“Authors are not a special case, deserving of more sympathy than many other groups. We are a particular case of a general degradation of the quality of life, and we are not going to stop pointing it out, because we speak for many other groups as well.”

— Philip Pullman in 'The Guardian', nearly four years ago.

Ever since the writer of the best-selling Dark Materials books became the president of the Society of Authors nine years ago, Philip Pullman has been fighting for the right of the authors to be paid “properly”. He would go on to lead campaigns to force publishers – and even the government – to pay authors for electronic versions of their work that were used by public lending libraries, and ask publishers to increase payments to authors. Pullman and other writers quoted reports from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) that revealed how median earnings for professionals plummeted 42 per cent between 2005 and 2018.

Writers claiming they have not been paid their dues by their publishers is clearly not a new phenomenon, therefore. There is no equivalent of the ALCS in India that can reveal such data. Nor is there any public disclosure of financial information by publishers. Individual author-publisher contracts have been rare in the non-English languages. And even if they exist, it is often difficult for authors to insist on their terms being met.

The writer’s allegations

In early March, 2022, the controversy blew up in India when the acclaimed, award-winning Hindi writer Vinod Kumar Shukla went public with accusations of being treated unfairly and being paid a pittance by his publishers Vani Prakashan and Rajkamal. That was when an edited video featuring Shukla went public on Twitter.

In the clip, the author said he had no clue that he was being “cheated” by his publishers on royalties. His most popular books have been published by Vani Prakashan and Rajkamal Prakashan. Shukla alleged that contracts were drawn up in legalese and were one-sided, favouring the publishers – a fact that he understood much later in life. He said that these contracts ensured that the books remained with the publisher permanently. He also accused his publishers of not informing him that they had published e-books of his works, – referring to a conversation with writer-actor Manav Kaul on the subject.

The video came on the heels of an Instagram post by Kaul.

After a meeting with the writer, Kaul had posted: “In the last one year, he got only ₹6,000 for three books published by Vani Prakashan. And only ₹8,000 from Rajkamal Publications, for the whole year… this is approximately the same amount. Meaning, the greatest writer in the country is earning only ₹14,000 a year. The publishers do not respond to correspondence for months. Vani has been informed in writing not to print his books, but there has been no action.”

Shukla’s son Shashwat Kumar Shukla told PTI, “He feels like his trust was broken and that’s what he has said in the video that was put out by a local station.”

The publishers’ responses

What do the publishers concerned have to say? Ashok Maheshwari, managing director, Rajkamal Prakashan said, “In his most recent letter to us, Vinod-ji has expressed his desire to take back his books from us. Neither has he blamed us for anything nor has he given any reason for asking for the books back.” As for the specific accusations, he said, “If he thinks that is what happened then he should prove it. If not, he should take it back in the same way that he said it to the media.”

Not that taking rights back from a publisher is either illegal or rare. But, according to Ashok Maheshwari, procedures must be followed. “This can be done only by communicating directly,” he said. “Media trials are not the way.

Arun Maheshwari, chairman and managing director of the Vani Prakashan Group said Shukla’s accusation came as a shock, since he has been publishing the writer since 1996. He said all contracts are transparent.

“We feel that respectful dialogue is the only way forward in a situation like this,” said Arun Maheshwari. “We have been submitting all our royalty and sales figures to Shukla-ji for 26 years now. He has been accepting the royalties and all information has been in his purview.”

He also said Vani Prakashan hasn’t sold any of Shukla’s books as e-books, and therefore have no record of such revenues. Rajkamal, on the other hand, acknowledged publishing Kindle and e-book versions of some of Shukla’s works. “This information was conveyed to him in 2017, before the e-book was published,” said Ashok Maheshwari. “The royalty for the e-books too goes to him every year.” says Maheshwari of Rajkamal.

