Writer Vinod Kumar Shukla’s allegations remind us of the author versus publisher battle no one wants
on Apr 25, 2022
"Authors are not an exception, deserving of greater empathy than many other groups." We are a specific example of a larger decline in the quality of life, and we will not cease pointing it out since we speak for many other groups."
— Philip Pullman, nearly four years ago, in 'The Guardian.'
Philip Pullman, author of the best-selling Dark Materials series, has been battling for the right of authors to be paid "fairly" since becoming president of the Society of Authors nine years ago.
He would eventually organize campaigns to push publishers – and even the government – to pay authors for electronic versions of their work used by public lending libraries, as well as to ask publishers to raise author compensation. Pullman and other authors cited figures from the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) showing a 42 percent drop in median wages for professionals from 2005 to 2018.
As a result, writers claiming that their publishers have not paid their dues is definitely not a new phenomenon. In India, there is no equivalent of the ALCS that can provide such information. Publishers also do not make financial information available to the public.
In non-English languages, individual author-publisher contracts are uncommon. Even if they exist, it might be difficult for writers to demand that their terms be followed.
The allegations provided by the author
In early March 2022, the scandal erupted in India when celebrated, award-winning Hindi writer Vinod Kumar Shukla accused his publishers Vani Prakashan and Rajkamal of treating him unfairly and paying him a pittance. That's when a spliced video of Shukla became viral on Twitter.
In the video, the author claims he had no idea his publishers were "cheating" him on royalties. Vani Prakashan and Rajkamal Prakashan have released his most popular works. Shukla claimed that contracts were written in legalese and were one-sided, favouring the publishers — something he didn't realise until much later in life. These arrangements, he argued, ensured that the books stayed with the publisher indefinitely. He also accused his publishers of failing to inform him that e-books of his works had been published, citing a conversation with writer-actor Manav Kaul on the matter.
Following Kaul's Instagram post, the footage was released.
"In the last one year, he got just 6,000 for three works published by Vani Prakashan," Kaul wrote after meeting with the writer. And only 8,000 rupees from Rajkamal Publications for the entire year... roughly the same amount. In other words, the country's best writer earns barely $14,000 per year. For months, the publishers do not react to correspondence. Vani has been warned not to print his books in writing, but no action has been taken."
"He feels like his trust was betrayed," Shukla's son Shashwat Kumar Shukla told PTI. "That's what he said in the video that was put out by a local station."
Responses from the publishers
What do the publishers have to say about it? "In his most recent letter to us, Vinod-ji has indicated his wish to take back his books from us," stated Ashok Maheshwari, managing director of Rajkamal Prakashan. He hasn't faulted us for anything, and he hasn't explained why he wants the books back." "If he believes that is what happened, then he should prove it," he added of the particular charges. If not, he should retract his statement in the same manner that he made it to the press."
Taking back rights from a publisher is neither unlawful nor uncommon. Procedures, however, must be followed, according to Ashok Maheshwari.
"The only way to do that is to communicate directly," he stated. "Trials in the media aren't the way to go."
Shukla's accusation surprised Arun Maheshwari, chairman and managing director of the Vani Prakashan Group, who had published the writer since 1996. He stated that all contracts are open and transparent.
"In a scenario like this, we believe respectful discourse is the only way forward," Arun Maheshwari said. "For the past 26 years, we've been providing all of our royalty and sales numbers to Shukla-ji. He has been taking royalties and has had complete control over all information."
Vani Prakashan, he added, hasn't sold any of Shukla's works as e-books and hence has no record of such earnings. On the other hand, Rajkamal admitted to publishing Kindle and e-book versions of Shukla's works. "This information was given to him in 2017," Ashok Maheshwari stated, "before the e-book was published." "Every year, the royalty for the e-books gets to him as well," adds Rajkamal's Maheshwari.
Vani Prakashan released some information concerning its publication of Shukla's books in a press release dated March 10, 2022, shortly after Shukla's video became viral. This was one of the points mentioned:
"Shukla's Deewar Mein ek Khidki Rehti thi was initially published in 1997 as a hardcover version for 125 rupees, and the paperback edition was released in 2000 for 50 rupees. Until 2010, both hardcover and paperback editions were sold for the same price. The book was then followed by a hardcover version priced at $250 and a paperback edition priced at 125. From 2018, hardcover copies were priced at 395 dollars, while paperback editions were priced at 195 dollars. The hardcover edition has a 15% royalty, whereas the paperback edition has a 10% royalty."
In other words, the author's royalty for this title would have been Rs 22.75 every hardback copy sold before 2010, and Rs 5 each paperback copy sold after 2010, rising when the cover price was increased. However, the total royalties required cannot be computed without knowing how many copies were sold.