In contrast to many overseas countries, the concept of online publishing, as opposed to print, has not been readily embraced in South Africa.
There are obvious reasons for this. Surfing the internet in South Africa can be costly plus it is estimated that only about 7% of the country’s population has internet access. Furthermore, as far as literary publishing is concerned, there still seems to be a general preference for printed books.
But even so, as far as local literary journals are concerned, online publishing has not been as neglected as one may think. In 1994, the third issue of Alan Finlay’s Bleksem went online as a showcase publication for one of the first internet start-ups in the country. Shortly after, Roy Blumenthal launched his Barefoot Press poetry website, which he followed up with an online version of Lionel Abraham’s Sesame. By about 2000, LitNet had been launched and Alan Finlay started donga, which ran to 12 issues. Today, apart from LitNet, there is sweet magazine (admittedly inactive), plus Botsotso and Chimurenga have websites that complement the print versions of the journals. And while not strictly a literary journal, Southern Rain Poetry showcases contemporary South African poetry.
Granted, three active online literary journals may not be impressive, but when you consider there are only about eight regular print literary journals in South Africa, these websites represent almost a quarter of the total local outlets.
Also, literary or cultural blogs have started up, such as those of Carapace, Goodenough Mashego, Roy Blumenthal, Richard Fox and Aryan Kaganof, plus, of course, the small publishers’ and writers’ network blogs of Centre for the Book.
So what are the advantages of online publishing as opposed to print?
· From a publisher’s standpoint, a main advantage of online publishing is that it eradicates the costs involved in printing, especially litho printing. Granted there are costs involved in a website (such as for domain registration and hosting) but in the long run, and especially if the site is updated on a regular basis, these could work out to be cheaper than going the printing route.
· Online publishing can also be a lot less time-consuming than print publishing; again this depends on how often the site is updated and how much work you wish to do on it.
· Proofreading and correcting errors on a website can be done as you go along: if you spot a mistake or wish to improve a phrase, you can simply go into the site and fix them up. Printing 800 copies of a book, however, is a different story. Once it’s printed, it’s too late to correct an error. Proofreading a book prior to print can be extremely time-consuming.
· A publisher also manages to cut out distribution costs. To obtain national (and overseas) distribution for printed books, a distributor would have to be employed and paid commission on sales. There are also administrative costs involved, such as invoicing and payment collections. There is also a matter of finding a suitable and affordable distributor.
· Bookstores can be fussy about what takes up their shelf space and when it comes to items such as literary journals, for example, larger bookstore chains tend to be reluctant to stock them. Online publishing cuts out the need for the bookstore middleman.
· Another advantage of online publishing is that it provides a far easier, quicker and cheaper exposure to international readers.
· You also tend to reach more readers than with print publications. Alan Finlay’s donga, for example, had 500 - 1 000 unique visitors a month.
· Depending on the type of software you use for your website, it is possible to draw statistics showing the geographical areas, including cities, where most of your visitors come from.
· Internet publishing also assists in bringing work to readers who ordinarily might not have easy access to large bookshops – such as people living in rural areas – or to those who may not be able to afford to buy printed books, such as learners, who would be able to access the internet for free at schools or universities.
Some disadvantages of online publishing are as follows:
· As said above, it is estimated that only 7% of South Africans have internet access, and even those probably do most of their surfing at work - when they should be working - and there is a limit to the amount of time you can spend online while the boss isn’t looking. Also, many companies monitor internet access. Therefore, if you were publishing, for example, an online literary journal aimed specifically at a wide local audience, this raises the question of many South Africans would have the means, time or money to read it.
· One of the main barriers to internet access in SA is cost, unlike in some other countries where you may have unlimited 24-hour access for a fixed monthly fee. It is this local cost factor that discourages home users from spending lengthy periods of time online in their leisure hours.
· If a website is taken offline, the material obviously disappears as well, so unless the user has printer or saved material from that site, they will obviously not be able to access it again. Once you have bought a printed book, however, it is yours to be read at any time you wish. However, some website owners do save the website to CD and then send it to archives or libraries. Locally, NELM is now seeking to archive material published online.
Another huge problem, particularly in South Africa, is a mindset against online publishing. For many people, being published on a website is regard as “not real publishing”. Most would prefer a printed book in their hands. I admit I am one of them, and I am happy that the geeks who, back in the mid-1990s, prophesised that print publishing was coming to an end, have been proved wrong.
But internationally, publications such as literary journals and genres such as poetry are battling to get support from bookstores, and there is a diminishing reading public interested in such material. Faced with these challenges, but presented with the opportunities of the internet, many overseas literary journals have shifted online.
In SA, of course, due mainly to cost issues, shifting online is not so simple a solution. However, this situation cannot continue forever.
© Gary Cummiskey, 2007