/ 18 November 2016

​Authors are (not) selling themselves

Author Percy Mabandu is one of the authors who say taking the self-publishing route has been a success because they have retained ownership of their material and sales have been better.
Author Percy Mabandu is one of the authors who say taking the self-publishing route has been a success because they have retained ownership of their material and sales have been better.

In South Africa, the Fallist-inspired approach of “decolonising everything” has to some extent polarised literature circles. Older writers, content to claim their place in the sun, argue that this discourse represents nothing new, whereas younger ones, in some cases directly involved in these movements, gun for complete overhaul. In the world of books, a mastery of a self-created publishing model can represent a move towards the latter step.

When author and cultural critic Percy Mabandu finally put out Yakhal’inkomo, his book on tenor saxophonist Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s ageless anthem and album of the same name, like the album itself, it felt like we had never been without it. The build-up to the release had been so gradual that the book itself began to feel quotidian.

He published 1 000 copies in the first edition and six months later another 2 000, of which less than 600 are now left.

When I reviewed it, I noted Mabandu’s rich, circuitous reasoning, but also the fact that his proofreader had let him down. There were typos in every chapter and the book’s presentation was functional rather than aesthetic.

But Mabandu pressed on to overcome these shortcomings, scheduling the second print run after noting the flaws of the first.

Also, when considering the book’s viability, Mabandu says he approached it as a “cultural worker” rather than as a writer.

“There were things I wanted to do around the book that I would not have been able to do contractually had I signed with a publisher,” he says. “The amount of marketing I did on my own was a lot more than would have happened through the system.”

In his quest for viability, Mabandu toured his book like an art band, exhibiting his drawings of bovine heads alongside band-accompanied readings at the Afrikan Freedom Station and Gallery Momo and doing live readings on radio, in addition to the usual run of talks that most local authors are limited to.

Only some of Mabandu’s initiatives were stylistic successes but, as he says, “the brand equity of the book, what it did for me, was just amazing. The costs of [mainstream] publishing would have been hectic against my royalties. The publishing industry found a way of locking people out.”

Mabandu believes the industry has to work much harder to develop audiences. “They are feeding at the trough, imposing an existing style of panels and talks.”

What’s clear in Mabandu’s case is that his measure of success is less about book sales than about the freedom that complete ownership of one’s material can bring and how that can be parlayed into other streams of income.

This has been the case for self-published author Mofenyi Malepe. His 283: The Bad Sex Bet, a smutty memoir written as a moralistic tale to his son, is on its way to becoming a television series after he sold nearly 10 000 books on his own. “Self-publishing is the way now because even bookstores are relaxing their rules. They realise that they are losing money by turning away lucrative books.”

After losing much of his income to petrol (Malepe says he clocked up 200 000km in two years of selling his book himself), he set up a distribution company, consisting of various sellers in major urban areas.

He is upfront that it was sex that sold his book, from the cover art to generous descriptions of it in the text. Social media was used to publish periodic extracts on Facebook and he had a marketing team.

Blackbird Books publisher Thabiso Mahlape says, although she lauds the self-publishing route, quality is usually the first thing to suffer because of the costs involved.

“I adore self-publishing because it is a new way to reach new audiences.

“You have to imagine that every black person that could walk into Exclusive Books already has, so what about those who would never walk in there?”

Besides setting up Blackbird Books, which has published the likes of Panashe Chigumadzi, Nakhane Touré and Stevel Marc, Mahlape has embarked on Evera Publishing, which helps people at various stages along the self-publishing route.

“I always tell people that you have to be able to sell books like Tupperware. You have never seen a Tupperware shop but it is in every household.”

Mahlape says, even with Blackbird, which is a subsidiary of Jacana Media, by simply matching the story to the audience, some of her older titles have started to bear fruit.

“Fiction titles sell about 600 to 800 in this country, but Chigumadzi’s Sweet Medicine is well on its way to 4 000 in its first year.”

With all her practical experience, Mahlape still believes there is no formula for breaking sales barriers.

“The decolonisation beast is so huge, it leaves a lot of room for many people to come in and do things differently. No one person gets to decide what the revolution looks like.”

With the relative success of her first novel, Chigumadzi is publishing a book of essays on land and hair with NB Publishers. She does not care for self-publishing, which she believes does not contradict her Fallist-aligned politics.

“Anything that has to do with the consumer is distribution, and I do not have the channels myself,” she says. “We do not own the means of production. The effort that it takes for me to ensure that every CNA has a copy, that means I’m not a writer anymore. I am selling from my boot and I am not interested in that.

“But if you’re a pastor and a motivational speaker then it makes sense to go that route because you access your people all the time. For writers of fiction, especially, it doesn’t make sense. And that is not to say publishers are doing a great job with selling books in this country.”

Chigumadzi laughs off the idea that she may be labelled a sell-out for publishing with the Afrikaner-owned NB Publishers, quipping that it is never individuals who dismantle systems.

A cocurator of the upcoming Abantu Book Festival, Chigumadzi says she has been taken aback by the apathy publishers have shown in getting their writers to feature in the festival, which she says is symptomatic of a wider lethargy in promoting authors and their work.

The fact that indigenous language books make up less than 1% of books published annually in South Africa is partly why Seriti sa Sechaba entered the fray. Its emphasis has not only been on carefully chosen subjects by well-known figures, its modus operandi, but also on prioritising indigenous language publishing.

Sindiwe Magona’s novel, Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle, will be translated into isiXhosa in 2018, with more to follow.

“We want to move on to republish classics that were there in the early part of the 20th century,” says publisher Christine Qunta. She is excited about an upcoming pictorial biography of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, which will include photographs by Peter Magubane and Alf Kumalo.

She is cautious about how she is testing her markets, explaining that “all small publishing houses struggle because the booksellers take between 45% to 50% of the retail price. Then the distributors, they take another 35%, so in the end, a publisher only gets around 25% to 30% of the retail price and they have to share that with the author.”

About a year and a half ago, just after the Franschhoek Literary Festival, Bookslive founder Ben Williams argued that the literary system in South Africa imposed an “ambiguity of dependence” on all in the chain. Once one is immersed in it, Williams said, “one can’t move in any direction unambiguously”.

While Chigumadzi is right in saying that systems need to be dismantled by organised formations, there is power in the catalysing potential of individual effort.