The Responsibilities of an Author

In life, in business, and especially in publishing, it’s true that you’re only as good as your word.”  — John Quattrocchi

John Quattrocchi
President, Albert Whitman & Company

Every story should open with intrigue. I love openings that have a double entendre. 

This was the opening line in a public apology by AW&C to Joan He, who publicly shamed the indie publisher for reneging on their agreement. She felt it was her responsibility to put in a few words about the way her publisher had treated her. 

It’s good to speak up. When one speaks up, it opens up the floor to others who have been or are in the same situation. Look how the #metoo movement started and #BLM too. There’s also #publishingpaidme on Twitter that highlights the disparity of advances paid to white vs black authors. 

I have thought long and hard about writing this post for some time. 

Firstly, I needed the distance. 

Secondly, I needed to process what I have to say and to say it without sounding furious because I am so angry that it is ugly.

Thirdly, I also needed to make sure that I protect myself for what I am about to do: name and shame. 

In my short experience as a children’s book author, I have learnt so much about publishing and what it entails. I am grateful for the learning as always. I am also grateful for the opportunity to be published in this very subjective business. However, as grateful as I am, I am also burning with fury at the disrespect shown for my craft, the ignorance of some independent publishers about the global nature of the business, and not to mention the ingrained exploitation of folks, like me, in the creative sector. I speak only about Singapore, of course, because this has been my lived experience in publishing so far. 

My journey as a children’s book author started with this book. As you can see, it won an award, a rather prestigious one, at that, in the children’s book industry. I was darned proud as this was a recognition of the power of the story and its universal themes. What’s more, the story was set in Singapore but it was accessible to judges in America, which is a nod to the industry’s goal of publishing more diverse stories by diverse authors. 

And, what do you think the publisher, an independent, did?

I was asked, “What is the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award?”

I was told, “It is not the Singapore Literature Prize.” 

I was urged not to “harp” on my award because it is [allegedly] “controversial”. 

I don’t know what Moonbeam has to say about that allegation, and I won’t know until I tell them. I won’t because that’s not my raison d’être as a writer. 

I won’t say what I really thought about the Singapore Literature Prize, something I hadn’t heard of before living in Singapore. That is simply a reflection of my ignorance, of course, because it is rather a biggie in Singapore. 

Suffice it to say, the aforementioned publisher did very little to promote this award-winning book. But let’s start from the beginning, shall we? 

Open: A Boy’s Wayang Adventure was published sans contract. The first time I found out that the manuscript was published was when I was given a copy of the film edition of the book, which was shockingly unedited and still raw, at a press conference for the preview of The Wayang Kids, on which the book was adapted. Imagine my horror!

Well, like any person whose rights have been violated, I sought the assistance of a lawyer, who helped me with negotiating the terms of the contract, which the publisher was obliged to sign after weeks of fobbing me off. They felt harangued as I later learnt—there are only 3 degrees of separation in Singapore—and thought that I should not have involved a lawyer. Funny that they signed ASAP as soon as the lawyer called, won’t you say? 

This legal exercise cost me a little more than SGD$5,000, I’ll be transparent about it. Income from this book was in the region of less than SGD$1,500, of which SGD$700 I donated to a charity for the education of autistic children and adults. I bought at author’s discount at least 400 copies of the book, some to give away, and some to sell at author talks.

Open’s journey started with a caveat because this publisher based its working relationships on trust, as they told me. And here I was, thinking that a publishing relationship was based on a contract. How foolish of me. But one can’t blame this publisher because they had thought that a certain film producer, who submitted the manuscript to them on my behalf, was working in the capacity as my agent–the fobbing off was, according to the publisher, caused by a delay on the “agent’s” part. Nobody thought to ask me, the author. And, if you’re wondering, agents don’t quite exist in Singapore, unlike in America and the UK, Singapore is too immature a publishing market for agents to work in. I am in no way saying they won’t one day exist. But just not now. 

