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. 

On Authors, Agents, and Editors

courtesy of the lit hub

This post comes to you amidst a global pandemic. Many of us are working from home at the moment, staying safe indoors and away from crowded places. The book industry is working hard as always to bring respite and joy to the many safe at home in this trying time.

I’ve recently been asked my thoughts on getting repped by an agent. While explaining what an agent does, I had to go into the whole shebang of what the publishing business is about. As a fairly newbie children’s book author, I’ll admit that I’m still learning about the business. But what I’ve learnt, I’m very happy to share. You’ll see that at this moment, many in the writing community are sharing and helping gratis those who are emerging or aspiring writers. As I’m not super good at being on videos, especially when it’s unscripted, here are my thoughts written out. 

The Agent

An agent is someone who works for the author. Let’s assume the author is you. It’s not that you employ the agent, it’s more like you’re the agent’s client. An agent is the middleperson between you and the publishing house or publisher. To get repped, which is ‘represented’ in publishing parlance, an author needs to submit their manuscript (one at a time) with a query letter introducing yourself and the book. This is also called a query. But before you query, do check on specific agent websites what they’re looking for and how they want to be queried. Let’s just say that agents seem to hold a lot of power in the publishing industry, especially in America and the United Kingdom, and many will auto reject your manuscript if your query letter isn’t the way it’s suppose to be. There are a lot of resources on the net for those interested and you’ll likely find that one person may contradict another. You just need to know that there is sort of a formula when it comes to query letters cos even though they want you to be creative when pitching or when writing your pitch (gotta have hook and all), they don’t want you to be too creative, changing the order of the query letter format. Agents also want you to be be business-minded about your query, but not to bore them with overly business-like language. Finding a balance is key. Remember, agents read a lot of query letters a day cos being repped is one step closer to publishing if you work in America, so you’ll have to captivate the agent with your creative but formulaic query letter. Here’s one blog post that I like on how to write a query letter that shines

Once an agent likes your query (after you’ve jumped through many hoops to get their attention), they offer to rep you where you’ll then sign a contract, and that’s when you become the agent’s client. Hang on! Don’t get too excited for the mo’. Being repped is still a couple of steps from being published. But let’s go back to the agent. Once an agent takes you on as a client, and before they submit your work to the publishing houses on your behalf, they may ask you to make some editorial changes, polish up your manuscript, so that your final work looks great. Once your work goes to sub, which is submissions in publishing lingo, the agent negotiates the publishing contract with the publishing house on your behalf, always working out the best terms for you. Hang on another minute. It’s not cos the agent is so altruistic. The higher the price she gets for your manuscript on your behalf, the more money they’ll eventually get; it’s a win-win situation. The agent’s commission is 15% of any money that the author makes from the sale of their book, for as long as the book is in print. But there’s more. For foreign subsidiary rights, the agent may hire or generally work with sub-agents in the foreign countries they’re wanting to sell rights to. So there are agents in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, India, Italy, France, so on and so forth, who will be assisting your agent to sell your foreign rights to their countries’ publishing houses; if everything goes well, you may see your book/s in Korean, Arabic, Chinese, French, so on and so forth. So what happens when a foreign sale is done?  The agent takes an additional 5% from the author’s earnings of the foreign sale. So you’ll see why it’s not always an altruistic gesture on the agent’s part to negotiate the best deal for you; like I said, it’s a win-win. But an agent is also worth their weight in gold. Agents also help the author track advances and royalty payments. They help authors promote their books. So, if you see on Twitter Jenny Morgan, agent at Golden Ticket Literary tweet “so happy for @susanwong for her debut picture book EATING DUMPLINGS IN AFGHANISTAN”, it’s a promo on behalf of the client or author. As an author, you should have your own Twitter handle too but it’s not the most important handle to have, really. The best handle is to have a handle on writing the best book there is. 

The Publisher

These are, as the name suggests, people who publish books. They are sometimes known as houses because they are publishing houses and not just one person, although there have been publishing houses that start with one person and maybe their wife, like Bloomsbury Press, for example. There are about 5 known houses that most authors would like to be authors for. They are Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster—not in any order of importance. But these houses have many imprints. Here’s what wikipedia says about imprints.

