10 MIN READ
Except for a few, most Nepali authors are compelled to pursue writing on the side while they work other jobs to make ends meet. But why is it so difficult to earn a living through writing?
Buddhi Ram Chapain — more prolifically recognized by his pen name, Buddhisagar — shot to literary stardom when his debut novel Karnali Blues was published by Fine Print in 2010. In the twelve years his book has been published, it has managed to sell over 60,000 copies, a landmark figure in the world of Nepali fiction.
But before Karnali Blues became a critical and commercial success, Buddhisagar worked a day job as a journalist for Naya Patrika and Nagarik Daily. And while today Buddhisagar stands as a celebrated storyteller, he recounts struggles that he had faced while he was still drafting the book from a small rental unit in Ghattekulo, Kathmandu.
He shared, “I knew that journalism was not for me. A shy and introverted person like me does not make for a very good journalist. But what I did do was that I’d commit myself to writing a little bit of my story every morning and evening, despite how tired I’d be from work.”
Once the book came out and Buddhisagar could benefit from the royalty he had received from his publisher, he was able to take the leap of faith and decide that he wanted to forgo journalism and become a full-time writer. Since then Buddhisagar has come out with his second novel Firfire in 2016, and is due to launch his third one Eklo.
“Once Karnali Blues’ sales had sort of plateaued from its initial peak, I was able to estimate that I could make ends meet from the royalty that I could make as a writer. I was single back then, with not a lot of expenses, and besides the money I was making from work as a journalist was not a lot either. I knew I wouldn’t have been able to afford a luxurious lifestyle, but I was confident that I would be able to sustain the modest life I was already living,” he said.
But writers like Buddhisagar are a rare occurrence in the literary sphere here in Nepal. Most other writers are rarely able to devote all of their time to their craft simply because the money that comes out of it is not enough to sustain them. Rather than writing being a full-time gig, it seems that more often than not, it becomes a passion project that Nepali authors pursue on the side while they work other jobs to make ends meet.
Poet and writer Sarita Tiwari is one of those writers who has depended on a secondary source of income in order to supplement her passion for writing. Tiwari, whose book Prashnaharuko Karkhana was nominated for the Madan Puraskar in 2015, shared that she has always had to juggle other jobs in order to be able to put out her writings. Tiwari has worked as a teacher, advocate, and a newspaper columnist to support her career as a writer.
“I published my first book by myself, independently, with the money I had saved up working as a teacher at a school run by a fellow poet,” Tiwari said. “I hadn’t even thought of it from a commercial perspective. I had used my own money, and had mentioned my brother as the publisher. Most of the copies of my book, Buddha ra Lavaharu, ended up being distributed — rather than sold — to peers and colleagues.”
Tiwari shared that she had managed to publish around 750 copies of Buddha ra Lavaharu — an anthology of 33 poems, published in 2001 — a far cry from the 60,000 plus copies of Karnali Blues that Fine Print has managed to sell since 2010.
Tiwari is not the only writer for whom their writings have proved to be costly. Prawin Adhikari, author of The Vanishing Act, shares that it has been difficult to convert his passion for writing fiction into a commercially viable job. Adhikari, whose collection of short stories was published through Indian publishing house Rupa Publications, shared in jest, “It’s been eight years since Rupa published my book, and I think I still owe them some few hundred rupees from the 30,000 advance that they’d paid me.”
But why is it that it is so difficult for Nepali authors to earn a solid living solely through their writing?
Ajit Baral, co-founder of Fine Print Books, a Nepali publishing house, shared, “Had you asked me if it’d be possible to make it as a writer back in 2015 or 2016, I would’ve said yes. But now the answer is no.” Baral explained that Fine Print experienced its hay day then, printing up to 20,000 to 30,000 for some first copies of books. Ever since then, the entirety of the Nepali literature market seems to have witnessed a dip in audiences.
Baral attributes a few factors for this peak and dip in Nepali readership. Most notably, he mentions that the Nepali literary landscape – in terms of genre and quality – has not grown as much as it should have. “Part of the reason why books like Subin Bhattarai’s Summer Love managed to do so well commercially is because genres like teen-romance had previously been untouched by Nepali writers,” he said.
A lack of variety in books is only part of the problem though. Baral points out that another issue is the inherent quality of novels themself. Till date, Fine Print has produced over 170 books from more than 60 writers. After all this, Baral mentioned that he is happy with the aesthetic and printing quality of books that Fine Print has managed to maintain, but admits that there is still plenty of work to be done to scout better writers, have a better editorial culture, and develop a readership that seeks more well-written content.
