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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

A Balancing Act1


Nèlleke de Jager - 2007-05-15

Years ago, I was working as an underling to Charles Fryer, for years a formidable fiction publisher in the Afrikaans book industry. The last book he edited was the original Afrikaans edition of Islands by Dan Sleigh, which was later translated into English by André Brink, and beautifully published by Secker & Warburg a couple of years later.

In many ways Charles Fryer was the epitomy of old-style book publishing in this country. He was midwife, mother, father and bank manager as well as therapist to the many authors he published over thirty years. But above all, he was a meticulous editor, a wordsmith poring over every single sentence on the page, guiding the author towards the most exact turn of phrase.

He once wrote a piece on book publishing titled “Walking a tightrope” for the nearly defunct magazine Insig, in which he drew up a long list of various skills required of a “good” publisher. Today, many years later, I would say that my diagnosis, or assessment, is very much the same as Charles's findings ten years ago: publishing is like the science of walking a tightrope. Or, to put it in another way, exploring the tension/dichotomy of a Dionesian vs an Apollonian way of life; that is, being a feverish reader on the one hand, being obsessed with words and addicted to the spontaneity and creative impulse that often goes along with producing a good book, the perfect cover and the ideal font. And on the other hand, being a sober businessman/woman: producing titles year after year that will keep the money rolling and the booksellers happy.

As a publisher I often get asked if I'm also a writer. People somehow always seem surprised when I confess that it is not a deep, dark, hidden desire of mine to also get published one day. Just as a stage director prefers to steer the actors from the wings, the joy of publishing is most of all in working in the shadows alongside a writer, ensuring that the manuscript’s metamorphosis to a book is a smooth, happy one. But more than that, that the book is the best it can be: all potential flaws eradicated. So, yes, one does need a Dionesian inclination in order to survive as a publisher in the long term, even if we aren’t writers ourselves.

Apart from being midwife to the author, these days we also seem to have become midwife to the cover designer. It begins with selecting the “right” designer for the book, the “right” briefing for the cover, working from concept designs to the final, perfect product. It requires tweaking, adjusting and negotiating, whilst keeping author, designer and sales department equally enthused and thrilled. (As an aside, I sometimes think we spend nearly as much time on the cover design of a book as shaping the content! But don’t quote me on that.:))

Alas, as I mentioned above, being a publisher requires not only unpredictable, spontaneous, Dionesian skills, there is also the sobering Apollonian sensibility of keeping track of the bottom line, the profit margins, the stock write-offs and, of course, the ever-looming demands of the shareholders. To be honest, I suspect there has been a drastic shift in the past five to ten years in the South African industry, and perhaps Ms Calder could confirm whether this is the case internationally as well. The definition of what constitutes a good publisher ten years ago would be very different from the way we define a “good” publisher today. In this day and age you require not only editorial know-how (e.g. being able to distinguish between the pros and cons of the Collins vs Oxford Dictionary, and whether none is or none are is the preferred choice), but you should also have an eye for a dazzling cover, being able to spot the fine print in a contract between author and agent, project manage/juggle a handful of freelance editors and designers at the same time, and last but not least, have knowledge of drawing up a turnover and costing budget and being able to drive a profitable business. Whereas my mentor, Charles, was still able to measure his worth as a publisher mainly in terms of words, these days I think we increasingly measure our worth in terms of a calculator.

Of course this tension between quality and the calculator is a particular challenge in the South African industry, where I’d like to believe most publishers are still (albeit secretly) idealists at heart. Not only are we confronted with the bottom line, we also operate in an industry where, according to Exclusive Books, there are no more than 700 000 regular book-buyers. So our challenge is twofold: keeping up with international trends (such as digitisation of books, bigger advances for debut authors, prepublication author tours), we also have to inspire, create and develop a book-buying culture in South Africa.

We are barely thirteen years into our new democracy and, from Kwela’s perspective anyway, we believe that there is still much room for improvement in creating a platform for previously silent voices – even though there has been a tremendous increase in black writing in the past five years. Zakes Mda and Fred Khumalo tended to disagree on this issue during a Sunday Times panel discussion at the Cape Town Book Fair last year. Fred daringly asked in a Sunday Times opinion piece in August 2005 where the new generation of black writers was, now that the barriers to entry have been removed.[2] Mr Mda, on the other hand, argued that there has been a huge upsurge in black writing recently. I must confess that many of the names he mentioned had been published by smaller, lesser-known publishers, with the result that not all of them had really been absorbed into the mainstream South African literary scene. Although if I look at the valuable contribution that UKZN Press, Umuzi and Jacana, as well as we at Kwela, have been making in the past two years, I would dare to state the horizon does look slightly less bleak now than in August 2005. Perhaps I could even challenge Mr Khumalo to do a follow-up to his 2005 assessment of the “new wave” of post-1994 black writing.

