Political books go pop

Books about the state of the nation and local political figures are not just winning prizes and critical acclaim, they are also the surprise new bestsellers.

They may not be light “airport” reads, but South African political books have become retail heavy-hitters. Some book stores even report consumer requests for books that haven’t been published, or even written yet—including “anything by Tokyo [Sexwale]”.
There is also huge interest in two new books about Jacob Zuma about to hit the shelves.

In a market where selling 5 000 or 6 000 copies of local non-fiction books is considered reasonable and anything more than 10 000 is “platinum”, several local authors have set sales highs in the last three years.

They include Mark Gevisser, whose biography Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred (Jonathan Ball, 2007) last week won the Alan Paton Prize; Andrew Feinstein, who wrote After The Party: A Personal and Political Journey inside the ANC (Jonathan Ball, 2007) and William Gumede, who led the presidential biographer pack with the 2005 publication of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC (Zebra Press). These books have all sold between 20 000 and 30 000 copies.

Lebogang Mohaule, deputy manager of Exclusive Books in Sandton City, says titles featuring prominent political figures and the ruling party are favourites.

“People are suddenly more interested in the political state of South Africa and with elections coming up people want to know more about the past and about their leaders.”

Mohaule says consumers have placed advance orders for hot new titles. “There is a high interest in the book on Jacob Zuma The moving finger writes— [by Moss Mashamaite]. The biography of Cyril Ramaphosa [Anthony Butler, Jacana 2007] has done well, especially among people who are also interested in business.”

Although publishers say political books have always done well in South Africa, they note a fresh peak of interest in the past five years. Jeremy Boraine, the publishing director at Jonathan Ball Publishers, says: “Given the political divisions among the ANC, people are looking for answers, people have a need to know what’s going on.”

Glenn Cowley, head of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, agrees. “South Africa is in a season of political doubt, so a good political analysis book will sell.”

Writers and publishers are hard at work trying to keep up with consumer demands. The latest offering comes from the former DA leader and seasoned opposition figure, Tony Leon. Leon’s self-penned political memoir, On the Contrary, was launched last month. Sunday Times journalist and author Fred Khumalo’s Mshini Wami, (Penguin) is also keenly awaited. Retail response to Feinstein’s After the Party has been so good, a revised edition is due early next year.

The fact that politics is making news headlines again has helped fuel the demand for books, says first-time author Paul Holden, whose debut book, The Arms Deal in your Pocket, will launch in September.

“South Africans have seen headlines and read articles about the arms deal, but they still don’t know much about the issue and what it means for the country,” says Holden, a researcher and historian.

Holden’s publishers at Jonathan Ball had printed 3 000 copies. After receiving orders for half this number from just one bookstore, they have increased the print run.

Boraine says: “The book is well timed for where things stand politically and we think it will do well.”

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