An imprint of a publisher is a trade name under which it publishes a work. A single publishing company may have multiple imprints, often using the different names as brands to market works to various demographic consumer segments.

Wikipedia

Imprints basically allow publishers to create a brand image or identity around different types of books. So for example, Hachette Group may have an imprint that publishes cook books. Here’s someone I know with a cook book published by an imprint. My friend, Jean Hwang Carrant had her debut cook book, Cookie Love, with recipes on various cookies, published by Hardie Grant Publishing, which has an imprint–Hardie Grant Books–that publishes cook books and non-fiction books, with Hardie Grant Egmont, the imprint that publishes children’s books. Penguin Random House Group will have an imprint that publishes classics or books written by women. You get the idea. Take a look at this image, which I’d borrowed here, that lists all the imprints of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. [Please note that this could’ve changed since publishing houses are constantly merging and consolidating.]

So, my picture book, Sahara’s Special Senses, was published under Little Knight, the imprint of Armour Publishing that publishes only children’s books. As an author, all you need to know is that publishing is a business and a publishing house is like a big fashion house/ departmental store on several levels, and an imprint is like a department in the departmental store where you can find all sorts of socks in one department and all sorts of shoes in another. In other words, an imprint in a publishing house deals with one aspect of the whole business; children’s books is one aspect, with books in general being the whole business. For more on imprints, read here cos it’s just too complicated for me to explain it without complicating you either.

The Editor

Editors work for the publishing house. The Editor’s job is to read all the manuscripts that they receive either directly from the authors, or from agents on behalf of authors. So, an editor reads lots and lots of manuscripts. It’s alright if it’s a picture book, imagine a 60,000 + word novel x 10. Hence, editors need to like reading. Well, all this reading leads to perhaps one or two stories that the editor likes and wants to publish. They then make an offer of a contract. If you’re agented, then it’s the agent who negotiates your contract and gets the best deal for you, as explained above. If you’re unagented, you’re responsible for your own back and pocket.  As soon as the author signs the contract, the editor will work with the author to revise the work, even if the author has already revised the work with their agent. You get it, it’s just to make your writing better! If you’re a picture book author like me, the publisher will find an illustrator for you. Then, they will work with the house’s art director on managing and overseeing the artwork. As a picture book author, you’ll not be part of this process, unfortunately. You’ll just have to trust in the process and wait to see how the illustrator has magically transformed your words into pictures. More than this, the editor is responsible for introducing your book to the sales and marketing team at the house. They’re also responsible for the book jacket. Editors are often seen at book conferences or conventions, where they may talk to foreign publishers about the list of titles the house is publishing, including your book; they’ll also speak to librarians about your book and find as many networks of sales as possible, in order words, they will promote your book. Since the editor works for the house, you don’t have to pay the editor for doing all this.

However, if you decide to find a freelance editor before you query agents or the publishing editor, then you’ll have to fork out some money in order for an expert (who has worked in publishing before, or who has experience of editing for publishing) eye to go over your manuscript. You can look at this as an investment, since agents and editors do regularly reject poorly edited manuscripts. 

The Author

The author is the person who writes. In this equation, the author is the most important person because no author, no agent, no editor, no publisher, no book. Horror! The truth in the equation lies in the general treatment of authors. The word of mouth says that the author is the most important person in the publishing business, yet, the action often indicates the contrary. So mouthing something does not always result in action that is indicative of respect for the author. Now, as an author, I should be fearful of saying this cos all agents, editors, and publishers will protest vehemently and vociferously. I don’t blame them. It’s their business to defend themselves after all, and of course to publish books, so they can’t be seen disrespecting the people who keep them at their jobs anyway, can they? It’s good to know that the author:agent:editor equation is a relationship that is built over time and trust. Agents and publishers know how important authors are, of course. But, they work with many other authors other than you, so you’ll just have to be patient, keep your channels of communication open, and trust that something good will come out of your relationship with your agent and publisher. The business requires that you do.

