We’re all familiar with the literary works of author Catherine Lee and poet Edwin Thumboo and, more recently, the comics of Sonny Liew. But behind these local literary doyens were publishers like Edmund Wee, who saw the opportunity to enrich the literary culture of Singapore, and push the boundaries of publishing. As Chief Executive Officer of Epigram Books, it’s hard to believe that Edmund ventured into the publishing business only in 2011, after spending more than three decades in other pursuits.
After winning a government scholarship to study psychology, Edmund served out his four-year bond as a government psychologist before joining The Straits Times as a journalist. After 12 years as a journalist and design editor, Edmund felt that he had achieved all that he could, given the opportunities that were available to him.
“Wherever I’ve gone, I wanted to do my best. When I was a journalist, I went as high as I could go. I left because I couldn’t go any higher,” said the man who, despite being 65, is still filled with the same fire and passion he had more than four decades ago.
In 1991, Edmund moved on to the next phase of his life and started Epigram Design, a design agency. He steadily built up the reputation of the agency, and after two decades in the business, managed to notch up several accolades, including Designer of the Year for the President’s Design Award in 2008. Never one to rest on his laurels, an opportunity came knocking the next year that led him to where he is today.
In 2009, Edmund was approached by Adeline Foo, who would become one of Singapore’s pioneer authors in children’s literature, with a story that chronicled the adventures of her son. Thereafter, Epigram Design published The Diary of Amos Lee which sold more than 50,000 copies – an overwhelming success by local standards. In an industry where education and academic publishing dominated, this was considered a major coup. More stories followed, and the entire series of five books eventually sold more than 200,000 copies. Not bad at all for a story about a Singaporean boy’s daily adventures.
Edmund speaking about his journey. Photo by Chan Kar Leng
Noticing a dearth of local graphic fiction for children aged 8-12 years, Edmund wanted to fill that gap. He was not driven by profit, but a strong belief that there should be local content for our children.
“All they read are Western books from the UK and USA. How can our children grow up just reading books about girls with blond hair, castles and princes? What about our local stories?” It was this belief that made Edmund a strong proponent of local content, which eventually led to his ardent support for the development of local writers.
The success of his first foray into book publishing got him seriously thinking.
“Maybe the success was a fluke? Maybe it’s profitable because Epigram Design is paying for most of the cost,” he surmised.
Edmund wanted to ascertain the financial viability of book publishing, and two years later, in 2011, was inspired to set up Epigram Books. “We had our own staff and call centre so that we can assess the business more realistically,” he said, “Before, we were a design company who just did one book. The cost was not fully captured.”
Subsequently, the books published by Epigram Books became popular especially among the preteen crowd. Although Edmund may have been credited within the publishing circles for laying the foundation for more locally published works, the journey was not always easy. His assertive persona and straightforward nature did not win him many fans.
“I’m always complaining about how things are not done properly. So people don’t like me because I’m not the kind who says nice things about people. I’m very critical. I want to do things the right way and sometimes I find a lot of obstacles in my way, but instead of navigating a way, I just go straight through.”
It was also in 2015 that Edmund decided to establish and fund the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize, one of the richest annual literary awards with a cash prize of S$20,000 (the amount has since gone up to S$40,000, $25,000 for the winner and $5,000 each to three finalists). Fuelled by his desire to see more local works of fiction and coupled with the lack of official support, Edmund felt it was a step he had to take to help raise the standards of Singapore creative writing as well as promote local writers. This was not only a significant contribution but also a huge sacrifice from a business that rarely profits. However, he is starting to see the results of his effort and sacrifice.
“I think the professionalism has changed. It has been set by me and the company, and I’d like to think that even the writing has improved,” he said with some pride.
Edmund’s dream is to continue publishing for the remaining years of his life. He said, “My wife thinks I’m mad. She asks me why I don’t retire. But I never expected it to be easy, and I also never expected to run into so many problems with certain organisations. I know publishing is difficult, but I enjoy editing, I enjoy reading and I enjoy designing. So I thought that this is something I can do for the next one third of my life before I die.”
Edmund in his element. Photo by Chan Kar Leng
It’s heartening to know that champions like Edmund exist, who will continue to bear the torch for our local writers with the hopes of making Singapore a literary oasis.
Written by: Adam Chan
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign