Local books boom

South African publishers will be out in force at the Cape Town Book Fair. But what are the challenges behind the covers of their final products?

Terry Morris looks at the fiction business

Fiction is a difficult but rewarding genre. Difficult because it is so hard to create a bestseller in a country with low literacy levels and a small reading market, the size of which equates with New Zealand and is probably in the region of one-million book-buyers across all genres.
Rewarding because when a book hits the top of the charts (and stays there), you know you have tapped into some kind of zeitgeist and word-of-mouth phenomenon.

And difficult, again, because local fiction is up against international titles, which get a great deal of coverage. Local fiction sales are about 13% of all local title sales, a large proportion of which are Afrikaans.

Although local publishing has blossomed in the past four to five years—both in quality and range—there are still problems within the entire chain. Local is often confined to the kiss-of-death place in a bookstore called ‘Africana”. There is not enough variety of fiction writers—for example the focus is on literary fiction and crime at the moment. We haven’t been able to crack the local chick-lit, women’s read market yet.

Essentially I think it’s a market redefining itself after decades of struggle literature that was so critical but did, in many cases, lead to books that have lost some of their relevance to new readers. When I say market I think it’s important to note the five major players responsible for creating this beast: writers, readers, booksellers, media (reviewers) and publishers.

I would argue that there are not enough young black novelists writing mass-market books that would appeal to a wider audience, thereby growing the reading market. Are the publishers to blame for this by not nurturing and mentoring?

There are not enough readers. Are we publishing the right books to hook them in by genre and quality of publishing?

And then publishers, about whom Goethe once remarked: ‘Publishers are the cohorts of the devil; there must be a special hell for them somewhere.” It is a difficult balance because we are driven by commercial reasons but are also responsible for creating a literary heritage in South Africa (that’s a rather large responsibility).

Sales of 1 500 are not uncommon for local fiction and publishers need to make the numbers work on these kinds of books. They print, hold stock and pay for publicity. This does not include overheads of sales staff and publishing staff who spend enormous amounts of time on local books (editing is considerably higher with newer authors).

We publish fiction for the existing book-buying market, which we understand, and we are starting to publish for a wider audience, which would include many more young black readers, with writers like Angela Makholwa, Niq Mhlongo, Kgebetli Moele, Zukiswa Wanner and Kopano Matlwa.

We publish the writers we think will appeal to the reading market and publish in English, which immediately defines the market even more rigidly.

On to our own practices at Pan Macmillan. We have a defined vision for our imprints. Picador Africa is literary fiction, cutting-edge quality African literature (Chris Abani, Moses Isegawa, Jo-Anne Richards, David Medalie, Mandla Langa and so on). This includes many of the Ravan Press classics, which form the core of the list.

We have the Macmillan imprint for more mass-market fiction that we hope will sell out of the new commercial fiction sections—Red Ink by Angela Makholwa, for example. This is an area we hope to expand.

Critical for us is that the decision to publish is not made by one publisher but by a group that meets to discuss the books. This panel is quite diverse, but not diverse enough to reflect South African society. This brings up issues of who is in the publishing industry—it is white dominated in the trade sector. We have also decided to publish far fewer novels a year but to publish the ones we do take on very well and with great care ­- there are two this year. This is not necessarily the money-spinning area of the business: in fact we break even and in some cases lose money on fiction.

Our editing costs are rather high because we believe in building authors and in some cases a book will have three stages of editing—structural edit, copy-edit and the proofread. We don’t want to be accused of publishing sub-standard, sloppy books. We match the authors carefully with the editors and in some cases our experienced authors act as editors. This we see as a mentorship process because it can be quite painful for an author to see the extent of the comments and criticisms from the editor.

Terry Morris is managing director of Pan Macmillan South Africa. This is an edited extract from her paper at the Wiser symposium on The Politics of Publishing in South Africa held last month

Veronica Klipp looks at academic and non-fiction publishing

Based on the latest Publishers’ Association of South Africa survey (2006), local trade non-fiction publishing has experienced overall healthy growth in the past three years. Its sales are substantially higher than fiction sales and although imported books still dominate the trade market, locally produced books are steadily gaining in market share over imported books: 42% against 58% in 2006, compared with 39% against 61% in 2004. In 2006 481 new fiction and 662 new non-fiction titles were published, an overall combined growth for the trade sector of 37% over the previous year.

