Sri Lankan writers: how do publishers treat you?


Just how badly, not so badly, or well are Sri Lankan writers treated by publishers in Sri Lankan?

R of towards-a-utopia’s comment and its follow up prompted me to wonder how local publishers treat local writers. Fiction or non fiction writers without awards or connected patrons.

I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal stories that local book publishing (not printing) is a sort of a cottage industry. Authors are supposed to accept shabby treatment for the privilege of being printed as they are supposed to have a “day job”. The notion of a “professional” novelist is seen as an impossibility. Writing – at least the attitude I’ve noticed – is the preserve of cultured aristocrats or poverty stricken radicals.

There are sensible sounding explanations offered without supporting data. Its supposed to be a small market. Nobody reads these days (800000 who turned up at 2007 Colombo International Book Fair were there for the snacks). High printing are always rising and books don’t sell. I suppose like many things on this island, there’s usually a murky tale of convoluted details.

I’m curious to hear from writers of all 3 languages about their experiences. Perhaps this might get R to expand on his experiences. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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37 thoughts on “Sri Lankan writers: how do publishers treat you?

  1. I think it’s not too hard to get published in SL. If a proper publisher won’t do it, you can just pay ’em to. Many publishers will print your manuscript if you will cover the cost. Or you can publish it yourself. It’s such a small market that it really won’t matter. Even the better publishers here don’t have the muscle to create that edge over self-publishing. A determined writer can get his self-published book as much publicity and PR as the best local publisher.

    On the other hand, the better publishers (like mine, PH Books) offer advice and editing facilities that are invaluable. Whereas a plaace like Yapa’s is barely interested in reading the material.

    One main drawback in publishing locally, is that it is extremely difficult to get your work onto foreign bookshelves, or even sites like Amazon. On the plus side, even the most mediocre writer can get him/herself in print.

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    1. David, great advice! From my research it sounds like PH Books has been around the longest. I have also noticed that publishing in Sri Lanka may not get your book out there to the rest of the world but you could publish it in Sri Lanka and also sell your book on your blog (either by eBook or print-on-demand) and do the marketing yourself. if the publisher allows you to do that. Last year I met both Yapa and PH books at the Colombo International Book Fair and got the same vibes. I think for now, I am going to have my editor edit my book and send my manuscript off to a few of the publishers and see what happens.

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  2. David Blacker:Thank you for that insight. ๐Ÿ™‚

    So it seems that a small readership IS an issue. And editing that happens through first world publishers are rare. Seems that a bulk of the publishers operate on a hardware level – the physical paper the main concern.

    And I guess getting the books to Amazon must be quite a logistical nightmare.

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  3. I agree with David, yes indeed it’s very easy to get published here in Sri Lanka. But problems start for the writer when/if you expect to earn a few bucks from your book ๐Ÿ™‚ If I put it more precisely problem starts when/if you wish to become a full-time professional writer. I’m talking about Sinhala/Tamil non-fiction writers. (But I believe same applies to average fiction writers as well)

    The agreements between writers and publishes are very loosely formulated. Some publishers do make agreements in black and white, but most of the time it’s a verbal agreement ๐Ÿ™‚ Therefore, payments and royalties are the least discussed things in the process of publishing. I have published few things in Sinhala and in most occasions I had to make up my mind, not to expect anything financially in the near future, even when we had a formal contract. Books sell very slowly despite the carnival atmosphere you see at the annual book fair. Most of the publishing firms have close and healthy relationships with writers, and they treat writers well, but the actual problem is far beyond the control of a publisher :

    Market is very small so the maximum number of copies printed for an edition rarely goes higher than 2000-3000 – unless you’re one of the most popular writers in the country. Sometimes, publishers arrange well payed publishing projects where some percentage is payed in advance to support research etc, but such occasions are VERY rare.

    Most disturbing fact is sometimes publishers make a second (illegal release) without the knowledge of the author. Additional number of copies are printed and released secretly. This is a very common practice in Sri Lanka(Well known secret)

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    1. I thought of adding a comment for this old discussion. As per Mr. Anandhana’s disclosure publishers seemingly treat authors well for their (publishers’) own advantage. In reality, indirectly the author is swindled. The secret second release without the knowledge of the author is bad enough to explain this isn’t it.

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  4. I’m certainly not in par with David, but the think is, I’m talking about Sinhala books here. (Anymore info and I’ll ruin the anonymity of my blog..sorry.)

    It’s hard for non-fiction sinhala writers to get a publisher. So what most writers do is publish by themselves. Yes, print in a press and manually sell books to book shops. Thus the putting up with crappy service in inevitable.

