We Are Here! What Can We Do? – Opportunities (or lack thereof)
by Joyce Chng.
You write speculative fiction?
You write YA?
What? What is YA science fiction? What is YA?
These are the reactions when I tell people I write. Most of the time, I have to explain what YA is. No, it’s not a slang form for “you”. It means Young Adult. My own reactions include a bit of weariness, a bit of hair-tearing frustration and a bit of annoyance. (That’s not counting the times when I tell people I write urban fantasy – and their eyes light up and they go “Twilight?”)
At the time of writing this article, the market is slowly opening up to YA Singaporean writers. There are conferences for YA and MG (Middle Grade) authors, readers and publishers, such as the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. There are even publishers who are starting to see the value of MG and YA books. Novels like the Archibald series by Sher May Loh are selling quite well. There are even contests (gasp) for aspiring YA authors, sponsored of course by a government agency, the National Arts Council. My YA science fiction book (another gasp) will be published by an independent publisher, Math Paper Press.
Opportunities are rolling in, aren’t they?
The market is indeed opening up. Slowly. Reluctantly. It takes daring publishers and even more daring writers to pitch and submit their work to them. Why? The Singapore publishing industry is at best lukewarm to new genres like speculative fiction or (the third gasp) YA. If you survey the local publishing scene, it is replete with self-help books, assessment books (for those obsessed with academic results, in success-crazy Singapore), recipe tomes, memoirs, and horror. I’m not against horror – but the current books are bland, cut-and-paste, ghost-written and simply kitschy. The problem is that people are lapping them up like cats to cream.
At the same time, local readers seem averse to reading local works. There is an automatic assumption that local means awful, and readers stay away from local plays, novels and whatever by writers. Walking into the YA aisle of a local bookstore can reveal – quite starkly – the reading preferences of local readers. Foreign YA imports, mostly from the US. Hardly any Singaporean novels. Local books are given their own tiny corner. Yes, tiny, about three shelves… stocked full of – you guessed it – horror, self-help and memoir books.
Despite the chilly reception and stiffer competition from elsewhere, local YA authors are looking at different venues and publishing routes. Most, not surprisingly, choose self-publishing. Authors like Low Kay Hwa form their own publishing companies and create their fan-bases. Publishing platforms like Smashwords, Wattpad, Amazon Direct and Kobo are catering to similar needs. Authors now have the power to take control of their work and fix their own pricing. I use Smashwords, Wattpad and Amazon myself, with varying (and most of the time, dismal) results. To be honest, free downloads are far more popular than books that cost. (The bane for any emerging author: free book vs book with pricing on it – you want the eye-ball, but at the expense of your own efforts!)
And people go for names that sound … well… less Asian. That’s reality talking.
Cue more face-palming.
Lack of exposure and the tendency for Westerners to fix Asians in pigeonholes are not helping the situation. What are Southeast Asians supposed to write about? Literary fiction about oppressive regimes, sad cultural traditions, tortured souls (who then find solace in a Western world/man/woman etc) and what? If you want us to write about diversity, then let us write about diversity. Diversity in our terms, not your own, Western publishing industry. More non-US protagonists and characters, more exciting scenarios, more diversity in gender and sexual orientation.
Sounds a mouthful, yes? – Take a look around you. The world is diverse.
Now, do you get the picture?
I am going to be cautiously and warily optimistic about the local YA scene. If publishers and readers give us a chance (give us more exposure, distribution and eyeball etc), I think the YA scene can take off. To further the metaphor, it is now at the hangar, being fixed by mechanics and argued over, waiting to roll out onto the tarmac. Kudos to publishers who dare to take the leap and writers who dare to stick their necks out there and write. Folks, put your fiction out there. Let people read. With technology being so accessible (at our finger tips!), our voices can be eventually heard and understood.
We are here and are doing things.
Born in Singapore but a global citizen, Joyce Chng writes mainly science fiction (SFF) and YA fiction. She likes steampunk and tales of transformation/transfiguration. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, Semaphore Magazine, Bards and Sages Quarterly and Everyday Fiction. Her urban fantasy novels are contracted under Lyrical Press. Her YA science fiction trilogy will be published by a Singapore publisher, Books Actually. Her books are available at Smashwords and Lyrical Press.