Writing’s on the wall for parochial SA publishers

As a writer published in South Africa, I work in an insane industry.

Elsewhere, problems might arise because of the writers and their “feeling misunderstood” artsy attitudes. In South Africa, it’s because of a parochial publishing industry.

Twenty-seven years after Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, the South African publishing industry’s articles of faith still remain that middle-class white women are the biggest readers and buyers of books, and that nonfiction sells more than fiction.

Sadly the insistence to hold onto these beliefs, while not likely to kill the industry, is bleeding it in the same way that traditional churches that refused to transform became less popular than the newer, shinier prosperity gospel churches.

The only difference being that, in the transformation happening in literature, there is a depth that perhaps is not seen in grass-eating, petrol-imbibing churches.

Many years ago, I was visiting our family home built on land we don’t own in Orlando West Extension, for one of those “one of ours who’s made us proud” homecomings that many of us dream of. The reason for all the love stemmed from the fact that many people in the street had read my first novel and enjoyed it. Or they said they had enjoyed it.

Conversations ekoneni even went something like: “Vuyo’s mother’s home maZuki, is that …” and “Zooks mfethu, you put me in there, and my joint. That’s me, akere?”

It was music to my ears. And the glow continues 10 years later as I write this, although I would find out later that day that everyone on the street had read and circulated just one copy of my book.

Thando Mgqolozana calls it travelling books. One person buys it, reads it and says: “Tjo. Maar this book.” Then passes it on to another who passes it on to another and so forth.

So the first mistake that the publishing industry makes is to believe that only a certain demographic is not reading. Not buying books is not the same as not reading.

But even the book-buying dynamics have changed.

In my own family it began with one of my cousins asking me for some cash. “I don’t have any,” I answered. But why didn’t I since I had just had a book out? Well since she was sharing the one copy I bought for her with the whole street, where was I supposed to make money from?

Now she tells the neighbours to buy books and when I walk in the hood and am told about a book, it’s because someone wants to know how long I am at makhulu’s so that they can come and get their copy signed.

I think part of the disconnect between writers and white publishers has been very much ingrained in this fallacious belief that a certain demographic of people does not read.

And now that same demographic is not only reading but buying books. Publishers continue to fail their writers in not recognising this.

A book signing at Melrose Arch, unless aimed at a certain group of people, will not have the same book-selling impact as one done at Sakhumzi’s. Equally, one of the delicious bookselling lunch and wine events by Nonkululeko Magi’s Afrokulcha, always sells more books than a book club with coffee and croissants with some larney tannies in Killarney.

This attitude also goes for the way the publishing industry interacts with black bookstore owners. Last year, before the inaugural Abantu Book Festival, I got an email from a bookseller. Was it possible, bhuti Fort wanted to know, for me to get him copies of one of my books? I suggested that he get them from the publisher on a sale or return basis, as this would mean I would have less luggage to worry about.

The response was that he could not do that as cash flow was low in preparation for the festival. The publisher wanted them to pay for the books in advance. Now, sale or return is a common practice in the publishing industry and is the basis of operations with a certain local chain bookstore.

Here was white monopoly capital not wanting to extend the same deal to a black bookstore owner and, possibly by extension, trying to ensure the bookstore owner did not flourish so that the narrative of “blacks don’t read/buy books” could continue.

I went to a bookstore here in Nairobi and asked for some copies of the title, which the bookseller was reluctant to give me. “But Ahmed, what does it matter? You will still be making a sale?” He rolled his eyes at me and answered: “But Zuki, it’s almost holiday season. My clients will be coming to ask for this book and, if I don’t have a copy, they won’t be happy.” So we had a compromise. He gave me some and kept some, bless him, and I passed them onto African Flavour Books.

Abantu Book Festival ran for three days in December and in that time, 2 700 books were sold. That is almost an average of 1 000 books a day. I was pleasantly surprised when, on the second day, the bookseller asked me whether I had any of my titles. Everything they had with my name had sold out. Pleasantly surprised because I have been to pretty much all the major literary festivals in South Africa and have yet to sign more than five books at any one time.

This is not only my experience, but that of many writers and why it was so easy for many black writers to boycott certain literary festivals.

Not only were their cover charges designed to ensure that they excluded as many poor people as possible — and we all know what race poverty largely is in South Africa — but there also seemed to be an unwillingness to engage with the subject matter of the work by black writers as happened with our white counterparts.

A typical audience member would ask: “You said you self-identify as a feminist and that’s why you wrote this book with a strong female protagonist. I haven’t read the book but I wanted to know, what are your views on Zuma and his having so many wives?” Eh?

The seeming conclusion then is that, if indeed white women are the majority book buyers in South Africa, then white women do not really care to read and engage with anything written by black writers.

But back to Abantu last year. Contrary to firmly held mainstream publishing industry views, our bookshop did not sell more nonfiction than fiction either, although favourites such as Eusebius McKaiser and Pumla Dineo Gqola quickly ran out. Rather, of the 2 700 sold, 1600 of them were fiction. If, then, the industry is actually serious about marketing books, they may want to change the way they do things.

The only publishers who seem serious about changing are Pan Macmillan. Kudos to them. One would hope others would learn from them, but I am not holding my breath.

The insanity will continue. Traditional mainstream publishers may not die by refusing to adapt but they shall be comatose for a very long time. Mark this article as they lose some of their bigger-brand black names to independent publishers willing to market differently in the near future.

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author based in Kenya

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Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
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