    And as for the book fair, I totally agree with you. Most of the people just came for a walk in the BMICH. The only books that sell are the A’L books and love stories intended for teenage girls.

    Thanks for writing this btw, it made my day. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  5. And yes, Anandawardhana is right. There are many illegal releases as well. This happens usually to big authors. I heard that Dr. Rosa’s books on A’L physics were copied and distributed without his knowledge.

    There was another incident. A newly opened book shop in Maharagama took 50 books at once saying that they would distribute and sell via their connections. Kept calling for days, no answer. Finally found out that they had closed and ran away with the bounty. A lot authors had complained, but who has the time to fight crime, be an author, do a day job and live happily at the same time?

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  6. R My pleasure ๐Ÿ™‚ Happy my post was of benefit to you.

    Anandawardhana & RMany thanks for your lengthy comments – quite enlightening. Confirms some of the stories I have heard. Quite sad that the desperation for short term gain is preventing a culture of mutually beneficial relationships from developing to create a viable publishing economy. Seems like a familiar theme in Sri Lanka..

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  7. while reading this post I was wondering this…will Michael Ondaatje or Christopher Ondaatje or Shyam Selvadurai or Romesh Gunesekara all writers of Sri Lankan origin living abroad get the recognition they got if they have published in lanka? Would Micheal receive the booker prize and later see his novel made into an Oscar winning movie if he had done the same thing in lanka? I have my doubts… wht do you think?

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  8. Parthi: Good point. I wonder if Shyam Selvadurai would have been published period at all. Certainly no Oscar movie.

    I suppose Sri Lanka is way too far away for New York/London publishers.

    However would the Galle Literary festival be changing that? If SL writers can get published and sold in the first world while still in Sri Lanka, might the dynamics change?

    This is of course ignorant supposition though its hard to ignore the case of Arther C. Clarke.

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  9. Perhaps we can help!

    We are a small, print-on-demand publisher here in the US who works with authors worldwide and distributes to their customers worldwide…one book at a time or in batches of 100’s or 1000’s.

    We are a hands-on publisher. Every book is personally handled throuh the editing, cover design, layout, printing, binding and shipping process. And the author retains ALL rights and sets the retail and wholesale prices for their books.

    Each book is available for order through any bookstore in the US, UK and automatically listed with the online bookstores, big and small (like Amazon).

    If you’d like more information, feel free to check out our website. Or email us at profitspublishing@gmail.com with any questions you might have.

    I truly hope you will accept this (commercial) entry as it is intended…as an offer to help solve a problem! I don’t generally “toot my own horn” but sometimes, I am moved to speak up…especially if it looks like we can help!

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  10. If you write a book which may sell, you can publish that book via a book publisher. But it’s difficult to get your royalty from some publishers. By the way most Srilankan publishers print only 1000 copies per book.

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  11. It is easy to get published in SriLanka, provided the author pays. A new writer may often face problems in getting her or his work published in time.

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  12. Hi I agree to what most of you have mentioned. It’s relatively easy to publish a book and there are no scams in Lanka as in US or UK which could steal your work.

    But Vijitha Yapa and Gunasena are not bothered at all in publishing and their staff in the publishing dept are not interested and never return calls or reply emails. I have few times sent extracts of a book to both of them, just to find out their print lines are busy and they never got back to me. But as David has mentioned PH books is a nice place where you could get your job done with ease. One email another call you are there.

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    1. Yes I’ve heard that most of the “big” “publishers” are actually just printers interested in volume who don’t give much support to authors in areas such as editing etc. I guess its all about margins and profits. As you’ve said PH Books seems to be one of the few that seems to focus on quality. I wonder of that’s because they are aiming for a global/English speaking market rather than a local on…

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  13. I’ve sent a reply to your site earlier too. I would like to comment that what I have observed is that most of them are not cooperative. I fully agree with Ravindra, for that matter, not only the two publishers, he has mentioned, but most of the publishers in SL are the same, even if you pay for printing. However, PH books seems exceptional. Some consolation for us, the writers.

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  14. I would like to comment on this matter as a Author and a Publisher of my own. It is true if you write a book which may sell, you can publish that book via a book publisher. But itโ€™s all so a fact that you are unable to get your royalty on time from most of the publishers. By the way most Sri lankan publishers print only 1000 copies per book is what they say to author. And that is what they pay royalty for. I have given my books to a reputed publisher in Maradana few years back with a verbal agreement to print 1000 copies, whereas I found later that he has printed 3000 copies. But paid my royalty for only 1000 copies. I only found out this from the printing press of his by chance. be aware.