Since all the palaver, you will be glad to know, I have taken back the rights of this book. I am now free to submit it to other publishers who would have the eye to see the value of this story. Its universal themes, and a story that interweaves some historical information about the Chinese Opera, may pique the attention of a publisher in the USA or England. Who knows? Right now BIPOC and BAME hashtags are all the rage. Take this publisher for example. 

The success of Open opened more doors [pardon the pun]. This led to my debut picture book The Boy Who Talks In Bits and Bobs. I was literally approached by the publisher, another indie. They were seeking to expand on their trade books “based on good values” and thought I was a good person to write for them. After some discussion, I signed a contract for a book deal with a clause that gives this publisher “first right of refusal” on subsequent titles with a similar theme. 

The Boy was illustrated by Debasmita Dasgupta, who was paid a fee, and published in 2019. It has had raving reviews, was nominated for a Readers’ Choice Award in Singapore, and has sold at least SGD$400 royalty worth of the first print run, so the accounts statement tells me. I had to demand for this statement, BTW. But guess what? It’s 2020 and almost Christmas, AND I still haven’t been paid. 

Similarly, I am still waiting for the rest of my advance payment for the second book in the series, Sahara’s Special Senses, published right before the pandemic hit our shores. Remember the “first right of refusal” clause? Well, I kept to my side of the bargain. The contract says that I will be paid when the book is launched. Well, it was launched at the beginning of 2020. Looks like somebody has not kept to their side of the bargain. Meanwhile, publishers in India and America have shown interest in negotiating the rights for Sahara to be published in their respective countries. As equal collaborators of this picture book, Debasmita and I have approached our publisher [who shalt not be named] to work with these international publishers. And, you’ve got it—no response. 

I have written umpteenth emails gently reminding said publisher of payments due. The last one was sent on Friday the 13th, November. Thought I would flip this unlucky day to make me a small fortune. Here’s what my email said:

Dear All,

I hope you’re all well. Singapore is now the best place on earth in terms of living with the pandemic. Congratulations!

I trust that you’ve all had time to settle back into work.

I’m emailing again to remind Armour of the payments owed to me in terms of:

  1. second tranche of advance for Sahara’s Special Senses;
  2. royalties for The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs. 

I would appreciate it if you can acknowledge this email and make payments immediately. 

— 

Warmly,

Eva Wong Nava — Children’s Book Author”

Well, needless to say that people who live cowardly lives tend to keep mum for the shame of knowing that what they’re doing is simply not on. These are also the same kinds of people who have a ‘higher than thou’ attitude in terms of moral standards. 

I am beginning to sound angry now. So, I must stop. All rant and done, I need you to understand that the publishing industry does not function this way as a matter of conduct. For example, I was paid on time for this book, and since its publication, have had no issues with the way the marketing, promotion and distribution of the picture book has been handled. 

I felt respected and valued by this publisher who aims to look after the needs of their authors, as the managing editor told me. Alright, they are one of the big-5s. But it’s good to note that they are also a small company under the umbrella of the mothership, and have their own (slightly smaller) budgets to negotiate. 

Publishing is a human relations business. It behoves the house to treat their authors and creatives well. At the end of the day, they’re in business because of authors and illustrators who put energy into their craft so that book lovers can continue to enjoy quality literature. 

I have chosen to enter this very challenging and competitive profession because I want to make a difference; I want to write books that not only entertain but also educate. This was the same reason for my entering teaching. I won’t be didactic because that’s not my point. But I will open up conversations to improve the situation so that others that come after me have a better time of it. 

Authoring is a vocation like teaching. It is a pursuit of exchanging information and knowledge through words. As authors, we have the responsibility to look after our needs and those of our colleagues. We have the responsibility to speak up against injustice, not just within the publishing industry. Putting ourselves out there is placing ourselves in a vulnerable position. That’s a position that every author knows only too well. But, our greatest responsibility as authors is telling stories that are accessible and honest. 

I take courage from Philip Pullman who has always spoken up about the craft of writing and the unique responsibilities of authors. 

The first responsibility to talk about is a social and financial one: the sort of responsibility we share with many other citizens—the need to look after our families and those who depend on us.” 

Philiip Pullman, ‘Magic Carpets’ in Daemon Voices.