Achieving Baral’s dreams is easier said than done. For writers to produce good content, they also need to put in the extra hours necessary to actually hone their craft. “Buddhisagar is Buddhisagar not because he is able to sell more books than the rest of us, but rather because he is more diligent of a writer, constantly improving his craft,” shared Tiwari.
However, writers in turn are not able to put in the extra hours not because they do not want to, but rather because they cannot afford too. Creating a sort of an ouroboros where writers are not paid well because they cannot write well, and they cannot write well because they are not paid well.
While there is no fixed royalty percentage that writers make in Nepal, the general consensus between writers and publishers seems to be that it is not very different from how writers are paid in the global market. In some instances, perhaps even more.
Adhikari shared that Rupa Publications had agreed to a 8 percent royalty for 3,000 copies of his collection of short stories. Tiwari was paid 15 percent by Shangri-La books, a Nepali publication, for her anthology of poems, Prashnaharuko Karkhana. She also mentioned that word on the street is that some fiction writers get paid up to 20 percent royalty.
Buddhisagar reveals that publications also tend to have different individual agreements with different writers. He mentioned that globally writers are given a 15 percent royalty rate, but plenty of new writers still start off at 10 percent. “We have it better here. Here the relations between publishers and writers isn’t simply business, but also involves personal friendships as well. Publishers have been more considerate to us full-time writers who have taken the leap of faith into the world of writing,” he said.
Yet, despite having better royalty rates than the rest of the world, writers still make considerably less because the market for their books is limited owing to the small readership the country has. Baral shared that writers need to curate a steady backlist of good books in order to actually be viable in the market; simply writing one good book will not make the cut.
Moreover, both Baral and Buddhisagar believe that regardless of how good a book written in Nepali is, there is a certain ceiling to its success because of the language in which it is written.
Stories written in English on the other hand have the possibility of reaching a much larger audience. Publishers in Nepal seem to have begun to realize this, and have started to invest more in producing translations of their existing works and then selling the rights to their books to publishers outside of the country. A notable example would be Fine Print working with Penguin India, to produce Michael Hutt’s translation of Buddhisagar’s Karnali Blues.
Read also: The task of the translator
And what about original English work produced by Nepali writers? Well, it appears that just because there are more who can read those stories, does not mean that it is read as often. Adhikari shared that while Indian publishers like Rupa and Penguin have published English stories written by Nepalis, it is not because there is a big demand for these stories, but rather because there were a handful of international editors who were willing to work with Nepali writers.
“Most Nepali written English work, mine included, only got the chance to get published because there were a few editors that wanted to work with us. Most Nepali work out there exists solely because of the same few editors,” he said
And even with Nepal's own English reading demographic, it seems that Nepali writers are not very popular. Baral shared that while English books sell a lot in Nepal, it is primarily books written by western authors, with Nepali authors taking up only a fraction of a fraction of sales.
When asked why such is the case, Baral shared, “Perhaps it is that Nepali readers who read in English don’t trust Nepali writers as much as they trust foreign writers. Aside from a few writers like Manjushree Thapa and Samrat Upadhyaya, others who have been published internationally have not enjoyed the commercial success that they should have. What we need is to find someone who writes in English and is able to perform well internationally, and not just in the domestic market.”
As for the future, Baral admitted that he is hopeful that more and more people will start to not just write in English, but to write better stories in English. “We [Fine Print] are pinning our hopes and focusing more on putting out English books that aren’t just translations in the days to come,” said Baral.
For now, Nepali writers, regardless of what language they choose to write in, have a slow journey to mainstream commercial success.
Writers like Buddhisagar admit that a writer’s journey is not one of luxury, but they continue to have faith in their craft and their desire to tell stories. “It is not the sight of someone reading my book that I enjoy; it is the lengthy process of creating a story that I enjoy the most. It is what keeps me writing,” he said.
In a piece of exposition he had written, for the Iowa City Public Library and the International Writing Program in 2019, Buddhisagar himself questions, “Can you really live off of writing?” to which he answers, “I don't know whether you can live off of writing or not. But one thing is certain: if I don't write, I won't survive.”
Sajeet M. Rajbhandari Sajeet is a Media Studies undergraduate and is currently reporting for The Record.
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