What every critic should know

The debate about the state of book editing in South Africa seems to flare up every few years like a misdiagnosed fever.

Having been trained in the old-school Afrikaans sector of the publishing industry, where the publisher always remained firmly in the background, it seems inappropriate to assume the foreground to defend my beliefs and modus operandi as a South ­African publisher.

But in the past few years I have found that publishers seem to be increasingly at the receiving end when critics lament the poor quality of locally produced books. The misconceptions and palpable errors recently surfacing in the debate about editorial processes and publication decisions in South African publishing houses have made me realise that perhaps it is time to give at least one publisher’s view, in particular with regard to the recurring accusations of sloppy editing, of publishers merely chasing profit margins (to the detriment of poor, talented authors) and of book reviewers being overexposed to mediocre writing.

A brief background: Kwela Books specialises in local fiction.
We publish approximately 15 new titles a year, of which at least four or five are English novels and one or two Afrikaans. We receive at least 30 unsolicited manuscripts a month, our editorial team meets once every two weeks to discuss the slush pile and we sometimes spend four to five years on a novel before it is published. On average, we publish a mere 2% of manuscripts submitted to us annually.

Misinformed myth
I have remained silent on the Kgebetli Moele/Michael Titlestad debate on editing—many will remember Titlestad’s article in the Sunday Times in 2007, which to a large extent triggered a critical analysis of editing in South Africa. But I have come to realise that that particular debate about editorial processes has been transformed into third-hand, misinformed myth, without any of the facts at hand, and I raise this matter now as an example of the care we take with both first-time and established novelists.

In short, Moele redrafted his debut novel, Room 207, at least four times over several years, based on substantial (and costly) feedback from Kwela Books, before we offered to publish it. In other words, Moele worked for months, even years, on what finally became known as Room 207—a book that eventually received several local literary prizes and has since been translated into Italian and French.

The editing process required as much work as the redrafting, by both writer and editor. After James Woodhouse, then a freelance editor at Kwela, had finally completed the editing process (shortening the text painstakingly by more than a third), we brought the author to Cape Town, at Kwela’s cost, so that we could be assured face to face that Moele was easy with the changes made. After Woodhouse and Moele’s work was finished, I worked through the manu­script again and only then was it typeset and proofread by three readers. Sloppy editing? Au contraire—rather utmost respect for a very talented author’s singularly ­idiosyncratic style.

I find it puzzling that so little of the debate ever contemplates making a comparison of the original unsolicited manuscript with the final published product. Too intrusive editing could infringe on the moral right of the author—we all remember Raymond Carver —

Is there sufficient acknowledgement of the fact that many of our talented young authors are forced to write in their second language just to be heard and that that one also needs to allow for a broadening of scope and perspective in literature for it to blossom? (I have in mind here the Afrikaans concept of verruiming or ‘expansion”.) We have to acknowledge that our challenges are different from those in the United States or the United Kingdom and that sometimes a novel should live up to the meaning of its name—being novel.

Three different pairs of eyes
To argue that editing in the South African publishing industry is in a shambles is simply not true. The past is not always perfect. These days a lean editorial infrastructure actually encourages the collaboration of at least three different pairs of eyes on a debut novel, rather than one full-time editor to a text as in the past. Now we use a freelance editor, an in-house editor/publisher and at least one freelance proofreader, but more often two. And at Kwela, at least, we very seldom, if ever, publish a first draft.

There is a handful of editors worth their weight in gold in this country—committed text workers without whom our industry would have been a much bleaker space. Kwela regularly publishes local editions of international authors’ work and I am often taken aback by their gratitude for the editorial care that we take. I will give but one example: compare the factual errors in the original international edition of Mandela’s Way to the local edition of Op Pad met Mandela.

I fully encourage a vigorous debate on South African literature but surely one has to acknowledge the symbiotic processes at play within such a dynamic industry—editors, publishers, booksellers, reviewers? I don’t believe there is a culture of honouring creative intelligence in this ­country.

Percy Zvomuya asks where the new generation of worthy writers in South Africa is. My response—I am awaiting new manuscripts by at least three or four very talented young authors and they are unable to produce. Why? Because they are forced to live a life of an eight-to-five job, putting their writing careers on the back burner, as there is so little financial encouragement from the state. And yet our department of arts and culture hands over R3-million to a random youth festival without ­anyone raising an eyebrow.

Of course, we need to examine our publishing industry continually. But let us do so in an informed manner and not instinctively mistrust publishers’ pursuit of viable profit margins. Perhaps, too, one could investigate the growing number of rights deals with international publishers—that is, authors whose books are translated and republished internationally subsequent to publication in South Africa. And perhaps then we would be able to acknowledge that, if there is not sufficient generosity of spirit and sheer good judgment to celebrate locally produced books at home, at least there is abroad.

Nèlleke de Jager is the publisher at Kwela Books, an imprint of NB Publishers. She was selected as a Frankfurt fellow—a Frankfurt Book Fair programme aimed at younger publishers and agents—in 2008 and she was also sector chairperson of trade at the South African Publishers’ Association for two years

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