At a talk on the state of the South African literary scene earlier this year, Thabiso Mahlape, then a publisher with Jacana Media, alluded to feeling like a gatekeeper because “the publishing world is white and … I do feel like a bit of an askari sometimes”.
What Mahlape meant was that she feels like a gatekeeper rather than a rainmaker, because there are so many people she could have published but was unable to “because of the business side of things”.
With BlackBird Books, a Jacana imprint that seeks to publish black narratives primarily for a black audience, Mahlape hopes to go some way towards changing that. She gave the Mail & Guardian her perspective on the terrain the imprint will be operating in.
Selling fiction remains a challenge for publishing houses in this country. How will BlackBird help to crack that code?
The landscape needs to allow for new and exciting voices to come in. Traditionally, people have always associated black literature with the struggle. We’ve moved past the struggle narrative now. I just don’t think it has been communicated.
What we do as publishers, as the market shrinks and shrinks, we end up publishing a very literary selection because we think: “Oh my God, he writes so beautifully, so lyrically – this deserves to be published.”
But what we overlook is that sometimes people just want a book they can escape into. It really starts with the consumer, because the minute we as publishers can prove that these people can sell, then we can only publish more.
As Jacana you have hosted several events aimed at finding ways of reaching new audiences. What have these revealed that publishers need to be doing?
For traditional publishers, you only have one or two avenues available to you to reach consumers and we’ve got such a varied nation of people. Then we are not doing enough. We definitely need to deliver product to people in a way that they are used to consuming it.
Griffin Shea, a PhD student at [the University of the Witwatersrand], recently made a map of a network of informal book trading in the Johannesburg [city centre]. It ranges from salons to curtain shops – all these places that you would never imagine were selling books. I think what it tells you is that people are eager to buy, and those are the places that they walk into because they are not at Exclusive Books in Sandton City. But what that also means is that they get to consume only what the people there have.
But I think the media plays a role in why book sales have dropped so much. As the books pages in newspapers shrink, book sales have also shrunk. In Gauteng, we have three big radio stations for black people – Metro FM, Power FM and Kaya FM – and none of them has a book show.
So far you have published Stevel Marc’s The Refined Player: Sex, Lies and Dates and Nakhane Touré’s Piggy Boy’s Blues, and Panashe Chigumadzi’s Sweet Medicine is coming up. What are the factors when deciding to publish a work?
Publishing is very subjective work. If I get three manuscripts and the one’s first few pages reel me and push me in, that’s where I’m leaning towards. Which is why you can have a publisher pass on someone and another one take them on.
I like saying it’s got to hit me in the gut. But of course when it comes to nonfiction there is a bit of a formula, which involves [things like] how well known the person is and how topical the issue is.