Friday, 09 November 2007

Independents give a voice to the voiceless

They are passionate about being able to make sure that strange,odd, misunderstood, peculiar, yet important, voices don't get overlooked

Since 1994, a number of independent publishing initiatives have started up in SA, often operating on small budgets but with immense dedication and energy from their founders. Technological advancements in digital publishing have also often helped them to produce quality books at lower cost, plus – as poet Karen Press pointed out in the literary journal New Coin - the feeling of freedom experienced after the first democratic elections also no doubt contributed to this burst of creativity.

Independent publishers are, however often referred to and regarded as small publishers, though this is a label several of them, for good reasons, dislike.

Vonani Bila, of Elim Hospital, Limpopo-based Timbila Poetry Project, says: “Independent, like the term ‘alternative’, should not suggest shoddy work. I go through all the necessary stages of publishing a quality book with the involvement of the author. I give voice to writers whose work wouldn’t necessarily be published by big, corporate and so-called mainstream and commercial publishers. These are the poets who are not afraid to challenge the rot they live or witness in society.”

This view is echoed by Goodenough Mashego, from Shatale, Mpumalanga. Mashego recently started up Ten Workers Media and sees an independent publisher as one “who is independent of the market forces that determine who should be published instead of who deserves to be published…They are independent because they can afford to think without pressure from greedy shareholders but are instead driven by their commitment to literary development.”

Robert Berold of Deep South in Grahamstown shares the same preference for literary quality over profit: “It’s like independent record labels – small, not corporate, doing the publishing mainly for art’s sake. It’s more flexible, more risk-taking, more anarchistic. The term ‘small publisher’ is okay, though it has a dimension of insignificance.”

Johannesburg-based Botsotso Publishing’s Allan Kolski Horwitz says “the term ‘independent’ connotes freedom from restraints, both ideological and commercial. We should reject the term small because it reflects on scale and, perhaps, ambition.”

An exception to the preference for “independent” is Cape Town’s Modjaji Books, recently launched by Colleen Higgs, who says: “I prefer the term ‘small’. It is a matter of small staff – myself – and few books.”

For Johannesburg’s Pineslopes Publications’ Aryan Kaganof, however, the labels are unimportant: “I’m concerned with publishing books that I believe in.”

Over and over the above the commitment that these publishers have about the work that they produce, there are also clear views about their role, which sometimes has a wider socioeconomic and politically context as opposed to a more limited literary context.

Bila says: “We must publish books that matter…We must not promote mediocrity, the stuff that is ceaselessly churned out by commercial publishers chasing cash, topical stories and often exploiting vulnerability.
“We also need to promote writing and publishing in all South African languages, and give voice to excluded black, rural and women writers, as well as those writers and poets who says things that annoy those that wield power – be it government or business.”

Mashego also takes a strong stance of giving a voice to the voiceless: “SA has got lots of stories that need to be told. They are hidden between the uncombed beards of street vagrants and the dreadlocks of Rastafarians…Our role as independent publishers is to go out into the villages, streets and prisons and unearth those stories that the mainstream finds too unattractive because the storytellers are unattractive members of our society.”

Berold and Higgs take a somewhat cooler view of an independent publisher’s role, which is “to print work that has real literary value but little market potential because the writer is unknown or the work to challenging, either politically or intellectually,” says Berold. “In a cultural desert like SA, independent publishers have a huge role.”

For Higgs it is a matter of “taking risks - publishing good work by writers who may not as yet have the recognition they deserve. It is also about publishing genres – such as poetry or drama – that the mainstream publishers may not want to tackle. To be at the cutting edge, seeking out new talent, creating more space for new voices”.

Kaganof, however, is cynical about the role of independent publishers: “It is to allow us to pretend there is an audience for anything outside of the mainstream.”

Considering that independent publishers are playing a marginal role in an overwhelmingly commercialised book market, it is not surprising that they sometimes view commercial publishers with ambivalence.

“Independent publishers don’t have a huge voice in shaping SA’s publishing direction,” says Bila. “It is the big publishers who are represented in book-related councils set up by the state. Their participation through the Publishing Association of SA, or as individual big publishers, gives them more access to government opportunities, especially to supply schools.”

