Felicia Low-Jimenez has worked in bookselling and publishing for over a decade. She is the Publisher at Difference Engine, an independent comics publisher in Singapore. She is also one half of the writing team behind the best-selling Sherlock Sam series of children’s books. She has her first published adult fantasy short story in Fish Eats Lion Redux.
1) What attracted you to get into books? First as a bookseller?
I will have to give full credit to my parents. They brought me to libraries and small family-owned second-hand book and comic store on the weekends when I was a child. It wasn’t just the act of reading that was special; it was the whole experience of going to a magical place where I could pick and choose books that was amazing. I think that led me to look for work in a bookstore and from there, I learnt a lot more about the different aspects of the book industry, which fascinated me.
2) You then set up your own publishing house – Difference Engine. Can you tell us what you publish? What was the inspiration behind the publishing company? Do you miss Bookselling?
Difference Engine is an independent publishing house based in Singapore. We are inspired by stories from Asia and are committed to publishing diverse, well-written, and beautifully illustrated comics of all genres, both print and digital. We would love to work with writers and illustrators, both new and experienced, to contribute to the growing Southeast Asian comics community. In addition to our main publishing line, Difference Engine also publishes DE Shorts, an imprint focused on self-contained stories on a wide range of social issues.
Difference Engine is part of Potato Productions, which started in 2005 as a media and publishing house. Since then, Potato has evolved into a portfolio of companies in industries ranging from digital content to education. Our founder and head, Lee Han Shih (Hans), is a huge comic book fan that had always wanted to start a comic book publishing company. He knew of me because of my work at Kinokuniya Bookstore and because, as a writer, my partner and I worked with some of his team members to run workshops for children.
I think I will always miss bookselling because of the sheer range of titles I was exposed to and the friends I made along the way. Plus, bookstores are magical places. However, I’d still like to think of myself as a bookseller now—it’s just the work that I do has changed somewhat. But in the end, I still work towards getting a story into a reader’s hands.
3) The graphic novel and manga scene is booming around the world right now. Why do you think this is?
For graphic novels (in the English language), I think social media changed a lot of things when it allowed creators who had stories that wouldn’t necessarily be a good fit for corporate superhero publishing to reach their audiences. And then publishers had no choice but to sit up and take notice because the readership for these independently created stories had a huge audience! If I’m not mistaken, it felt like the first real shift towards comics becoming more diverse and inclusive both in terms of content and creators started with stories like Lumberjanes (created by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Gus Allen, and Nate Stevenson). The creators and the comic had had a huge online following before they were traditionally published. These days, so many comic book creators get their start online first, and the traditionally publishing route comes later. The sheer depth and breadth of content available now in the comics naturally led to a rise in readership.
For manga, I think the very sharp rise in popularity came about because of the pandemic. While manga (and anime) have always been incredibly popular for people in Asia, it was parents (both in Asia and beyond) putting their kids in front of the TV (and the streaming services) during lockdown that led to so many more kids (and young adults and adults) becoming hooked on anime and then transitioning to reading manga. I had to read one of my favourite series in Mandarin when I was growing up because there weren’t any English translations, so I think the fact that manga is being translated into so many different languages now is amazing.
4) How do you manage your time as a publisher and as an author?
I get asked this question a lot, and I feel like I’m supposed to give an answer that displays how disciplined and organised I am, but to be honest, I really love what I do both as a publisher and as an author so I’m basically just working all the time. I tend to start my days early and end my days late because the mornings and nights are when it’s quiet and that’s when I get the most work done. And weekends are also usually half-filled with either catching up on work or set aside to immerse myself in something I’m writing. I am making a concerted effort to have days where I don’t feel the need to be productive though—I don’t feel it particularly healthy to never fully shut off from work or writing.
5) What is the publishing scene like in Singapore right now? Is it a thriving environment for independent publishers?
I think there’s definitely a lot more content being produced, and writers and illustrators have avenues to publish that they didn’t have just a few years ago. It’s quite exciting to see so many stories being created in Singapore and Southeast Asia. However, I think independent publishing still struggles because distribution outside of Singapore (even to the Southeast Asian region) is challenging for a variety of reasons. And that limits our market reach and size.
6) What are the biggest challenges you are facing in your career right now?
I think it’s finding enough time to do everything I want to do while still parking enough time to rest and spend time with my family and friends.
7) What are your future plans for Difference Engine?
While the pandemic years were incredibly challenging for a new publishing company, it also pushed us to diversify our skill set, and because of this, the DE team is equipped not just with traditional publishing skills, but also digital and tech knowledge as well. We learnt how to build interactive websites and develop short-form video games. Plus, we’ve brought on team members who specialise in conceptualising multimedia and interdisciplinary experiences and community building. While our core plans are rooted in publishing well-written and beautifully illustrated comics and graphic novels, we want to continue to experiment with the medium and pair it up with other forms of storytelling, and we want to take these experiences to audiences.
In 2024, we’ll be launching our first webcomic, titled Tiger Girls (written by me and illustrated by our in-house designer and illustrator Claire Low), and we’re also exploring how to use audio as part of our storytelling.
8) What has been your experience as a female setting up a publishing company in Singapore?
It was a bit frustrating in the beginning as most people thought that Difference Engine was a company I had set-up with my partner (who is well known as being a huge comic book geek and had worked in comics for many years), and would assume that he was part of the team running the business—he never was. Other than that, people would assume that my boss at Potato would be the final decision maker, and if I disagreed with something, they would say they’d go and talk to him. But to this day, Hans continues to give me a lot of freedom to make decisions and run the company the way I see fit—I really appreciate that support and the trust.
Beyond that, it’s been incredible. My team is inclusive and diverse, and we are trying to create spaces for stories that we feel need to be told by people who might not necessarily have the connections or means to tell them. It’s part of the reason why we conceptualised the DE Shorts imprint, and the first book we published under that imprint was A Drip. A Drop. A Deluge: A Period Tragicomedy by Andeasyand (Nurulhuda Izyan), which focuses on menstruating bodies.
9) What are you most proud of in your career so far? And what are you enjoying most right now?
I’ve spent almost all my career in the book industry, from being a fiction merchandiser in an international bookstore chain, to an author, and now a publisher, and I think I’m most proud of the fact I’ve been able to use my experiences to build a publishing company from scratch and continued to hold it all together during the pandemic years. I am keenly aware that I didn’t do this alone, though—Difference Engine would not be where it is if not for all my team members, past and present, and I am constantly learning from them every day.
I’m really enjoying the rise in popularity and awareness of comics and graphic novels (in English as well as in other languages) because it means that so many more stories will be created and read by audiences around the world!
10) Do you have any advice for women thinking of setting up a publishing company?
I think the best advice I can give to women who are planning to set up a publishing company is to know that you don’t have to do it alone, and you shouldn’t, because having a wide range of ideas and opinions are essential to any publishing house. I would encourage them to work with creators and build teams that share their vision, but at the same time, also challenge them to go beyond their comfort zones. Lastly, keep a lookout for publishing fellowships! I wish someone had told me this when I started Difference Engine. International fellowships are key to building a strong network of like-minded publishing professionals and friends who will help and guide you along the way.