Authoring is a tough business. It’s not a business you want to be in if you’re aiming to make a million bucks per annum. That’ll be banking or lawyering. Maybe, the best job is heiring. Alternatively, you can try impersonating J.K. Rowling. But this is still a dream and delusion for many. The reality is that humans have been scribing stories for the longest time and since the advent of the alphabet system, humans have been reading for a long time too. So, the business of the author is to write books that entertain, engage, educate, and enlighten the public. For this, you’ll need talent. That’s another story for another post. Failing that, you’ll need lessons. That’s when writing coaches become people you want to know. Nature or nurture aside, an author really should, hopefully, be able to do all this–write books that entertain, engage, educate, and enlighten the public–for a living. 

So, how does an author get paid? Authors are usually paid through an advance or through royalty. The former is a lump sum that you’re given when the contract is signed. This can either be the whole sum altogether or paid in tranches—50% on signing of contract and 50% on submission, for example. The advance is paid against future royalties. This just means that your book has to sell well over the amount you’d received as an advance before the subsequent royalties start to kick in. You can look at the advance as the projected earnings of your book—the publisher pays you in advance of what they think your book will make them within, say, 5 years. That leaves the royalty. The royalty, is a percentage of the author’s earning on each book. The standard is usually 10% based on either the net or cover price of the book. Whilst it’s great to get an advance, which is usually the norm, it’s also good to bear in mind that you may not see any royalties until your book has sold way above the advance. I’ve heard of authors telling me that they haven’t been paid royalties for their books for the past 2 or 3 years. So, for example, since The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs has been published, which was in March 2018, I haven’t been paid yet. And, I won’t be paid until next year. That means, by the time I’m paid, I’ve had waited at least 3 years since the book’s publication to be paid. Now, it’s also good to know that this is Singapore. The market works differently here. [Here’s an old article on how the Southeast Asian book markets work.] It’s also not as mature a market like those in the U.S. and U.K. For this, to get published in Singapore, you’ll not need an agent. However, you’ll still have to produce books of good quality. It may sound as if it’s easy to be published in Singapore, since there are not as many hoops to jump through like there are in America or Britain, but take note, it’s not.

The Market

A market is where you sell and buy goods. The book market is where you sell and buy books. The American and British book markets are the biggest markets for English books. Other English book markets are India, Canada (North America), Australia, and New Zealand. These countries are predominantly the markets for books written in English, with India also publishing books in various Indian languages. Singapore and Malaysia are secondary English-language book markets, both also publishing non-English books in languages like Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. They are relatively smaller English-language book markets compared to their western cousins, and behave a tad differently to their wealthier western relatives too. This has caused me as an author much grieve and annoyance, I’ll admit, though I’m grateful for this market for giving me the space to be published sans being repped. The market in Singapore does not require an author to be agented. An author can submit directly to the publisher. In addition, although a query letter is required, there isn’t this fuss around the query letter as there is in the United States. America just has their way of doing something and it’s their way or the highway. This is the reason why you’ll see so many resources available, and many for free, on how to write that query letter.

America makes a big deal of being agented. It’s how their market behaves. Agents are the gatekeepers to the books that American children and children in the rest of the world read and will read. Agents, as explained above, provide a bigger service to the publishing indusity than simply repping an author. Agents make sure that by the time the editor at the house gets a hold of your manuscript, it’s so shiny that they can see their faces reflected from it. But don’t despair if you’re not able to find an agent. There are other ways to get published if this is your purpose as a writer.

Publishing is a huge business with many people sharing the pie, in my view, often with the author taking the smallest slice. And, to be published by the 5 houses mentioned earlier, an agent is someone who can make you or break you. Of course, there are independent houses, like Armour who’d publish you too. These are also known as indie publishers. These exist in America too if being published in America is something you dream of; indie publishers also exist in the U.K., and for that matter, in other parts of the world that do not publish predominantly in English. It’s good to dream big but remember that there may be someone out there willing to pop your bubble, and they could see it as their jobs to. I’m not saying that agents are meanies, no! They’re in it for the business too, and they do know what the business is about. Unfortunately, in this commercialised and very subjective world of book publishing, an author simply cannot write what they want. But if you should choose to write what you want, an agent isn’t your answer. Your answer is self-publishing. But, that also means that you’re in charge of distributing your own books. This should bring me neatly to the distributor. But I’ve run out steam. I shall leave you on a cliff-hanger. What does a distributor do?

If you’d like a face-to-face chat about publishing your book, I’m available on Skype.