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Just How Much is The Great Singapore (Graphic) Novel Really Worth?

Peter Lin

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It seemed like the whole of Singapore was at Marina Bay Sands two weekends ago. Foodies could be found at Savour, Singapore’s largest gourmet festival, now in its fifth year. EDM fans were excited that Ultra Music Festival had finally arrived in Singapore, even though they probably spent most of it queuing. Pokemon Go players were rushing all over the place catching Lapras, Aerodactyl, Kabutops and Dragonair.

Me? I was at the Singapore Toy, Game and Comic Convention or STGCC. It’s an event that means a lot to me, as a self-proclaimed comic book geek. STGCC is, among other things, the annual opportunity for comic book creators from Singapore and the region to showcase their talents to an international audience and to generate exposure and build their fanbase.

One such comic book creator is Sonny Liew, the creator of a hefty 320-page graphic novel entitled The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. The book is an ingenious blend of fictional and historical elements, that has been critically acclaimed internationally. But for us in Singapore, it’s probably better known as “the one that the National Arts Council withdrew their grant from”.

 

Ohhhh… the one that kena censored…

Actually, it wasn’t censored. The National Arts Council, or NAC, just withdrew the publishing grant in May last year, the day before the book officially launched in Singapore, because the book’s “sensitive content” did not meet the grant’s “funding conditions”. The grant was worth $8,000, and the initial fear was that, without the extra finances, the book may not sell enough to break even.

Fast forward a year and a half later, and the good news is that the book has not only entered a fifth print run and sold over 9,000 copies locally, but has also been published in the US, France and Italy.

 

So how much did the book earn for creator Sonny Liew?

In a Facebook post last Monday afternoon, Sonny chose to reveal just how much he had earned from the book thus far:

Income Source Approximate Amount
Singapore Publisher’s Advance S$9,000
Singapore Publisher’s Royalties for 2015 S$5,333.23
US Publisher’s Advance (less agent’s fee and Singapore publisher’s cut) S$20,000
French Publisher’s Advance (less agent’s fee and Singapore publisher’s cut) S$13,200
Italian Publisher’s Advance (less agent’s fee and Singapore publisher’s cut) S$2,800
Singapore Literature Prize S$10,000
TOTAL S$60,333.23

 

 

Wow… over $60,000! Not bad what…

Sure, it may seem like a pretty sizeable amount now, and to be fair, if the book continues to do well both locally and overseas, will make much more. Sonny himself is convinced that the risks and sacrifices he undertook to make The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye happen was worth it, and that he’d believed it would be something special to tell a story in a way that hadn’t quite been done before.

That said, Sonny did have a couple of things to point out in the Facebook post.

Firstly, the book itself took about 2 years to complete. When you divide the $60,000 he received so far over a period of 24 months, you only get a relatively modest $2,500 for each month of work. More than enough to subsist on, but hardly enough to sustain a long-term career, especially for someone of Sonny’s calibre and experience. He did win the Singapore Literature Prize.

Secondly, most of the income – the international publishers’ advances and the Singapore Literature Prize – came only after the book had been published locally. Though the book itself took about 2 years of work, Sonny also did other projects during that period for income, including a biography of Singapore’s pioneer artist Georgette Chen for the National Gallery.

Thirdly, this income is with overseas publishers showing interest in your book and giving you an advance. Most Singaporean comics creators don’t have this luxury. Sonny estimates that if a project only received interest from a local publisher, the comic book creator would only get about $1,000 to $1,600 for a month, depending on the generosity of the local publisher.

 

Like that… why should anyone want to be a comic book creator in Singapore?

That’s the million-dollar question, and is something that the NAC has been trying to answer for years.

Over the past several years, they’ve been giving out the Creation Grant, previously known as the Arts Creation Fund. The Creation Grant’s goal, according to NAC, is “the creation, adaptation and re-development of distinctive artistic content”, in order to “expand the canon of Singapore-made works that engage audiences at home and abroad”. The cap on the grant is $50,000, though that’s a general cap across all disciplines. For literary works, which graphic novels fall under, the cap is closer to $25,000. In fact, Sonny revealed that his offer from NAC was “somewhere between $15,000 to $20,000”.

Such an amount is usually sufficient for creators who have regular day jobs. A Creation Grant recipient I spoke to revealed, on condition of anonymity because of his day job, that the $20,000 Creation Grant his graphic novel project was awarded is “quite appropriate” for the hours on the side he and his creative team (who have their own day jobs too) have been putting in for the past two years.

 

But if you want to do this full-time…

As a full-time creator, Sonny feels such an amount is just not enough. Since a visual medium like the graphic novel demands much more time compared to a normal prose project, for example, Sonny believes that an actual $50,000 cap on the grant amount would be more appropriate for graphic novels. It’s a fair suggestion.

Think about it, without any grant assistance, a book as noteworthy and acclaimed as The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, created by a world-class talent over the span of two years, has only earned $60,000 for its creator, or essentially a $2,500 monthly income.

Plus, if you’ve got the skill Sonny has, a big US-based comic book company like Marvel or DC would be willing to pay you at least S$10,000 a month to work on their books if you’re an artist. Smaller companies would pay significantly less, of course, but still enough to make you forego creating comic books for the local audience.

If NAC is truly interested in producing the next The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which achieved their goal of engaging “audiences at home and abroad”, then it should be willing to put its money where its mouth is and review their grant cap.

UPDATE: After a subsequent dialogue with NAC, Sonny had a few more points to share in a new Facebook post posted yesterday. In the section entitled “Understand the system”, he says, “The feedback from the NAC in terms of the Grant Cap was essentially to LIST ALL YOUR COSTS. The naive approach of thinking you can list everything under “professional fees” and get $40k to allocate on our own will not work, as there is in fact an unstated maximum applied to the portion of funding can be given for professional fees, with other portions of the $50k cap meant for Other Things.”

So clearly, there has already been some initial response from NAC to Sonny’s original article to clarify some of the issues raised. We can probably expect more dialogue to follow.

 

What do you think of the comic book scene in Singapore? Let us hear your thoughts.

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Peter Lin

I am the poster boy for reinventing one's self. I've been a broadcast journalist, technical writer, banking customer service officer and a Catholic friar. My life experiences have made me the most cynical idealist you'll ever meet, which is why I'm also the co-founder of a local pop culture website. I believe ignorance is not bliss, and that money is the root of all evil only if you allow it to be.