Soon after Shukla’s video hit the internet, Vani Prakashan put out some figures about its publication of Shukla’s books through a press release dated March 10, 2022. Among the points listed was this:

“The first edition (hard cover) of Shukla’s Deewar Mein ek Khidki Rehti thi was published in 1997 at ₹125, and the paperback edition came out in 2000, priced at ₹ 50. Hard cover and paperback editions were published at the same price until 2010. This was followed by a hard cover edition at ₹250 and paperback at ₹125. From 2018, the hard cover editions were published at ₹395 while the paperback ones went for ₹195. There is a 15 per cent royalty on the hard cover edition and 10 per cent on the paperback.”

In other words, the author’s royalty for this title would have amounted, before 2010, to Rs 22.75 per hardback copy sold, and Rs 5 per paperback, rising as the cover price was increased thereafter. But without information on how many copies were sold, the total royalties due cannot really be calculated.

Towards a resolution

An important question, of course, is why Shukla did not speak up earlier. Did neither he nor his son question the royalty statements over the years? Would it have helped if he had an agent representing him? What has been his experiences with the publishers – whether it was NBT, Westland/Eka (now closed down) or HarperCollins – who have produced English translations of his works? When his book Naukar ki Kameez was made into a film by Mani Kaul, did he get paid for the adaptation? How have his new publishers like Ektara treated him?

The questions were routed to Shukla through his son Shashwat. However, the only reply that came over a week later was: “Abhi uttar dena sambhav nahi ho pa raha hai. Hum kshama chahte hain. (It will not be possible to answer your queries now. We apologise.”)

Ashok Maheshwari of Rajkamal said his attempts to meet Shukla and sort things out have not succeeded yet. “In early March, we had informed Sashwat-ji about our interest in meeting Shukla-ji near the end of March,” he said. “We were to reach Raipur on March 23 for this meeting. On the 18th when we spoke with him, Shuklaji refused to meet us. Now we have decided we will compile the statement of accounts of his books and visit him in April if he agrees to meet us. We feel it is not right to accept a unilateral decision without knowing the reason behind it.”

But how much have Shukla’s books sold in all these years? While none of his publishers has disclosed the figures, Ashok Maheshwari said, “We all know that the readership of popular books is more than that of good books. This can be seen in all languages. Good books are discussed a lot but often don’t end up selling as much.

Sales of Shukla’s books used to be low earlier, he said, although in the last 10-15 years a new segment of readers has emerged. In this age of online sales and social media, serious writers’ books are seeing a slow but steady rise in sales. “We are also working on redesigning books to appeal to the new generation,” Ashok Maheshwari. In the last quarter of 2020, we published 1,100 copies of a new edition of Naukar ki Kameez, and it was sold out by January this year, something quite unprecedented.”

In 2020, during the lockdown, his company had invited Shukla for a Facebook live session. The event received media attention and discussions about his books had begun. “The effect of this could be seen in the sales of his books in 2021,” said Ashok Maheshwari. Rajkamal also released two of Shukla’s other titles – Sab Kuch Hona Bacha Rahega (2014) and Kabhi ke Baad Abhi (2012) were released in paperback in an effort to boost sales.

Still, none of this resolves the questions that Shukla raised. And it won’t unless there is total transparency. Said NE Manoharan, publisher, Poorna Publications, who publishes Malayalam books, “To my knowledge, both Vani Prakashan and Rajkamal are firms with longstanding of great repute. It must be some misunderstanding that led to the rift.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere

No matter how the matter of Vinod Kumar Shukla is resolved – if at all – there is little doubt that he has pointed to a problem that runs across publishing in the various languages of India. As Shilpi Jha, a media academic, writer and a former television journalist who loves Shukla’s work, said, “His comments did create enough buzz on social as well as mainstream media. Ideally, it shouldn’t have died after splitting the writing-publishing community in two camps. It should have had some impact on changing the way these things are handled.”

She’s right. Take, for instance, Tamil publishing. Even twenty years ago, the idea of a formal contract spelling out terms with a publisher was not top of mind for authors – they were happy just seeing their work in print. Of course, star writers could negotiate on royalty and payments.

