/ 10 January 2023

More black fiction writers need to be published in South Africa

James Findalay Books 5060 Dv
Take our word for it: Among Joburg’s most interesting secondhand bookshops are James Findlay Collectable Books and Antique Maps. Photos: Delwyn Verasamy

South Africa’s main fiction publishers need to actively work towards bringing more diverse representation into their lists. The cumulative publishing outputs of the country’s five main fiction publishers over the four years from 2018 to 2021 has mainly benefited white authors in a country where the majority of the population is black. 

Despite having published roughly the same number of fiction titles as Jacana Media and Pan Macmillan, Blackbird Books has been the exception to this rule, with a list made up exclusively of black, debut authors during this period.  

The strive towards parity by these three publishers is admirable but would have a greater effect if this was also the priority of the top two fiction publishers in South Africa, Penguin Random House South Africa (PRHSA) and NB Publishers. 

Blackbird, Jacana and Pan collectively published only 34 of the 112 books produced over this four-year period. The remainder of our total fiction output during this period was published by PRHSA and NB Publishers.  

That is how, despite the representative lists published by Jacana Media, Pan Macmillan, and Blackbird Books, white fiction authors made up 58% of all fiction outputs from 2018 to 2021, while black authors made up 31%, and people of colour (PoC) authors made up 11%. 

White women, the most represented sub-group of authors, published 34 books during this period while PoC men, the least represented, had only four books published during the same period. This is despite white South Africans making up only about 8% of the nation’s population in 2016, according to Stats SA’s 2016 Community survey

By 2019, the publishing industry seemed to be moving towards a more representative workforce than it had in 2010, when only seven of the industry’s 85 executives were black people. This is according to a 2010 Publisher’s Association of South Africa (Pasa) survey undertaken by Beth le Roux, Willem Struik and Margaret Labuschagne. 

By 2019, participants in the voluntary industry survey conducted by Pasa reported having 155 black editorial staff and 153 white editorial staff. The progress promised by these statistics is undercut by the fact that editorial staff do not necessarily control the editorial direction of the publishing companies they work for. 

This is all because of something known as publishing lists. Publishing lists determine how the company will spend its pecuniary and human resources to take advantage of a well-defined sub-segment of the book-buying market. 

Conventionally, these investments are dependent on the approval of executives. While editorial employees, such as commissioning and acquisitions editors, are responsible for creating and managing a company’s publishing lists, these lists need the approval of executives. By 2016, the last year during which Pasa collected data on the number and race of executives, only about 36% of all industry executives were black. 

This exclusion is compounded by the fact that fiction publishers, relative to other subsectors of the publishing industry, were the country’s leading importer of books by 2014. This, in addition to the overrepresentation of white authors, comprises a defensive economic strategy of the larger publishing houses, Penguin Random House South Africa and NB Publishers. 

They tend towards publishing books by authors who are white and established to mitigate their exposure to the volatility of a market, which is ultimately driven by impulse buying.  

White authors are seen as a safer bet for these publishers because South Africa’s white population is more likely to have a greater amount of disposable income available to them than their non-white counterparts. This is supported by the fact that, by 2016, black South Africans earned an average of 13 cents for every rand earned by their white counterparts; a figure that remained stable since 1996. This data was reported by Standard Bank in 2016. 

Although these companies may argue that they are merely responding to economic realities, the possible income availed through the ownership of an intellectual property product like a book is a potential tool with which the economic imbalances of our country could be rectified. 

This is among the list of changes that new black authors want to see across the industry; more black fiction writers getting published. The new black authors I spoke to also said that fiction publishing companies need to provide sensitisation training for their in-house and freelance editorial employees. 

The staff members should also be assigned to new projects on the basis of their positional proximity to the racial, linguistic, and cultural contexts from which new authors originate. The writers also suggest that non-white editorial staff at these fiction publishers should be given greater seniority in the parts of the organisations responsible for editorial development and list-building. The authors also believe that publishing companies need to commit greater financial and technical resources to the marketing of their books. 

One author, who did not want to be named, said they received barely enough support from the publishing company in marketing their debut novel. Seegers recalls: “Marketing was the biggest stumbling block, where I took this on largely by myself (both in terms of time, effort and money). The publisher did not present any ideas or suggestions on how to pitch the book or various ways to do so. I was largely left to my own devices to sell the book — the publicist was merely an admin clerk, who coordinated media interviews, but brought nothing else to the table.”

The authors, in making these requests, are invested in the financial well-being of South Africa’s fiction publishing industry. Despite both the debut authors and publisher-side respondents I interviewed agreeing that the cultural effect of the works produced by black debut authors (including Black and PoC debut authors) is, at least, “moderately more significant than most other books”, this group of authors represent only 28% of the fiction publishing industry’s outputs from 2018 to the end of May 2021. Overall, the industry published 31 debut authors in the same period it took to publish 81 established authors.

The interests of the debut authors and the publisher-sided respondents intersect with the desire to see this industry grow and prosper. Author respondents of this research project believe that publishing diverse voices could prove to be a source of domestic and global success for local publishers. In particular, authentic South African stories can fulfil what the authors perceive to be the growing global content demand for diverse stories. 

A thriving local fiction publishing industry and diverse representation are not mutually exclusive concepts. Getting there cannot be defined by a single column, research paper or voice. Publishers and new and marginalised writers need to keep speaking to each other to find a fairer way forward for the industry. 

But I am sceptical of publishers’ willingness to genuinely engage with diverse representation and social justice in ways that matter. That’s why I believe that regular monitoring of the industry’s diversity, equity and inclusion activities is an important tool in the hands of the public for holding our nation’s top fiction publishers accountable.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.