The past few years have seen a surge in South African publishing and the industry has never been so active and vibrant. New titles by local authors are published regularly and new imprints are, in the words of author Finuala Dowling, “breeding like lilies”.
For newly established or emerging writers, this explosion in local publishing is an exciting time, especially with the opportunities it provides for wider exposure to readers, both locally and internationally.
Dowling, the author of two collections of poetry and two novels – the latest being Flyleaf, published by Penguin - says: “I’d sum up publishing in SA today with the word ‘fecund’. Starting off as a poet and short story writer, I was naturally off the radar. Novels bully their way into the literary limelight. I’ve overcome that by writing a couple of my own bullies.”
This enthusiasm is shared by Dawn Garisch, author of the novel Once, Two Islands, published by Kwela: “I am excited to part of what feels like a whole new era in South African publishing. Since 1994 it feels that the lid has come off … More authors and publishers are taking risks with what can be said and how it is said, and I am continually astonished by the profusion of new releases … There was a time, not long ago, when a certain snobbery meant that few South African authors were thought good enough, and I must confess I was one of them. Nowadays, I read a South African book ahead of one by a foreigner.”
Margie Orford, author of two novels, Like Clockwork and Blood Rose, both published by Oshun, is likewise excited by the current publishing activity, although in her case overseas publishing looks set to prove more lucrative: “I was thrilled when Oshun took Like Clockwork. My agent Isobel Dixon of Blake Friedman Literary and Film Agency in London subsequently sold the rights for Like Clockwork and Blood Rose to Blanvalet, an imprint of Random House in Germany for a substantial amount of money. I also have a very generous book deal with a Dutch publisher. Like Clockwork has also been sold to small publishers in Russia and the Czech Republic. So I am making a living from writing fiction but not in SA. Here my royalties have been relatively small... I must say though it is wonderful to be published in one’s home market.”
But there is a difference in being an author of a novel and an author of a collection of poems, says Mark Espin, whose debut collection of poems, Falling from Sleep, has been published by Botsotso. “This is of course not a uniquely South African situation. The readership for poetry generally, and certain kinds of poetry particularly, is just so marginal that being a newly published poet in SA really does not make an earth-shattering difference to one’s existence.”
Haidee Kruger, who debut poetry collection Lush: Poems for Four Voices was recently published by Protea Books, says the experience of being published is “a little bit like winning the lottery, though perhaps not totally as random as that. I feel very lucky, very privileged to be published. And there is an element of chance in it – so many other factors play a role apart from the merit of the book itself.”
The publishing market in SA is also becoming quite diverse, and there has been a rise in the number of dedicated and innovative independent publishers popping up alongside the bigger, more financially equipped commercial publishers.
“Mainstream, commercial publishing, by its nature, has to cater for very specific markets with very particular tastes,” says Kruger. “This is one of the factors influencing what and who gets published. Moreover, a book is not only a book – as with everything else, the buyer buys into a package, an image, a lifestyle even. This is the case everywhere, but perhaps in the relatively small South African publishing industry this is exacerbated.
“Independent publishers play a crucial role. Although they too obviously have particular markets and financial motivations and constraints, their markets are often (though not always) different to the markets catered for by mainstream publishers. Independent publishers provide a space in which difference, oddity, otherness, idiosyncrasy may find expression and dissemination. That is important.”
Megan Hall, whose debut poetry collection Fourth Child has been published by Modjaji Books, says: “I am delighted that independent publishers seem to be making a comeback after a period in the doldrums. They broaden and deepen the reach of publishing in SA and keep bigger publishers on their toes.”
Garisch agrees: “Independent publishers must be commended for holding a particular door open. Even though they may reach a small audience, I believe they nourish and deepen the culture for us all.”
“There are several really interesting developments,” says Espin. "The Community Publishing Project at the Centre for the Book in Cape Town has certainly given many people the opportunity and encouragement to do their writing. Mainstream publishers are doing some wonderful books in an environment that is challenging at best. Independent publishers will, however, always give the publishing arena the energy and the edge which is so fundamental to keeping things lively and interesting.”