To Mashego, “the situation is simple: book fairs, like the Cape Town one, are meant for commercial publishers have no space for independent publishers. Book retailers are not kind to independent publishers because we can’t provide them with the same benefits and perks that commercial publishers can. The attitude should be that the literary world created by commercial publishers is not the ultimate one…we have the right to create our own. We are entitled to our own book fair without the commercial publishers, we are entitled to our own awards where we don’t compete with writers whose publishers have the ability to befriend the judges. We need to establish our own distribution and marketing networks.”

Kaganof views the work of commercial and independent publishers are different: “I don’t think they are concerned with us and I certainly don’t think we should be concerned with them.”

Berold says he “doesn’t mind” commercial publishers “though it would be nice if they could acknowledge the importance of independent publishers”.

For Higgs there is no conflict: “I don’t see us as incompatible. They are working in different parts of the same field. They are also doing important work and they do it professionally. We can learn much from engaging with them and taking advice.”

Thus for independent publishers it is not simply a matter of publishing books – that is, being focused on making a profit – but rather of playing an active role in contributing to the ongoing development of South African writing and introducing that writing to local readers.

As Bila says: “We make quality books. We are germinating ground for some of SA’s successful poets. Few big publishers run literary journals. It is often the independents who are prepared to create outlets for new and established authors. Independents also run writing workshops.”

Mashego highlights that independent publishers “are addressing pertinent issues that need to be voiced. I think the contribution of independent publishers must be weighed against our own democracy that requires plurality of opinions. We have own mainstream writers who are praise singing and telling us about the intelligence of people in authority. We need a balanced picture… those that tell the other picture, the less rosy picture, are the independents.”

“The work of the most lasting significance is published by the small publishers,” says Kaganof, and Berold points out that almost every new poet’s first book is published by an independent. “Fiction is a bit different, though, there seems to be a commercial market,” he adds.

Independents can also play a role in niche publishing. “It can make sure that strange, odd, misunderstood, peculiar, yet important, voices don’t get overlooked,” says Higgs.

But from a financial point of view, as well as in wider aspects of recognition, independent publishers face substantial challenges. Many independents, such as Botsotso, Deep South and Timbila, are reliant on public funding from bodies such as the National Arts Council or the Arts and Culture Trust.

“Financial constraints are always the bane of producing art,” says Horwitz, “and dependence on public funding is not always a guarantee of quality or of intellectual vitality. Public funding can also cushion mediocrity and crudeness.”

Berold stresses the need for more diversity of public funding, while Bila says the government needs to take independent publishers seriously: “We constitute the core of authentic South African publishing. Unlike the multinational publishers, we are committed to what we produce, even though we do it in small quantities and with limited resources. The government must buy books from us, as they do with big publishers, and get those books into public spaces such as schools and libraries.”

Apart from finances, however, another problem is reader apathy, says Mashego, and Horwitz points out that “the laziness of writers to support the literary journals that support them is peculiar but actually quite reflective of the egoism that much art making generates”.

Media recognition, of lack thereof, is an issue for many independent publishers. While Berold feels Deep South does receive some attention in the media, it is “a little, not enough”. Bila says that most newspapers do not value book reviews and as a result “little is known about new South African writing”.

Mashego is more direct: “The media are gunning for free review copies and champagne at book launches while very few or any of them can write a review. Especially black journalists - very few of them can write a review. The black media is obsessed with gossip journalism to that extent that book reviewing is not their forte.”

Despite all the obstacles, though, independent publishers in SA remain committed to their work and, most importantly, believe in what they are doing.

“You can publish what you like,” Higgs says, “what you are passionate about, what moves you, what interests you. You don’t have to publish things that are politically correct or you feel compelled to by external market forces.”

For Kaganof a key benefit to authors involves “not having to deal with useless people who ‘staff’ the larger publishers”, while for Horwitz a benefit resides in the freedom to select, design and market in a manner which is “consistent with one’s world view and values”.

Bila likewise values the freedom from being guided by the dictates of a commercial market, and Berold says a key benefit is being accountable to nobody but his authors and his instincts.

“ I can do as I please,” says Mashego, “and mingle with readers without the stigma of being a CEO or publisher. It also helps me to think out of the box…the opportunity to innovate is what I see as the ultimate benefit. I wouldn’t trade it for the mainstream.”

(First published in Business Day's Books and Publishing supplement, November 2007)

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