Breaking this down into language groups, almost 56% were English titles, 40% Afrikaans and just less than 5% were in African languages. For publishing across all sectors, including educational and academic books, the language component is: English 72%, Afrikaans 19% and African languages 9%. Relatively speaking, Afrikaans trade publishing is, therefore, high compared with publishing in other sectors, while African language publishing is limited.

Fiction and non-fiction trade publishing in South Africa is probably becoming more sophisticated. Compared with 10 to 15 years ago, there is more support from bookshops — there was a time when a bookseller would tell you that locally published books don’t sell.

Wits University Press (WUP) comes to non-fiction publishing from a certain angle. It publishes both academic (or scholarly) books and non-fiction books. What differentiates these categories is our understanding of the audience we’re addressing. So while scholarly books transmit research and knowledge to specialists, we believe we also have a role to play in the transmission of knowledge to a wider, non-specialist audience. In other words, WUP operates within a broadly educational paradigm of knowledge production and dissemination, but also tries to build a bridge between research institutions and the ‘general reader”, who is educated but not a specialist or academic/researcher. We call these our non-fiction trade books, although non-fiction would traditionally also include cookery books or humour, for example, where the emphasis may be on entertainment.

How do you reach a wider audience? Publishers talk about making a text accessible and this assumes an important role for editors and designers in terms of working with the author to adapt texts, edit the language and add illustrations. Some academic authors have been quite surprised, or even alarmed, at how ‘pretty” their books have become. ‘We hope this is more than just a pretty book,” they say at launches. Packaging is obviously important in today’s visual world, and everybody judges a book by its cover (design, use of colour and so on).

For a lay audience, knowledge needs to be recontextualised, for example through the use of narrative. WUP recently published a book on climate change, where the author takes the scientific language of climate change modelling and embeds it in stories about people and ecosystems. It’s a method that appears to get important scientific information across to a lay readership successfully, hopefully without dumbing down content, while being engrossing enough to keep the pages turning.

Generally speaking, distribution is one of the biggest challenges facing the South African book market. Bookshops are mostly in affluent suburbs and focus on a predominantly white, middle-class market; few are accessible to an emerging book-buying public, which reads mainly newspapers. They are geographically concentrated in Gauteng (45%) followed by the Western Cape (25%) and KwaZulu-Natal (13%). ]

Another issue of concern is the business model of many bookshops. Traditionally, front list (or ‘new”) title sales accounted for only 20% of turnover, while so-called backlist made up 80% of sales. But across the world, bookshops are demanding new and untested titles with increasing regularity. Piles of these are prominently displayed for a month or two, before unsold copies are shipped back to the publishers, to be replaced with another batch. The cost of these returns is exclusively carried by the publishers. This business model has led to the failure of small independent bookshops and poses a huge threat to publishers that sell more slowly but over a longer period — in this model a serious non-fiction book cannot compete with the latest fiction devoured by book clubs.

The library market has also dwindled since the early 1990s. The president of the International Publishers’ Association (IPA), Ana Maria Cabanellas, stated at the 28th IPA congress in Geneva, that ‘reading, writing and getting books on to the public agenda must be a policy goal in itself, just like providing education and healthcare.” (IPA press release, May 21) It’s encouraging, therefore, that government, through the department of arts and culture, pledged large amounts of money towards developing the library sector again, a vital element in the growth of an emerging market and a reading culture.

But reports on lack of expenditure and delivery in provincial departments are alarming. Although some of these reports have been contested, it is clear that libraries have not been fulfilling their role since the early 1990s. They could, in particular, go a long way towards stimulating the trade book market in indigenous languages. 

South Africa has a growing and increasingly differentiated non-fiction book sector, but we have generally not succeeded in extending it beyond the traditional English and Afrikaans middle class markets. This is a crucial challenge we need to take up in future.

Veronica Klipp is publisher of Wits University Press. This is her paper from the Wiser symposium on The Politics of Publishing in South Africa held last month

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