Last weekend, the Sunday Times Literary Awards long-lists for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize and the Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction were announced.
What earned my ire and that of many writers, independent publishers and book distributors was when we saw one of the judges for the Alan Paton prize. We started wondering, what was the newspaper thinking when it selected Fortiscue Helepi, co-owner of African Flavour Books, as one of the judges?
Readers will be surprised by my about-turn on African Flavour Books. After all, a year or so ago I wrote about what wonderful work it was doing as an independent bookstore. I had referred people to the bookshop as the first port of call when needing literature from South Africa and the rest of the continent because it seemed to understand, unlike other bookstores, that a bookstore in an African country does not need to have a shelf for African literature. Indeed, for the last four years, African Flavour Books has been my selected bookseller when doing events, culminating in my book launch in March at their Braamfontein shop.
After my launch, I did not attend an event there again, but I did go there at least twice to purchase some books. On one of these occasions, I suggested that staff members may want to dedicate someone to their social media and email platforms. A common complaint I had heard from those I had referred to their bookstore was that their enquiries online were never responded to and, just as bad, messages on the phone would often go unanswered. That was but one complaint.
I also recall reading a piece by journalist Percy Zvomuya on the shoddy treatment he got as he was browsing through the Braamfontein bookstore. Although it was concerning that staff members of an independent bookstore would treat a prospective customer that way, I thought it more of an orange than a red flag. This was something that, perhaps with a chat to the management, could be avoided in the future. After all, the bookstore had somewhat become a sanctuary for book lovers in the short time it had been there.
The red flag was on its way. It came when there was a delay in payment of some books I had given for resale. I have no idea how many times I sent and re-sent invoices; they were just not responded to. I then passed through the shop and saw Helepi, who quickly informed me that the payment would be done that day. “We are so busy, my sister, so sorry. But I haven’t forgotten you,” he said.
When I got out of the Braamfontein shop that day with a small publisher who had also not been paid, we were unaware that we had essentially given this man and his bookshop stock for free. We were also unaware that the bookstore would be closing unceremoniously, leaving many people high and dry. It soon became clear that we were not the only two people who had lost stock. On social media, many self-published writers, distributors and small publishers bemoaned the income they lost because of the actions of Helepi.
What has been saddest about all this has been his inability to communicate with all those he owes money to and make some payment plan where possible. The business actions of this one man have caused much loss in an industry that does not have much profit for its practitioners.
I have no idea what criteria the Sunday Times awards team use to select their judges. It’s regrettable that one of the people they have judging the Alan Paton prize is someone who has caused so much damage to those in the book industry in South Africa in the past year. Should the newspaper choose to keep Helepi as one of their judges, in spite of his reputation as a man who shows little honour to the book industry, I can only hope that he gets enough remuneration so that he is able to pay some of those who have been most financially damaged by his actions.
As for me, all I can do is offer a public mea culpa for not having spoken up about his non-payment the moment it happened. Many in the book industry would have been saved from the financial loss that they are now trying to recover from.
l I tried to contact Helepi to get his comment, but he had not responded by the time of publication.