‘Explosion’ in black readership

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

Love Books in Melville, Johannesburg, on a recent Monday night, is filled with people listening to Panashe Chigumadzi read an extract from her latest book, These Bones Will Rise Again. It’s a semi autobiographical look at Zimbabwe’s liberation movements through the eyes of women.

It’s creative nonfiction, she says — one of many nonfiction books the bookstore will launch this month. The store does not look as if it deals solely in nonfiction — it has pink cut-outs decorating its storefront.

The South African Publications Network, which tracks book sales in the country, reports that nonfiction sells more copies than fiction. In the first six months of this year, 184 257 adult fiction books were sold compared with 988 264 adult nonfiction books.

One reason for this could be the political situation in South Africa.

“In the last decade, there has been a ton of political books criticising [former president Jacob] Zuma’s regime, absorbing reader spend that could have been spent on great South African novels,” says Mel Ferguson, author of Smacked, Hooked and Crashed and publisher of Jacana imprint MF Books Joburg, which deals in memoirs and hard-hitting nonfiction.

She says readers have confused political books, many of which she believes are more like long-form news articles, for good literature.

To illustrate her point, Ferguson refers to the success of author Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers: Those keeping Zuma in power and out of prison. To date, it has sold more than 145 000 copies, breaking a local book sale record.

A book needs to sell between 3 000 and 5 000 copies to be considered a bestseller locally. Ferguson estimates that, to break even on the cost of publishing a book, it needs to sell about 1 000 copies.

Although these figures may seem small for a country with a population of 55.91-million, Exclusive Books’s Ben Williams says the physical retail book market has remained stable. “It is currently neither particularly robust nor sickly.”

But, as the number of books published increases, even though the quantity of those being printed are decreasing, there has been a change in the book market. Several years ago, the traditional book market was “supported by middle-aged white women”, says Ferguson. But she has noticed an “explosion” in black readership because more books are dealing with content that contains black perspectives. “There is a huge hunger and demand; every month new books are being launched.”

Niche publisher Seriti sa Sechaba’s Christine Qunta says: “It’s often suggested that black people do not read. That’s not correct. The reason people don’t read is that the books that are published don’t reflect their lived experience.”

She began her publishing house because “mainstream publishers were not adequately publishing African authors or books that reflect African culture, history or lived experience. We want to publish impactful books that add value [to the public discourse] even if that means we only launch two books a year.”

One author who has shown that South Africans not only want a book that reflects lived experience but has also flipped the notion that “fiction doesn’t sell” on its head, as Ferguson says, is Dudu Busani-Dube.

She began writing her Hlomu trilogy in 2014. After publishing several chapters of Hlomu: The Wife online, her readers asked her to print the book. At the time, she had finished Zandile, the second book in the series, and so she decided to print hard copies. No bookstore was interested so she sold her first 50 copies from her car boot with the help of friends and family. Also, every second week, she had a pop-up kiosk from which she would sell her books.

“The more I did to make the books accessible, the more readers I got and so the hype just kept growing,” Busani-Dube says.

After a year of selling the books herself, including online, brick-and-mortar bookstores started to call her. Busani-Dube went on to sell more than 7 000 copies of the Hlomu trilogy (The Resolute being the third) and has since written a fourth book, Zulu Wedding, which Exclusive Books sells for R290.

She does not think she has turned publishing on its head but she says her greatest achievement was to get “people who weren’t readers at all to become avid readers”.

Even with the advent of online shopping, the bulk of books are bought at bookstores. SAPnet says, by value, 19% of books in South Africa are sold online, and Takealot has become the biggest retailer since it merged with Kalahari.com in February 2015.

Gemma Ritchie

Gemma Ritchie

Gemma Ritchie works in the Mail & Guardian's online department. She majored in English Literature at a small liberal arts college in the USA.  Read more from Gemma Ritchie

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