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  15. Blacker Ravindra and Srimathie who are waxing eloquent on Perera Hussein publishers should ask one of Sri Lanka’s most popular writers and TV personality, , A. Ferrey, about his experience with them. He has confided to friends that only a pittance on royalty was paid while thousands of copies were printed of his book the bestseller colpetty people. Finally Ferry is now publishing his own books and realising how much he has lost. Its not only in Maradana that it happens, as Indrajith says.

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    1. Thank you for your comment!

      Sounds like a sadly familiar story. I wonder if a particular printer can make “secret” print runs without telling either the publisher or the author. My understanding is that some “publishers” are just owners of printing plants who print without much literary considerations. The publishers who do all the editorial/literary stuff have to get the printing done through an external printing company who can easily run their own skimming operation. Is this the case or have a missed the boat as usual ๐Ÿ™‚ ?

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    2. This is Ameena Hussein from Perera Hussein Publishing House, I came across this comment and as it is in the public sphere I thought I should clarify the situation. I brought this comment to Ashok Ferrey’s attention and this is what he had to say:

      Dear Ameena,
      This is absolutely not true. I think this is the usual village gossip
      that Sri Lanka seems to specialise in- only now, the village gossip is
      on the internet. Please disregard,and please don’t let other people’s
      scurrilous gossip get in the way of our good relations. I know that
      there are many people who like to foster enmity between writers- it
      seems to give them a strange kick.
      All the very best, Ashok

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      1. Thank you for clarifying that ๐Ÿ™‚ I given the gloom of suspicion levelled at publishers, even the exceptions get painted that way.

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  16. Hi…I’m actually very very new to this whole idea of publishing books. I’m in the medical profession but I have ALWAYS ALWAYS had writing and music (classical piano) as an outlet for the gargantuan stress. Recently, I’ve had thoughts of writing children’s books. I really don’t know how the market for English children’s books is in Sri Lanka. I have no idea where to begin and I don’t know who PH publishers are. And no…please don’t say I’m ignorant for a 26-year-old.
    I would be especially grateful if there are writers over here who could actually coach me on the steps needed to put my creativity to action. Thank you!!!!
    mariejsummer@gmail.com

    *hugs* all around!!!!

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    1. First step is to go to all the bookshops and check out who is publishing children’s books in SL, particularly in English, and approaching each of them. I think you need some persistence to get any where.

      If you have something for them to read/look it would help a great deal – actually this should really be the first step! Do you have anything written down &/ illustrated?

      As mentioned above a lot of publishing seems to work by you paying for the printing! (Hence the dire standards of SL literature in English, generally) Of course, this may change if you become successful.

      Perera Hussein operate in a completely different way and I think they should be the first people you should approach. They recently had some success with a children’s book winning an award. http://www.ph-books.com/

      This is all from what I have read here and there, not through much experience. Good luck.

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  17. Jennifer: All the best with your efforts at finding a publisher ๐Ÿ™‚ Hope you are successful and I’d definitely like to hear the story ๐Ÿ™‚

    chamira: Thank you for the detailed info ๐Ÿ˜€ know how it is when pressed for time, I very much appreciate the fact the people take the time to post detailed comments!

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    1. Thank you Chamira! I will definitely have to look into this ๐Ÿ™‚

      And Cerno: The wishes are appreciated! The story of my life is long and drawn out so I am pretty sure that’s not what you want to hear…

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    1. Sorry for the late reply. Haven’t heard about those publishers myself. Might be better to contact some of the commenters to this post through their blogs.

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    1. Actually, after agreeing to do the right thing and sign a contract, this publisher now has stopped responding to my literary agent. I thought he was a nice guy and realized he was STEALING. Now we’ll have to get a lawyer in SRI LANKA and try to get him to stop. It will cost him more in the long wrong, but most sadly, it means that he is lacking in good character. I’m very disappointed. I hear that all my books are being published in three different markets without the rights: SRI LANKA; INDONESIA & in the ARAB world, although I have a very good Arab publisher in Lebanon. It’s very disappointing as I hae always so liked the people from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Arab world and to think there are so many book publishing thieves is VERY DISAPPOINTING! QUESTION: Is there a person in the government whom you recommend that my literary agent could contact? Seems the government would not want these thieves to give SRI LANKA a bad name… Any advice will be appreciated. Thank you all and good luck to you, too!

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  18. I fully agree with you Mr. A.Perera. I had to change my view about that company after I had some unpleasant experience with them.

    I would like to receive views/Ideas from you, the writers, about holding a mini exhibition of our books, provided we could meet with all pre- requisites

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