Scholarly writing a lonely road

If Leon de Kock compares the state of literary publishing in South Africa to a busy urban highway, then scholarly publishing (of books based on original research) is more like a lonely rural back road.

The publishers drive clapped-out bakkies that are kept going year after year through the loving attention of a few dedicated individuals. Occasional accidents do happen, quite spectacular ones, but there are seldom hovering helicopters overhead or onlookers stopping their cars to take in the scene.

Or maybe it only feels that way to those of us working in this sector. Somewhere, we know that there are busy transnational highways leading to exotic destinations, as the international exchange our authors engage in feeds into their writing in very important ways. And without exports to these same places, our bakkies would be replaced even more infrequently. But in the South African book and media scene, our activities hardly seem to register.

So how does our ‘square dance” compare to that of general publishers? There is much excellent writing, based on extensive knowledge production, happening in the academic sector. Of course, not all of it can be published. But unlike trade publishers, who seem to delight in talking about the tiny percentages of the ‘slush pile” they can take on, we are able to publish about 20% of manuscripts submitted owing to the high quality of scholarly work produced here. We’ve adjusted our print runs to the limited number of buyers, which we hope is far less than the number of actual readers in libraries, on courses and so on. And although some reviewing happens in academic journals, which are read only by specialists, I would argue that we should be developing a review culture in the popular media that takes cognisance of these scholarly publications.

Worldwide, the role of scholarly publishing has changed in the past 10 to 20 years. Gone are the days when it was sustainable to write and publish books only for one’s academic peers. In South Africa academic institutions are under great financial pressure because of the many legitimate claims on their resources. Their priority is, and has to be, the training of students, many of whom rely on financial aid. In a search for sustainability and a measure of independence, the four (or five, depending on one’s definition) remaining university presses have gradually broadened their readership. Aided by the publishing boom of the early 2000s, they have increasingly published books that are peer-reviewed, written by scholars and researchers, but that are also accessible to a non-academic audience.

In fact, as literary scholar David Attwell noted in a talk at last year’s London Book Fair, South African scholarly publishers produce catalogues that are very similar to those produced by general publishers in that they are colourful, attractive, and clearly aimed at a wide readership. Attwell says this is not simply a trick to catch out the unsuspecting non-academic reader (or bookseller): our publishing is different to that of many international academic presses, it is less narrow and more interdisciplinary, and it attempts to build a bridge between the academy and the general society reader.

This requires, at times, a great deal of editorial intervention and investment in design and packaging, resulting in fairly expensive books. The value added by publishers is not always understood and most of us do not take accusations of sloppy production lightly. All I know is that we appear to take more care over our publications than some of our international counterparts do, as they are working within a more defined, less fluid and risky environment.

In this context, it is relevant to ask who determines what an ‘academic” reader is and what a so-called ‘lay” reader is. Is this not largely an artificial distinction? The popular reception in recent years of quite complex political books, for example, would make one question it. These are presumably the same readers who buy the Mail & Guardian and who can be assumed to be knowledgeable, curious about the politics and culture of the society they live in and avid readers — they have to be if they want to get through the paper each weekend! They also represent a section of South Africa’s population that has the disposable income to buy books.

The example of the political book is apposite. Much scholarly publishing can and should inform contemporary public debate, in a country where this is sometimes sorely needed. (I will not elaborate here on an anti-intellectual sentiment that sometimes makes itself felt, even in unexpected places such as bookshops.)

Scholarly publishers, like their parent academic institutions, are often viewed as gatekeepers of access to knowledge. However, there is a very happy coincidence of economic and ideological aims in our sector’s attempts to bridge the academic/non-academic divide.

Much of what I have said here also applies to general non-fiction books. Book reviews tend to focus on literary texts. But according to a report on publishing trends commissioned by the Publishers’ Association of South Africa, the publication of adult non-fiction outstrips fiction by roughly two to one. And although there was a reduction in growth in both categories in 2007, representing perhaps the beginning of a slowdown of the publishing boom, the output of fiction decreased roughly twice as much (-47%) as that of non-fiction (-22%). In other words, non-fiction books are a staple of the local publishing industry and this welcome debate about the South African review culture should not be limited to fiction.

Even avid readers can’t read and keep abreast of everything that is published.

Careful assessment, the contextualisation, or what has gone into the text and the extrapolation of what it all means can contribute a great deal to public debate on relevant topics, especially if the reviewers are informed readers who are familiar with the book’s subject matter and with other publications in the area.

A good international example of an informed review model that facilitates public debate is The New York Review of Books, which is also a pleasure to read.

In South Africa the great success of author-discussion programmes run by bookshops, such as the Book Lounge and Boekehuis, and public institutions such as the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) point to the desire for increased public debate.

To give a concrete example: a book of ours that has not been reviewed, on the legacy of Thabo Mbeki, attracted an audience of 200 people to a discussion run by the CCR at the Centre for the Book. Does this not indicate a keen public interest in the topic? Is the seemingly safe route — to assume a lack of interest in specialist books — always the most appropriate one for review editors to take?

Nothing, not even a ‘knife job”, is more devastating for a writer than a complete lack of interest from the mainstream media in her work. Surely South African writers and researchers deserve the compliment of engaged attention by the ­country’s reviewers?

Veronica Klipp is the publisher of Wits University Press and chairs the academic sector of the Publishers’ Association of South Africa

For more about South African literature, click here.

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