By Zubeida Mustafa
A FACT which is not so widely known about Sweden is that it has the highest ratio of book titles published per thousand of the population in a year — nearly one title per thousand people. (West Germany, which is also a prolific publisher, produces one title per 1,500 people).
Although the Swedes are complaining that people no longer read as many books as before, the sales of books have been rising. You just have to visit a library in any Swedish city (there are 2,200 local public libraries all over the country) or a bookshop to see how popular books still are, especially with children.
How do writers fare in a society where 80 million copies of books are sold every year? What is quite clear is that Swedish writers are conscious of their rights and responsibilities and are prepared to struggle for them. Thus, in 1972 the Writers’ Union protested against low payments to writers and its members withdrew all their books from public libraries.
It was their awareness of being isolated from society which led a group of three Swedish Writers to set up the Writers’ Centre in Stockholm in 1967. Within a week, 200 writers — including the leading ones — had responded. Today the Forfattarcentrum (Swedish for Writers’ Centre) has a membership of 800, including two Turks, two Kurds and some Latin Americans. Any person who has written a book that has been published can become a member.
The aim of the centre when it was established was to help writers break out of their social isolation and bring them closer to society Today the centre is very active in providing its members contacts with the public which, on the one hand help them understand people and their problems, and on the other help create an awareness and appreciation in people of writers and their works.
Gun Qvarzell, a staff member at the centre, who is in charge of the programmes, told me about the activities the centre arranges. A poet might be invited to a school to recite his verses and explain his poetry to the children. A university might arrange a workshop in which some writers could be invited to participate. A writer might be a guest at a cultural week. Concerted campaigns by the Writers’ Centre have been instrumental in getting literary circles and libraries set up in hospitals, sanitoria and prisons.
Every day the centre receives at least four or five requests from various institutions for help in arranging a workshop or group discussion with a writer’s participation. Once a couple even telephoned asking the centre to arrange for a poem to be composed on the first birthday of their child. Their request was fulfilled!
The centre undertakes all kinds of projects which promote a happy relationship between the writers and the public. For instance, after office hours the centre’s telephone is fixed on taped poetry recitals by the poets themselves. Anyone can ring up to listen to these.
Gun Qvarzell feels that the centre has achieved its goal in that writers are today closer to society. Writers and poets have had the opportunity to explain their work to people who are ordinarily not in touch with them. This has created public interest in literature and sustained a dialogue between writers and the readers. But Gun is unhappy about what she calls barriers created by bureaucracy between writers and the public.
The Writers’ Centre, which now has four branches, has in its sixteen years of existence done much to improve the lot of the writers too. Thus, it has tried to give new writers a boost by introducing them to the public through its programme of contacts with schools, hospitals, libraries, bookshops, prisons and other institutions.
At its new premises on the island of Skeppsholmen overlooking the Saltsjon (Baltic), the Writers’ Centre has four furnished rooms with a kitchenette. At a very reasonable rate of SEK 600 a month a member can rent a room to work there. It is quite common in Sweden for writers to go into seclusion, away from their family and friends for a few weeks to finish their writing.
At the centre I met Elsa Steffen (aged 83 years) who has written six books. She was working on her seventh and had rented a room for a month to finish her work. She was in bed (obviously working) when I knocked the door at 4.30 in the afternoon. That was something unusual but then that is precisely the idea of moving into a separate apartment from your family — you don’t have to bother about routines and schedules and can get along with your work. Gun Qvarzell, who also edits a quarterly magazine on children’s literature, told me that writers in Sweden have been protesting against the high taxes they have to pay on their incomes. Although few writers can earn a living from their writings, Swedish authors are relatively well off compared with their counterparts in many other countries, mainly because of their trade union type efforts.
Swedish writers first organised themselves into a union called the Swedish Authors’ Association (Sveriges Forfattar-eforening) in 1893 on the initiative of Verner Von Heidenstam, who later won the Nobel Prize for his poetry. Thereafter the Swedish Union of Authors was set up. Through organised efforts the writers could improve their situation by persuading the government to take important measures.
Two of these I find quite interesting and with the exception of the Scandinavian region, I don’t know of any other country where the writers enjoy similar facilities. Under the terms of standard contract an author in Sweden is entitled to 16-2/3 per cent royalty on the retail price of his book. As soon as a manuscript has been accepted, the publisher must pay a guarantee equal to at least one-third of the royalty on the first edition. This advance is deducted from the payment that subsequently falls due. But it does not have to be repaid by the author, if his book does not sell.
Another fascinating feature of Sweden’s literary life is the Library Loan Compensation which was introduced in 1954. The concept underlying this scheme is that the government must compensate the author for books borrowed from public libraries. The government pays compensation at the rate of 37 ore (100 ore is equal to 1 SEK) per loan. Of this sum, 22 ore goes to the author whose book has been borrowed upto a miximum of 100,000 loans in the form of the “author’s coin”.
After the first stage, a writer, receives only 11 ore per borrowing. This sum progressively decreases with the number of loans. The part of the compensation not paid to the writer goes to the Swedish Author’s Fund. Administered by a board of 14 member (four appointed by the government and the remaining the nominees of the authors), the Fund seeks to create a system of security for writers. Thus 180 qualified authors, translators, and illustrators are guaranteed SEK 48,000 per year, irrespective of the number of loans of their books.
Younger writers are given longterm grants.^Awards, pensions and travel grants are given from the Fund. In 1983-84, the Library Loan Compensation amounted to SEK 40 million. Of this SEK 28 million was transferred to the Fund.
How much can a writer earn under this system? Gun Qvarzell disclosed that Sweden’s leading writer of children’s books, Astrid Lindgren, earned SEK 2 million jn 1983. That is a big amount even by Swedish standards but of course the taxes are heavy
Source: Dawn 6 June 1984