Supplement / November 2011 (Issue 15)


Why I Publish: Ethos Books (Singapore)

by Fong Hoe Fang

It has always been the books. From an early age, they consumed me with the same relentlessness with which I pursued them. Even now, in the fifth decade of my life, despite the many distractions of the cyber-world, the books continue their grip on my consciousness and thinking, shaping my views, and at the same time, allowing me a freedom of imagination so that in some ways, I can remain the child I was.

Growing up in Singapore during the 50s and 60s, when so many of us were poor and illiterate and survival was always at the top of our minds, reading had seemed an unnecessary luxury. However, I was lucky that my parents, despite their hardship and the need for an additional economic helping hand, released me to wander free amongst books, where I could run the gamut of experiences in fantasy worlds and cruel civilizations.

In the beginning, I choose the beautiful journeys, the glorious lives and all that allowed me to take refuge from the drudgery of everyday life. But somehow, as I devoured the dreams of others and tried to make them mine as well, the sheer plethora of different voices, memories and ideas gave me a sense that there were other ways to live. They inspired me to pass through unknown doors and face new frontiers with courage, and allowed me to understand that differences can be meaningful.

Yet all too soon, I would have to return to the reality of life with its many injustices and insufficiencies. So books also became ballast for my soul. I shared their dreams and imagined with them the new paths which would give me strength and hope in resisting the forces that sought to derail our human community. And so from my young adult life, books have always been tools that allowed me to travel beyond my own limited experiences, to resist injustice, to refresh the spirit and to reclaim the best of what is human.

Given this background, I guess it is only natural that I would jump at the opportunity to work with words and ideas. So in 1997, when two enthusiastic and extremely talented young men fresh from school came to my advertising and design house with two collections of poems for possible publication, I began to seriously toy with the idea of starting an imprint to publish good literature in Singapore.

I felt that there should be more opportunities for Singaporeans to hear the voices of fellow Singaporeans who had so many ideas and insights to share in such articulate ways. By placing as many local literary books as possible in the marketplace, we thought we might find new bridges between different people and help stir an imagination that could collectively build on our fused cultures, experiences and the brutal tasks of daily survival.

The odds against success were enormous. There was scant attention given to Literature as a subject in Singapore schools, and literary books had never done well commercially in the city. However, I was inspired by the tenacity of the two young men and enthralled by the quality of their writing and thought. It also helped that the advertising and design part of my business was doing well then, and we could afford to subsidise the costs of publishing two books of poetry. To this, I added a third collection by a writer whom we had published in 1993 as a once-off project.

We wanted to do it properly and with a "bang." So we brainstormed a name—Ethos Booksand launched all three collections of poetry together. It was probably the first time in Singapore that a book launch was conducted for three volumes of poetry at the same time, and it certainly brought much visibility to our books an imprint. And so Ethos Books was born.

But we were aware that the subsidies could not continue forever. The joke was that we had to turn it into a business that would not lose money, not a business that would make money.

It has not been easy. Over the last fourteen years, we have had our ups and downs. We not only had to find money to produce books, but also had to secure distribution channels, international networks and publishable material.

During the years when the advertising and design business hit some road bumps, we had to slow down the rate of publishing, and this was of course not good for the brand and the business.

Over the years, we have come to be identified as a publisher of poetry, probably because our first launch heralded the arrival of many fresh poetic voices in Singapore. But we would also like to do some literary fiction which could help balance the literary scene with a different form.

We receive many manuscripts today. Sometimes, in our enthusiasm to bring as many different voices to the marketplace as possible, we tend to publish what some would consider a totally unsalable manuscript. Or a weak manuscript that requires more reworking. While there is validity to this observation, I remember my time with all manner of books and how every book has had a lesson for me. So my contention has always been to give the benefit of the doubt to the writer and let his or her voice shine through so long as it is genuine, because sometimes it is the ideas and insights which inspire, and not just the manner of articulation.

It is difficult enough as things stand to find those willing to write. It is a frail flame we are charged to nurture. And nourish our writers we must because in their work they uphold the human need to connect and move beyond our individual selves.

Some have chosen the route of full-time writer in Singapore despite knowing the difficulties, and I have tremendous respect for them helping to kick-start the writing ecosystem in the city. We want to build upon those first steps to generate momentum. We desperately need to win over hardnosed book distributors and local bookstores. Most important, we need to establish international networks and persuade them that Singapore writers are not any less talented than other writers in the world.

The book trade in the international community is far ahead of Singapore and Asia in product maturity and reader reception. Even as Asian writers begin to forge their own voices, dreams and aspirations, we need to connect with those who have been there before us, to learn from them and to contribute to them.

Aside from passion, these initiatives require money. And literary publishing does not sit pretty with the bean counters who run the world economy today.

It is fortunate that the National Arts Council of Singapore has increased their funding to help promote the literary arts in Singapore. While the grants go a long way to defray some costs, we still have to contend with the economic viability of running a literary press. It is an issue that will not go away so soon.

But the dream lives on.

 
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