as you have said it – they are more viable.


    And if Mr John Scalzi complains (bitterly) about his chances at publishing because he’s from Ohio and not in New York, how about us folks in Singapore and Southeast Asia?

    J. Chng

  2. The points you cited are pretty spot on, especially on book covers! For me personally (why I don’t buy local fiction much), it’s because when I read, I want to escape, I want a whole new world laid in front of me. Something foreign and exciting. Most local fiction writers just don’t do that. The need to revolve around local themes seems to recur, and that’s not something I want to read about after a humdrum day spent tackling bosses, jostling with the lunchtime crowd, and roughing out on the MRT. I’ve seen enough of Singapore in the day; and we have all that Singapore drama on TV anyway. At night, curled up with a good book, I just want to get lost in exotic Paris or swanky Manhatten, wrapped in the arms of a hunky, handsome stranger _<

  3. >:’U
    I’ve had my moments with novels. But you’d never find me with any local works, because then I’d tell you- ‘what- Singaporeans write fiction?’ .. All you writers may hate me now, but I’ll share my sincerest opinions, as a consumer-type-reader, that might be sensible.
    Take it that my ranting represents the opinion of readers who take after my mien.

    I say unashamedly that I couldn’t really imagine local writers delving into the genre of fiction(thriller, horror, etc), and it’s not that i’ve read some (lousy)novels and then dismissed the rest of the gang as unpromising- I feel that proficient writers are HARD to find/not published/not well publicized.
    The good stuff could be out there, perhaps in another genre- but i’m talking about the big gap in mainstream fiction. Its evident and eventual that I place my faith in ‘foreign media’ and become afraid to commit to local produce.

    So why you don’t fulfill the readers’ choice:

    YOU DON’T READ ENOUGH. Sure, we do newspapers, magazines, self-help books. But they don’t count one jiffy bit- If you’re a bonafide writer, you study your authors over the years to mature your writing; And because ONLY the interested readers/writers are doing that from young, newbies who suddenly get an inspiration to write have a disadvantage by producing only what-they-know, which is almost negligible in the face of an avid reader. You gotta think it on a global-scale if you want to be percieved as ‘unique/interesting’ to local writing, or even to the publishing world. Hence i deduce that the blame can be laid on our culture, which doesn’t include much reading/writing ):
    ENGRISH HOR, NOT VERY GOOD. -10. When we chat in life, we use Singlish. When we netspeak, we use lalehlors, how cans, why liddats etcetc. It doesn’t mean that the language used is similar in formal writing, but it hurts us all the same from lack of practice of English. Without the basic foundation in good wording, how can we progress to coining witty phrases or developing style– without resorting to colloquialisms for inducing humour?
    NOBODY WANTS YOU. It’s sad that we seem to hate ourselves. The Olympics/YOG. Or Singapore vs Liverpool. You don’t see the supporters go gaga- if there were many, in the first place. Mainstrea writers have it tough- you don’t seem to recieve much follow-up publications or support from publishing bodies to pull readers and fans to stick.. and result! gaining a negative/infamous reputation from public opinion.
    Guilty- when I flip a book written by a local author I subject it to the most scupulous of judgements– or whatever my 18-yr old mind says its a)not well written, b)style is not to my tastes, c)pricey or d)all of the above.

    ..and all this typed and reviewed in an hour+ to ensure that I’m a coherent *tard.

    But frankly this situation so far isn’t a cause for lament. I still have hopes ’cause we’re still new to this world of literature, and its like evolution- where there’s an empty niche, it will be filled, provided that the art of writing is cultivated in our blood.
    So all you aspiring hopefuls KEEP AT IT and FULFILL YOUR(and our) DREAMS! (:

    lots of love.

  4. Pingback: Singaporean writers do write fiction « The Aspiring Mangaka & Writers Club

  5. Excellent points made here.
    First, are we writing stories that people want to read: action; thrillers;romance. It doesn’t matter if it’s SF/F, mysteries, chick lit, ghost stories. Readers want things to happen.
    Second, are our stories introspective or do they take a broader view? As noted above, most readers read to escape.
    Third, are our technical skills up to scratch? Is our English adequate? Are we capable of writing a page turner. The root of being a writer is to make the reader want to read the next page. Can we make use of cliffhangers? Are our characters well constructed or stereotypical – why should your readers invest time and emotion in them?
    Fourth, alas, cover and book spine do count for so much. We have about six seconds to convince a potential reader to read the blurb on the back cover. That’s six seconds on purely artistic motivations – nothing to do with good writing.
    If we are serious about writing fiction for a living, we must see our readers as customers. We must give them what they want to read as much as we must write what is inside of us.
    If we are serious about writing fiction for a living, we must also accept that our work may need major revisions if it is to be published.
    So, think of your writing from a business perspective and really listen to all forms of critique. These are two very tough lessons but they will make you a better prepared writier.
    Keep writing!

  6. Eeek!!! And never press send until you’ve corrected your spelling errors!!! ROFL
    a better prepared writer.

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