Merging Literary Art With Business: How Poet And Author Felix Cheong Thrived In Singapore’s Literary Scene

Felix Cheong

The literary art scene in Singapore can be a tough business for local authors. International best sellers traditionally dominate sales numbers in book shops and online stores. Even if the book does sell the minimum number to get a slice of the royalties, that amount is likely to be far from lucrative as award-winning poet Felix Cheong would attest: “Book authors earn something like 10% of the royalties, so you do have to survive by your day job or through freelancing.”

Despite these misgivings, the recipient of the National Arts Council Young Artist Award for Literature in 2000 is certainly not deterred. Felix has some 20 books to his name. These are books that cut across different genres, from young adult fiction to graphic novels. 

His first book of poetry, Temptation and Other Poems, was published in 1998. Since then, Felix has emerged as one of the stars in a fresh wave of Singapore poets, alongside names like Alfian Sa’at, Alvin Pang and Cyril Wong.

Two decades on, Felix’s book ventures have shifted to collaborations with young creatives such as illustrators and musicians. He explains that “I’ve come to the stage in my creative life, where I find more satisfaction if I can bring another creative mind on board, to challenge myself, and challenge the other person. So, we come up with something bigger than the sum of our individual parts.”

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Amid the pandemic, Felix’s partnerships with fellow creatives have manifested in two books, In the Year of the Virus, a poetry comic book capturing a fictionalised snippet of the COVID-19 experience in Singapore; the second book, Oddballs, Screwballs and Other Eccentrics, is a Tim Burton-inspired illustration book of poetry about outcasts who struggle to find acceptance. Both books were collaborations with illustrators. 

He has also edited anthologies including A View of the Stars: Stories of Love and Letter To My Mother

A View of the Stars is a compilation of heart-warming stories about love, based on both true events and epic tales. Besides editing, Felix contributed a dramatised version of how his parents met. Set during pre-independence Singapore, the short story is aptly titled ‘How I Met Your Mother’.

In Letter To My Mother, the contributors opened up about their childhood years, when they were raised by their mothers. Some of these stories reveal painful chapters of the writers, who had to manage their parents’ mental health issues. 

Felix describes his own lockdown isolation as one that fostered an environment of creativity ‘sprouting wings’. “During the circuit breaker, it wasn’t hard to stay productive, because I had so much time on my hands,” he said. “You can’t go out, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. And all the time that I usually would spend travelling to school and back – one, two hours a day – that was time saved… the lockdown enabled me to think of more story ideas.”

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The creative momentum from the pandemic isolation also inspired two upcoming books: his 6th children’s book, Tongue-Tied Ting Ting, scheduled for release at the end of July, and Sin City-inspired graphic novel, Sprawl, in mid-September (both pictured).

Sprawl, Tongue-Tied Ting Ting

Giving Back To The Creative Community

The evolution of Felix’s works from solo projects to collaborations is partly driven by a desire to give back to the community. Many of the illustrations based on his poems are commissioned by Felix, who compensates his collaborators out of his pocket.

As a veteran in the creative field, Felix says it is important to him to support younger artists “because the royalties they get isn’t enough to keep body and soul together.”

A good portion of such professionals within the creative industries are typically freelancers because of the ad hoc nature for many projects. During the pandemic, many freelance creatives said they lost their stream of income. According to ilostmygig.sg, freelancers reported a lost totalling more $32 million since the pandemic hit Singapore’s shores.

Reinventing Felix Cheong: From Broadcast Journalism To Teacher

Unlike freelancers, Felix’s ability to keep writing can be credited to his day job: teaching. It’s a professional path he has embraced since 2002, after completing his Master’s in creative writing in Australia. 

He has since taught at institutions such as LaSalle College, University of Newcastle, and the National University of Singapore, among others.

Teaching, he says, goes hand-in-hand with writing: “Choosing one or the other is like asking me to choose whether to chop either my left or my right hand. I mean, (teaching) is the main source of my income. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have the flexibility of hours to do my writing.”

Felix started his career in broadcast journalism, after receiving a scholarship with the then-Singapore BroadcastingCorporation. The award included a 2-year bond with the company. “I was interested in both print and broadcast journalism,” Felix said, “but the scholarship tilted the balance to broadcast.”

Felix worked as a news producer before joining CNBC as a studio director. It was at CNBC that Felix scored a place to study for a Master’s programme with the University of Queensland, under a bursary awarded by the National Arts Council.

Before leaving his CNBC job for further studies, he struck a gentlemen’s agreement with his boss to rehire him as long as there were vacancies. Unfortunately, the brief time away saw the industry change.

On returning to Singapore in 2002, the media landscape had transformed as media giants – Mediacorp and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) – locked horns through a liberalisation of the industry. The intense competition resulted in job losses that spilled over across the media sector, and CNBC did not have a role for Felix.

Armed with a new Master’s degree, Felix would thus embark on a freelance writing career while looking for work in teaching. He also ventured beyond poetry to writing fiction such as 2012’s Vanishing Point, and the Singapore Siu Daiseries of books from 2014 and beyond. Vanishing Point is a series of short stories inspired by real-life cases of missing persons, while the three-volume Singapore Siu Dai comprises satirical stories that explore socio-political issues in Singapore.

The Business of Writing: Becoming the Chief Spokesperson and Marketer

In pursuing a career as an author, Felix had to marry his art with the business competencies of sales and marketing. As an artist, he listened to his inner voice and drew from his experience as well as observations. As a businessman, he had to create a public persona that could connect with potential readers.

“It’s kind of a schizophrenic split between my public self and my private self,” Felix said. “Increasingly, writers are expected to also market their work. You need to put up a public face – a public persona – using social media, for example. It’s all part of creating hype around your books.” 

For the Singapore Siu Dai series of books, Felix said he created a persona of himself being “slightly funny and satirical, sometimes even cynical, way of looking at things in Singapore.”

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Felix Cheong Toast Box Book Launch

In promoting the book, Felix worked with his publisher to devise a kopi-themed book launch event. Book launches are typically held at bookstores and libraries, but the setting for the Singapore Siu Dai was the Toast Box outlet that Felix had frequented to write the book. Felix and the publisher cut a deal with BreadTalk to use the store, so long as they guaranteed a minimum spend at the selected Toast Box outlet.

In some cases, Felix commissioned local musicians to turn his poems into music pieces. Some of these pieces were performed during book launches and used for publicity.

Thriving in the Book Publishing Business (For New and Aspiring Authors)

In a post-COVID environment, physical book launches are limited to virtual events. This means that writers need to find new ways to promote their book.

“The reading public is now a bit more disengaged,” Felix said. “Now everything’s over Zoom, you don’t really see the author in person. So, it gets harder and harder to promote books.”

He added: “Initially, I was quite enthusiastic about attending my fellow writers book launches. After a while, it became like more of the same. And then sometimes you can’t hear the audio. After a while, you become disengaged. So, it’s a different ballgame. You have to find different strategies now to market yourself.” 

For aspiring authors, Felix recommends that they study the market first and find out what others have published on their subject matter. Beyond that great idea, the questions to ask are:

1. What have others published that are similar?

2. Have you found your own niche, your unique selling point? 

3. How do you fit into the whole landscape?

“Writers need to be able to assert themselves into a niche so that there’s something unique about them that people will buy their book,” Felix said. 

He added that for new authors, they should take on the mantle of chief spokesperson. They need to get the message across that their book is out there: go and buy it.

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