Culture Vulture

Writers should put a price to their own words

Author Amitav Ghosh.
Author Amitav Ghosh.THE BUSINESS TIMES PHOTO: FILE

Authors need to know the value of what they have created and not do appearances for free, unless it is for a cause they believe in

At the recent Singapore launch of his book, Flood Of Fire, the final book of The Ibis Trilogy, prominent Indian author Amitav Ghosh lauded the organisers India Se, a magazine, for making it a ticketed event.

At a time when online book sales are seriously impacting royalties authors get from their books, what struck me during the launch was his unflinching call to all writers to take a stronger stand for what he called their  "intellectual property".

Likening the life of a writer to that of a "small entrepreneur", his comments in response to a question from an audience  member addressed the many challenges writers face today.

Ghosh's words are a telling reminder to all authors to put a price to their own words and even if publicists insist, not to make appearances for free or distribute books like confetti when sales are far from promising.

It may seem easy for a writer of his stature to say these things.

However, the fact is that this is a hard truth.

Royalties are shrinking and publishing is facing the same kind of crisis that the music industry faced some years ago.

In response, the music industry went big on marketing appearances for artists. The publishing industry, though, has been slow in catching on to this.

Today, we are in a situation where even C-Grade Bollywood actors get more money for appearances than some really promising writers in India.

Which is why I was heartened to hear at a very public platform that Ghosh and some other writers refuse to go to literary festivals that do not pay an honorarium.

A writer friend, Trisha Das Dagur, recounted this incident in a recent conversation: "Khushwant Singh (the late Indian writer) once said to me before an interview - 'You will have to give me a token 5,000 rupees (S$106). It means nothing to me, but it is the principle of the thing.'"

The question here is not about the money alone. It is about the value being put on a writer's words. An actor is not supposed to act for free. A musician is not expected to perform for free.

An artist is not expected to part with his painting for free. Writing, though, falls in its own unique literary space.

Talk to any writer and many will recount such instances. They will have been asked to write for friends for free because they have "no budget" or make appearances for free because organisers again either cite "lack of budget" or promise the writer a "larger platform" for their books.

It is only when they are done with the whole free spin cycle that they realise after the distributor's cut on a book, the stage outing is not worth the effort. It makes a writer question why he settled on something that did not arrive with the promise of an honorarium.

Depending on the platform, the festival and the writer's own star quality, these honorariums can range anywhere from $300 to $6,000 or even more for an appearance. Payment varies, depending also if they are  making a solo appearance or if they are the keynote speaker or are part of a panel of writers.

The Singapore Writers Festival, which is ticketed, pays an honorarium to all its writers and moderators. However, this is not the norm at many other literary festivals around the world, which might offer only free stay for the duration of the festival. Writers are quite simply expected to go for free with the promise of that  illusive "larger platform".

I have pretty strong views on this and I am on the same page as Ghosh. Writers should not do appearances for free, unless it is for a cause they believe in.

As it is, with downloads, publishing is facing one of its biggest crises of its time. If a book is on the mainstream distribution cycle, the writer gets only about 15 per cent of the selling price of the book. This means that at the end of the six-month payment cycle, all a writer is looking at is a rather small cheque.

This also means that more than ever before, writers need to be creative in their responses for expected freebies.

It is a tricky situation, no doubt, and writers tend to feel the pressure as I did when I launched my debut novel, The Red Helmet, in October last year. I soon found myself in the unique literary bracket, which in distribution cycles is called The First Time Single Title Author.

Even during days of utter and absolute despair with my own book, when no distributor wanted to look at it, I was clear I would not give it to anyone for free. I had spent 23 years trying to find a voice to write it. I had taken a sabbatical from work to finish it and the entire process of writing took me nine months. The $25 I had priced the book was non-negotiable.

This was something I had picked up from best-selling Indian author Chetan Bhagat.

In 2013, I was invited to moderate the "paperback King of India's" session at Kalaa Utsavam, an annual festival that celebrates Indian arts, held at the Esplanade.

I briefly talked about my own book before we walked up on stage.

Bhagat widely divides the publishing community. His books have got very little critical acclaim, but are huge commercial successes and have been picked up by Bollywood for movies.

So, while critics continue to dislike him, given his own marketing credentials, he has created many of his hugely successful platforms for engagement.

He forewarned me of the many struggles ahead. Things are particularly tough with a first book. If the writer can turn that into a commercial success, he is viewed differently should he progress onto a second book. He told me how some things needed to be "non-negotiable", that no one sees any value in anything handed to them for free, including a book.

In this wired, inter-connected and fast-changing world, these are words to remember.

Instead of despairing, a writer needs to know the intrinsic value of what he has created and then learn to stand up for it. Each time a writer goes up on stage, he is sharing an intensely private part of his life.

When organisers trot out the "we have no budget" line, writers need to steel up and say: "We have no time."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2015, with the headline 'Writers should put a price to their own words'. Print Edition | Subscribe