They often ignore traditional market-related views and can provide a platform for passionate individual opinions, writes Gary Cummiskey
THE past five years have witnessed a surge in print book publishing in SA, while focus on internet publishing has not been so prominent, mainly because of low internet access in the country which is only at about 6%-7%. There have however been some forays into online literary publishing, and blogs in particular offer scope.
Poet and publisher Goodenough Mashego, in Shatale, Mpumalanga, is the creator of Kasiekulture, which offers some often cheeky and humorous commentary by Mashego and others on literary, cultural and sociopolitical issues. Mashego says Kasiekulture was started in 2006 as a new medium to promote “alternative literature, arts in the periphery and cultural activities in the fringes”.
The Kagablog is the brainchild of filmmaker, novelist and poet Aryan Kaganof, in Cape Town. More of an online literary and arts journal than a commentary blog, such as Kasiekulture, the Kagablog has numerous contributors from various countries. It usually has several daily postings, including music, film, visual art, poetry, fiction, criticism and photography.
Kaganof says: “I started up the Kagablog in late 2005. I was interested in creating a forum for writers, poets, artists, academics and digital explorers of all persuasions to present work. This forum would, unlike the mass media as we know it, not be market-driven, either in the sense of its content always relating to new product, or in the sense of having to pander to the consideration of what the readership wants.
“I invited contributors whose work I admired, respected, believed in and or loved. Once in as a contributor there is no editorial censorship. In this way too, the blog works very differently from market-driven mass media.”
Mashego says he gets huge satisfaction from posting material by other writers and cultural practitioners.
“While I still post lots of my thoughts and my understanding of what's going on, what makes Kasiekulture different from many blogs is that I do post material from other people as long as it's in line with what I'm doing. It could easily have been an online magazine in the sense of a website, but that route for me has been exhausted and is not that cost-effective. I have reviewed most mainstream books, films in the fringes, alternative music, cultural festivals and heritage sites and commentated on literary issues.”
An advantage of online publishing is, of course, that one can the ability to monitor readership through a hit counter, and, depending on the quality of the software used, obtain fairly comprehensive geographic information about visitors.
Mashego says: “I have an average of 56 visitors on a good day. Per month it would definitely be more than 1500 visits. Most of those who visit from SA access the internet from their workplaces. Most of my readers are white, given that I have more visitors from the US and Europe than Africa. In the US it seems most of the visitors are seem black, given the comments I get when I hit at people such as Molefi Kete Asante and some rappers. Locals love light-hearted opinions and political commentaries.”
Kaganof says his hit-rate can vary quite dramatically. “For instance, from November last year to February this year, the blog was getting more than 250000 hits per a month. But then when I moved to Sweden for five months from March it dropped off a bit as I was unable to give the blog as much attention as I usually would.“About half the readership is located in geographical SA, but there are a lot of hits from the US and from the Netherlands.”
Neither of the initiatives receive sponsorship. Kaganof says the Kagablog is a labour of love.
Mashego says, “I don't think the Google Adsense strategy works. They say you apply and they post content-related ads. Yeah, they are content-related and they appear on my blog but I still have to see the money. The trick here is that as a blogger you can't really monitor if anyone clicked on the ad, which means you depend on them to tell you that you have made a few dollars or not. I'm still waiting for a big local advertiser with a soft spot for art and culture.”
There is also the issue of SA’s low internet penetration, which raises the question of the feasibility of online publishing aimed at local audiences, but as Kaganof says, 6%-7% is better than nothing at all, and it is growing.
Mashego says, “Blogs are feasible. The penetration of the source might be very low but the information carried on these blogs reaches more people. That is why I think they have a role to play. The shortfall is just that print has not seen the importance of collaborating with blogs to help them cover the whole country. Also, newspapers should realise that if they browsed blogs they could find material to syndicate on their newspapers and pay the blogger.”
A criticism that has been made against of the blog concept is that it skips the editorial process usually involved in print or broadcast media, thereby allowing a situation where anyone can become a published writer. In SA particularly some people do not regard them as having any value.
Mashego says, “They should be taken seriously. Some time back I posted a comment after the AIDS-related death of a kwaito artist and a journalist quoted it on her tribute to the artist. This means somebody saw the seriousness of the blog and its content. We might not have reached a point where we are an alternative to print, but given that most newspaper websites carry the same stories you find in print, blogs should be regarded by South African audiences as an alternative. For example, if there is a rugby or soccer game that finishes after 9pm a blogger is likely to post the story before print or television media, which have broadcasting time frames or print deadlines. Blogs don't have that. Acceptance is gradually coming, once people realise the staleness of stuff they read in newspapers and see on TV.
“Blogs can also be incentives for people to read books. There are books I have reviewed on Kasiekulture and then I got mail from readers asking me how they could buy copies. Some inquiries came from libraries wanting to have those the titles on their shelves.”
Kaganof takes a harder, more critical view of whether blogs are taken seriously in SA.
“The only things taken seriously in SA are drinking and sport. I cannot allow myself to be contained by the mediocre opinions of the market. What matters is that I take blogs seriously, that the contributors and the readership takes them seriously.
“Look at the print publishing industry: too many books are published and thrown out into the marketplace in the hope that something sticks. It's just a huge jumble sale out there, and it is exhausting for readers to keep up with it all. And that's why people retreat, they turn inwards, they find refuge in the classics, in what they already know, because it is impossible to read through all the books that are thrown at them.
“The blogging phenomenon is something entirely different. It's a distinct medium of its own. If anything, I think blogs stimulate people to buy books because they give readers access to so many fresh critical voices who are writing from a position of passion rather than the established critical voices who write from jaded positions of power and assumed authority.”
First published in Business Day's books and publishing supplement, November 15, 2008