The success of a book – and thus sales revenue to the publisher – is also very much dependent on a receptive reading public who are influenced by finances, accessibility to books, cultural preference (and sometimes prejudice) as well as competitive attractions.
“It’s a complex issue,” says Espin. “I am convinced that reading is something that we all want to do. There are though many questions about the access of many in our society have to reading material. The state of our public libraries, the prohibitive pricing of books and the location of bookshops are all contributing factors to the sad state of reading in SA. The seduction of hi-tech alternatives for leisure time is a major challenge to reading. There is therefore the vast chasm between two extremes: the absence of books in the deprived rural space and the neglect of books in the privileged urban space.”
“Relatively few people buy books, especially poetry books, on a regular basis,” says Kruger. “Of course, if you have to chosen between food and books, you’ll chose food. But even people who can afford books would rather buy a DVD, a Playstation game or a pair of jeans.”
Other writers, however, are optimistic, such as Dowling: “SA readers seem really keen to try out new, local writing. You only have to look at the crowds passing through the Cape Town Book Fair to get a sense of their passion. It’s mostly for novels and nonfiction, but there’s a definite audience for poetry and literary essays.”
But Dowling agrees that the state of reading of book buying in SA could be improved and this could be assisted by SA having “more properly remunerated professional book reviewers. The Afrikaans press is way ahead when it comes to flagging good new writing.”
Orford feels it is important to expand the book buying and reading public beyond the suburban ambit of Exclusive Books and Wordsworth (in Western Cape). One way is through libraries, she suggests.
Espin agrees that in SA we should start with developing public library and school library facilities. “The grant by the arts and culture minister is a wonderful start, but it remains merely a start. If libraries are in a position to purchase locally purchased books more extensively, it will provide a useful impetus to the publishing industry,” he says.
“I look forward to the effect that the government’s increased library spending will have in different ways,” says Hall. “The influence of government policy, that is education policy, on South African publishing, cannot be underrated. I look forward to a resurgence in publishing in African languages, and hope that publishing in Afrikaans continues to be well-supported and reasonably well-supplied.”
But Kruger feels that publishers themselves could contribute to encouraging book buying by making books look more appealing. Books “need to awake the buyer’s desire to posses it, as an object,” she says. “This is a bit sad, but true. I think that possibly, for a person who is interested in buying books, a great cover may sometimes be a clincher. But I don’t think this will push somebody who isn’t interested in books to buy them.”
Overall, though, there is general optimism about the future of publishing in SA, although the issue of reaching audiences and widening readership remain challenges.
“Growing the reading public would be a great thing,” says Hall, “but generally I am not gloomy about publishing in SA. There are many dedicated and creative people involved in the industry.”
Orford sees the future of publishing in SA as being “dominated by schools publishing, where most of the money is. But the energy is good. I do sometimes think it might be an overtraded market but I think publishers are focusing more on quality and not so much on filing lists. I was interested to see that the Afrikaans translation of Like Clockwork sold well and quickly, much more quickly than the English version. Maybe that is where the future lies?”
“The publishing industry in SA seems to be alive and well,” says Kruger. “It is growing and maturing, testing itself. There are many established and newer publishers, both commercial and independent, focusing on interesting South African, African or global stories. They are exploring many different voices, expanding genres, moving away from singular focuses on politics or personals – exploring the interfaces between these, exploring other dimensions too. There are so many possibilities, still. That’s pretty exciting.”
Dowling, however, is slightly cynical: “I think publishers will continue to bring out large volumes of books, not necessarily all books that they completely believe in. They’ll let market forces decide on the fate of the book (and the author). For big publishers, it probably makes sense to work this way, reasoning that somewhere along the line you’ll happen upon a Spud or a Harry Potter or a Da Vinci Code.”
(First published in Business Day's Books and Publishing supplement, November 2007)