Leon de Kock looks back on a recent colloquium held at Wits University which focused on the role of publishers in non-fiction.
In the past few years “creative non-fiction” has claimed a major portion of the market of published books in South Africa, challenging the dominance of fiction on the purchase of that most idealised of writing terms, “creative”.
Non-fiction also keeps the book market lively. Ask publisher Jonathan Ball and he will tell you that what is known in the trade as “Jock books”—ghost-written biographies of big contemporary sports starts—are the ones that make the most money, most quickly. They cross-subsidise the finer, less-Jock pursuits such as fiction and (very occasionally) poetry.
More recently, however, an increasing flow of more serious “creative non-fiction” has begun to make its mark on the South African book market. At its best this kind of writing is exemplified by the work of people like Jonny Steinberg, David Cohen and Mark Gevisser.
But the question that arose at a recent Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser) colloquium is whether publishers have a social and intellectual responsibility to “shape” this body of work, since it potentially opens up new ways of thinking about matters of general social and political importance.
Or are publishers called upon to do nothing more than sit back and see what the “market” yields for them?
The colloquium, titled the politics of publishing in South Africa, saw academic Deborah Posel posing the question of whether non-fiction publishers are “saturated” with the processes of power.
Or, as Wits’s Michael Titlestad, co-convener, said: what social and political “publics” do publishers pursue in publishing the books that they do?
Posel, speaking as one who acted as a judge for the Sunday Times Alan Paton non-fiction award for two years in succession, put the following challenging questions to publishers:
- How strategic is your publishing?
- Are you trying to open up new “readerships” and create spaces for new voices?
- Is it always best practice to publish new writers whose work has not been shown sufficient editing and revising care, or is it actually an injustice to them, forcing them into premature exposure before they are ready?
- Are publishers passively relying on the “market” to “land” manuscripts on their desks, or should publishers be leveraging the fact that they are “very powerful” in actually “producing the market” themselves?
- Are non-fiction publishers actually making use of their power? Are publishers missing out on more enabling, more imaginative interventions of what people are writing about?
Posel said that the non-fiction repertoire in South Africa showed many conspicuous gaps, in particular, books that re-engage with the political in ways that explore “unsettling complexities” and “complicities” in South African history.
Jeremy Boraine, publisher at Jonathan Ball, reacted sharply to Posel, saying that, as a publisher he hardly felt as if he was “saturated with power”.
In fact, Boraine said, booksellers and customers were the ones with “a lot of power”.
He suggested that Posel “get out a bit more” as there were, in fact, new kinds of political non-fiction in the market and “many new forms of publishing”, such as Posel had challenged publishers to engage in.
Boraine said, the level of editing care given to non-fiction was such that Jonathan Ball was often paying out more money to editors than it did to authors.
Editors’ fees in some cases were higher than production costs.
Posel’s sharp-witted reply to Boraine’s assertion that she, a well-regarded academic and director of Wiser, should “get out a bit more”, was instructive.
Not only was she more “out there” than Boraine perhaps realised, she also made the telling point that being saturated with power meant being subject to power as much as it meant exercising it.
Her point was well made, because in open discussion during this panel, a member of the audience had just raised the existence of self-imposed censorship in South African publishing as a menacing new spectre.
This individual, an editor and book-producer in the educational sphere, recounted how a major publisher had suppressed a Zapiro cartoon for fear that its presence in the book would prevent the volume’s uptake by educational authorities.
Others confirmed that a virulent new form of political correctness, upheld for fear of upsetting the educational commissars and bureaucrats, was unambiguously evident in South African publishing.
This disturbing addition to the debate took many of us by surprise and it ties in with another element in the publishing set-up: the exit of NGOs.
Now that significant NGO involvement in publishing has all but disappeared, publishers are at the mercy of a relentless and unforgiving market, where the bottom line effectively counts more than “wielding influence” or “contesting power” in ways that might be regarded as progressive.
I made the point, in the concluding session of the day-long colloquium, that universities themselves were not entirely innocent in this abandonment of publishers to market forces and effectively to a new form of self-regulation, in the interests of securing the market, amounting to censorship because universities were not taking up the slack left by the departure of the NGOs.
The time is opportune for universities to engage with publishers and support the industry, helping them “speak truth to power”, in a sense—by setting up opportunities for cross-engagement and by leveraging funding for mutual skilling and enrichment in the publishing sphere as a shared, vital intellectual resource.
An informal resolution emerged to look into ways of setting up a joint initiative, perhaps involving a research thrust within Wits University (Wiser and the School of Literature and Language Studies) in which publishers would be invited to collaborate.
Internships for publishing students might be set up with publishers, while the universities would help create the moulding, editing and conceptual skills that they so bemoan the lack of in commercial publishing.
In this way responsibility for “shaping” the publishing profile in creative non-fiction, a task that Posel challenged publishers to undertake, could be shared by the academics and researchers.
South African publishing is by no means in the doldrums, but more can be done to make it a stronger living system, an ecology of refined skill and enhanced excellence in which a much bigger community of readers, writers and scholars have a stake.
Leon de Kock is professor and head of the school of Literature and Language studies at the University of the Witwatersrand