Friday, 12 June 2009

Small players feel the whiplash

Since 1994 there has been an increase in the number of small, independent publishers in South Africa. A more recently established venture in Cape Town is unique in that it focuses solely on southern African women’s writing, and one of its titles, Whiplash, by Tracey Farren was last week short-listed for the prestigious 2009 Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

Modjaji Books was launched in 2007 by writer Colleen Higgs, when she published Megan Hall’s debut poetry collection Fourth Child, which went on to win the Ingrid Jonker poetry prize. Higgs had been working as project manager at Cape Town’s Centre for the Book at the time, and felt she was ready for a new challenge.

She explains how by managing the centre’s award-winning Community Publishing Project, she was constantly giving advice to others about how to go about publishing.

“I wrote the book, A rough guide to small-scale and self-publishing, as part of my work, and as a way of putting down the frequently asked questions and the basics of publishing,” Higgs says. “My work was an in-depth research project into publishing - all the aspects from commissioning, finding authors, production and printing, design, marketing and distribution. I built up good networks and started to feel that starting my own press was doable. I needed a new challenge and wanted to be able to work more flexibly.

“Most small presses are run by men, so I wanted to do something for women, to open up a different aesthetic. Publishing is full of gate-keeping, it has to be. Resources are always limited and there are lots of writers looking for a break. I wanted to give a new set of writers - and a new set of aesthetics - a chance.”

Higgs acknowledges that small press publishing is fraught with difficulties, but this is something that goes hand-in-hand with an approach that does not cater for a commercial market. Indeed, Higgs sees the role of Modjaji Books, as a small publisher, as being concerned with publishing new voices and taking risks. She aims to “publish purely out of love or passion and because I resonate with a writer or her work. Not because she is marketable or worthy.”

Whereas small publishers have traditionally focused on publishing poetry, Modjaji Books is also devoted to publishing a fair amount of fiction. “Fiction is more successful,” she says, “but you still have to get the numbers right in terms of print run and how much to spend on a particular book. Publishing is a calculated gamble. I don’t want to only publish poetry. I’m interested in short fiction, essays, novellas, books that experiment with form. One forthcoming title, Hester se Brood, by Hester van der Walt is a recipe book, but not in the conventional sense. It is also a memoir, an exploration of the meaning and history of bread and bread-baking.”

Last year Modjaji Books published the controversial novel, Whiplash, which has been short-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Dealing with prostitution in Cape Town, the novel had been rejected by several commercial publishers before finding a home at Modjaji Books. The decision to take on its publication resulted in Higgs taking the leap and resigning from Centre for the Book to focus on publishing fulltime. This was courageous, especially since many take the view that it is near-impossible for a small publishing venture to generate a full-time income, and that it should be best treated as a part-time hobby.

Higgs muses: “I haven’t earned a salary for myself out of Modjaji Books so far, although it has begun to cover its own expenses, including phones, petrol, printing costs, design and so on. I hope as I build the list and develop better strategies for getting the books into stores and build up my direct sales too, that it will begin to become sustainable. I’m beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel for next year. In the meantime I also do freelance work, give advice about publishing for which I charge an hourly rate, do manuscript assessments for writers, do some journalism and other work. I’ve also cut back on luxuries, though it is enough of a luxury to do what I am passionate about, to have flexible time to spend with my child, and to be my own boss.”

The issue of financing publications is always paramount, and obtaining funding is not always as easy as it may initially seem. Higgs says that so she has not been successful in obtaining state funding, “but I have received funding from the Cape 300 Foundation for poetry collections by Joan Metelerkamp and Sindiwe Magona, which are to be launched at the Cape Town Book Fair, along with collections by Fiona Zerbst and Helen Moffett, also published by Modjaji. I keep writing proposals and look for sponsorship opportunities. Hester se Brood is a likely candidate for sponsorship. I am also looking for sponsorship for an anthology of short stories that Modjaji Books gathered last year. I want to pay an editor to work with the writers and I need funds to pay for the printing of that book.”

Marketing and promotion can also be particularly difficult for a small publisher with limited finances, but again Higgs turns to innovative, relatively inexpensive means, such as blogging on the Book SA website or promoting on Facebook.

“I have found online marketing to be very successful. All of the events and launches I have organised have been very well attended. We sold over 80 copies of Whiplash at the launch, even a large publisher would have been pleased with that. I use Facebook to build relationships with people who are interested in my work and in whose work and profiles I am interested. Recently I have started on Twitter, which I find far more useful as a way of learning things, but do also use it to share ideas and finds and to market what I am doing, or just to build awareness of Modjaji Books”.

In the midst of this, however, the economic downturn has put the dampers on publishing worldwide, and in SA many publishers and bookstores are adopting a cautious approach. Tremendous challenges are raised for small publishers in particular.

Higgs sees two main challenges ahead: “The first is how to increase the profitablity of what I am doing, to make it sustainable. Secondly and related, is how to get the attention of book sellers while I don’t have a sales representative who is dedicated to promoting my titles. I wish all booksellers kept up to date with Book SA, but I fear many don’t. I also think that they often have conservative tastes about what their readers will like. Small presses need to hand sell and build relationships with independent booksellers and readers and hope for the best with the rest.”

Always resilient and determined, Higgs is already committed to several more titles in the next 12 months. “I plan to publish Hester se Brood, four collections of short stories – by Arja Salafranca, Lauri Kubuitsile, Meg van der Merwe and Wame Molefe, as well as a novel by Makhosazana Xaba,” she says.

“I am also hoping to compile a 2010 South African Small Publishers’ Directory in collaboration with the Publishers’ Association of South Africa and the British Council, which will represent small publishers at the London Book Fair next April. I am just waiting to hear about the funding for that.”

(Published in Busness Day, June 12, 2009)

Photo of Colleen Higgs: BookSA

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