Kannan Sundaram, the owner of Kalachuvadu Publications has some interesting stories. “The lack of transparency with respect to copyright and royalty as well as a lack of efficiency in distribution has compelled many star writers to launch their own publishing houses within the last five years,” he said, listing names like those of S Ramakrishnan, Charu Niveditha (whose friends launched Zero Degree Publishing), Rajesh Kumar and Jayamohan (Vishnupuram Publishers).

The idea was to reach out to more readers, ensure that the books remain in print, and get their share of the proceeds. With the increase in events such as book fairs and book festivals in towns large and small – halted for two years by the pandemic but coming back to life again – reaching the reader is not seen as a problem any longer.

However, not every author could afford to get into publishing on their own. “Royalty is still a very contentious issue,” said Sundaram. “Some writers say they have not received money, while some publishers go on social media or television to say that they are doing public service and that they cannot afford to pay royalties.”

The acclaimed writer Perumal Murugan said, “Tamil publishing hasn’t completely transformed into a market-oriented format. Mostly, the writer-publisher relationship is friendship dependent.” He pointed out that most publishers still do not sign contracts with authors. All agreements are mostly verbal. “However, some publishers such as Kalachuvadu and Crea work on a signed agreement,” he added.

“Nobody has to call me to find out about their royalties,” said Sundaram. “They can get any information they want from our office. I don’t go to the writer saying your books don’t sell. The writers don’t like that. You just have to find some better way to sell books.”

The situation is different in a language like Konkani, where there is a lot more of self-publishing than in other languages. “Royalty is a naive concept in Konkani,” said the Sahitya Akademi award-winning children’s writer Anwesha Singbal. “Some do pay but that’s just a token most often. Writers don’t insist either. There are no contracts.”

However, she said, writer-publisher agreements, when they do exist, are mutually accepted, with hardly any rifts. “Regional language publishing is small,” said Dinesh Manerkar, who runs Sanjana, a publisher of Konkani books that represents 50 writers and has published 200 titles. “So having too many expectations about sales – and therefore, royalties – is not practical. But the regular rules apply. There should be clarity in the agreement between a publisher and an author.”

Shukla’s allegations about lack of transparency find a general echo elsewhere in the country. In Odia publishing, for instance, said Manas Ranjan Mahapatra, writer and former editor at NBT’s National Centre for Children’s Literature, “No publisher shows the sale statement or record to authors. In fact, new writers are asked to pay for the publication of book. Even senior writers like me are also asked to buy copies before publication of the book. I have paid a publisher two years ago, and the book is yet to be published.”

Do authors threaten to take back rights from their publisher if they are not satisfied? “Odia authors,” said Mahapatra, “feel publishers are doing them a favour by publishing their books. I have only heard of Prativa Ray and Bibhuti Patnaik taking back publishing rights of their books in the past in Odisha.”

One of the flourishing publishing sectors in the country is in the Bengali language. What have authors’ experiences been like?

According to Parimal Bhattacharya, who writes in both Bangla and English – all his 12 books in Bangla have been published by Ababhash Publishers, while the English ones have been published by Speaking Tiger and HarperCollins – most Kolkata-based Bengali publishers, and even the smaller English language publishers, are small-scale in every respect, with small overheads, low print runs, and low marketing budgets. There are often no editors to edit manuscripts, and advance royalty payments, too, are mostly unheard of.

“I have a very satisfactory relationship with Ababhash and it is based on mutual trust,” he said. “Interestingly, we never had a written agreement for any of my books. My publisher sends me a detailed sales report and pays royalties every year around June-July. He paid me royalties even during the difficult pandemic years. I consider myself fortunate in this and really have no idea if other Bengali writers are as fortunate as I am. From what I get to hear, probably not.”

Publishers are already under stress from many quarters, and don’t need another fire to douse – especially one started by those who create the very pillars that hold publishing companies up. And authors, many of whose livelihoods depend on their writing, have every right to feel cheated if their publishers are not transparent. In everyone’s interest, a systemic solution is crucial – most of all for readers.