The publishing world is globalized. It doesn’t matter where you and your laptop are located. German-born writer Hana Scheltat consulted three local experts to look at ways to get published in and out of Singapore.
Study the market
Having a literary agent is not common for poets. Science Fiction Poet and English-Chinese literary translator Shelly Bryant planned her career meticulously. She says that learning about the industry first and identifying what kind of writer you are is the way to success: “You have to spend effort and time thinking about where you want your work to appear and which publishers represent you as a writer. You should know the agenda of the publishing house. If you don’t do that you might find yourself in a corner where you don’t really fit.“
Poet’s Market, Writer’s Market and The Writer’s and Artists’ Yearbook provide useful information on the worldwide literary market. You will find lists of publishers, pay rates and submission guidelines, as well as literary agents, editors, and competition procedures.
“For most poets it’s usual to publish in a variety of literary journals,” Shelly continues. This way, you can make yourself and your work known to publishers who might be interested in working on a collection with you. In Shelly’s case, half of the poems that appeared in her collections had previously been published in different magazines. Novelists can also establish a writing pedigree by getting their short stories into credible publications first.
Decide whether or not to work with an agent
According to Singapore-based literary agent Helen Mangham: “as far as publishing in Singapore goes it’s not necessary to have an agent because local publishers are pretty open to direct submissions.”
“Not requiring an agent is good and bad” says Kenny Leck, publisher at Math Paper Press. “It’s good because it allows the authors to go directly to publishers and the negotiations go faster. The publishing ecosystem in Singapore is so small that the contracts the publishers give out to authors are generally quite in line with what the agent would have worked out in the first place.”
Also, there is not much competition in Singapore because there are only six English-speaking publishing houses: Ethos, Epigram, Bubbly, Math Paper Press, Monsoon Books, and Armour.
Publishing abroad, however, requires an agent because UK or US publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. “Publishers work with agents because they like the manuscripts to be in a good state”, says Helen. “We are a filter.”
Agents attend international book fairs such as London and Frankfurt, while a small publishing house like Math Paper Press does not have the resources to do that. An agent also takes care “that the authors don’t get cheated,” Kenny states. He likes working with agents because “they make life easier for us.” They often find foreign publishers who will buy rights for Math Paper Press books-and the other way around. This year Math Paper Press secured rights for three international titles with the help of agents.
Start editing and follow submission guidelines
Before submitting your work either to an agent or a publisher, have your manuscript in the best state possible. Editing starts here. “You should have finished at least your first draft before contacting an agent and I would really recommend to work on the manuscript as much as possible and get it polished. Have other people proof it,” Helen recommends.
“The quality of the work has to be there before even thinking about publishing”, Shelly agrees. “In the beginning, it’s very difficult to recognize whether your work is universal enough to publish.” She always consults a few readers who she trusts.
Before sending in your manuscript, follow the submission guidelines of agents and publishers very carefully. This includes file types and formatting. All interviewees stressed that this is very important: Math Paper Press makes it “very hard for authors to submit. But if you still submit, then we see that you know what you want.” Math Paper Press asks for at least 50 poems, two to three short stories or two to three novel chapters: “We need the author to be diligent.”
Decide whether to publish locally or abroad
As stated above, no matter where you publish, your work can be distributed all over the world. But Singaporean publishing houses are unlikely to have the resources to market a book internationally. If you do have your work published in Singapore first, you (or an agent) can still take it further afield if you negotiate non-exclusive rights with the local publisher. And books from this side of the world are becoming more popular. According to Helen, “foreign publishers are very interested to see what comes from South East Asia.”
Deciding on where to publish also depends on your genre. While there was no market for Science Fiction poetry in Singapore when Shelly started, she did find over one hundred English-speaking journals all over the world that specialise in her genre. Nowadays, there is also demand for speculative writing in Singapore, which is why she will have her second book published here this year.
In Singapore, poets might have a better chance to get published than novelists. “In the publishing world, we are the oddest of the odd,” Kenny tells me. “Nowhere else in the world does poetry sell so well. Whereas a young poets’ work is usually printed in two editions in Singapore, in the States even a well established poet will have problems selling the first run.”
And there’s another reason Shelly wanted her work to be published here–as we find out in SWAG’s interview with designers Sarah and Schooling–“Singapore produces such pretty books!”
Helen Mangham is a literary agent based in Singapore. Her agency Jacaranda serves markets around the world. Helen and her colleague Jay, who is based in India, have worked with authors and publishers in Singapore and around the world. Their list includes Suchen Christine Lim (Singapore), Krishna Udayasankar (Singapore), Tiffany Tsao (Australia) and F.H. Batacan (Philippines).
Kenny Leck is the founder of Tiong Bahru indie book store BooksActually. Its publishing arm Math Paper Press has over 140 books currently in print. Math Paper Press rarely relies on government grants. Its portfolio includes non-Singaporean authors or writers who represent unconventional mindsets.
Shelly Bryant is a Science Fiction poet and translator based in Singapore and Shanghai. She has published 800 poems and eight poetry collections, as well as travel guides and a study about Chinese gardens. In 2015 she published her first poetry book in Singapore titled “Unnatural Selection” with Math Paper Press.