I do have one question, however – it is an issue that I regularly discuss with Nicola Menné, my co-publisher at Kwela. (And perhaps this is something Fred could explore in more detail?) Where are the black female voices hiding? I often see the slush pile of manuscripts we receive on a weekly basis as a barometer of the psyche of “everyman/everywoman” out there. Why, do you think, is more than 80 percent of the writing we receive by black authors, from men? Do women feel they have nothing to contribute? Or that they should rather remain silent while men speak up for them? Or is it simply that they have no time to write? This is reflected on publishers’ publication lists as well. How many black women are featured on the Sunday Times shortlists, for instance? Or on the Commonwealth Writers' Prize?

To come back to the point. Even if there is a bias towards men and male experience, there has been visible growth of solid, commendable black writing on the South African literary scene recently. And my fellow publishers and I have also noted with great interest that there has been a visible increase in the sales of black writing. Might it be that the economic boom which the up-and-coming black middle classes are experiencing is migrating into bookshops as well? Very possible indeed. Eric Miyeni’s The Only Black at a Dinner Table featured on the South African top hundred books for weeks, for instance. Publisher Maggie Davey agrees with me that it couldn’t be just the traditional white audience buying it. Ditto the good trade reception of Fred Khumalo’s work, as well as up-and-coming novelist Kgebetli Moele. So no, I would argue that the market is changing.

Another interesting test would be to assess the sales of Usomachiza, the Xhosa translation of Paulo Coelho’s iconic The Alchemist, which is one of the selected titles for Exclusive Books’ Homebru promotion. As the profile of the South African book buyer starts transforming, it is essential also to start questioning the bilingual bias that trade booksellers (and publishers) have shown up till now. Ben Oswest, author of The New Suffolk Hymnbook, raised this very issue in an excellent piece (also in the Sunday Times) right after the Cape Town Book Fair last year. “The marketplace,” he states, “is a commercial bottleneck ... [Its] importance in creating a tradition of national letters cannot be overstated ... Investment – the forking out of local cash for local art – is required too.”[3] I commend Exclusive Books for taking this brave step in selling Usomachiza, and also Ilitha Publishers for publishing it. It might not be the next Spud quite yet, but we have to start experimenting in languages other than English and Afrikaans.

But I must stress: the book publishing industry cannot work in isolation. The Department of Education’s role in promoting multilingualism cannot be underestimated, especially with regard to mother-tongue education. And, also, you cannot separate the one media from the other: transformation towards multilingualism in publishing would have to start with newspapers and magazines. So my question to media companies are: where are the Xhosa Daily Suns? And the Venda Son? I realise that I am oversimplifying matters here, but the trade book industry cannot take the blame for a lack of language representation all by itself.

Two final remarks/impressions I’d like to raise about this business of a tightrope. I recently attended a panel discussion at the London Book Fair with Tracy Chevalier, Margaret Atwood and Stephen Page, the publisher of Faber and Faber. The topic was “Digitize or die: the future of the author”. A little melodramtic, but they did raise some very interesting points. South Africa might not be as advanced as the UK and the US regarding alternative electronic platforms yet, but the wheel is turning. Media24 is looking at digitising all out-of-print books in South Africa, for instance. One of the questions the authors raised during this discussion was: Where does the digital revolution leave the author with regard to renumeration? A challenge to the current book industry, and here I include booksellers. The landscape underneath the tightrope is changing, and we need to have visionary insight in order not to be left behind.

Last but not least: when we look at the current growth of the local publishing industry, we can see many parallels with the music industry. Many more artists, phenomenal sales, and most of all, a greater variety than ever before. I am often puzzled, however, by the South African academia’s hesitant reception of new, particularly black, voices in this country. If I look at Professor Michael Titlestad's recent reception of Kgebetli Moele's debut novel, Room 207, in the Sunday Times for instance, in which he not only confused the main character's ideological stance with that of the narrator, but also deeply questioned the novel's contribution to the South African literary scene, I do wonder what would have happened to the boom in the South African music industry if there had been a prototype of Prof Titlestad hovering over their shoulders. I would challenge South African critics to be as daring, as curious, and as open to different voices as the book-buying population seem to be.

In conclusion: despite the balancing act of walking the tightrope with a Collins Dictionary in one hand and a calculator in the other, I believe that there are very committed publishers in this country – publishers who are prepared to take risks and face up to the many challenges that confront us in the 21st century. The lack of representation (especially with regard to women and language) is still a challenge, but as I have said many times before: it is a highly unpredictable time in the writing scene of South Africa. And I wouldn't have wanted to be a publisher anywhere else, at any other time.

[1] Delivered at a panel discussion on publishing at the first Franschhoek Literary Festival. The panel was titled "Part Chamelean, Part Humming-Bird, Part Warrior-Ant" and participants included Bloomsbury publisher Liz Calder, Michelle Matthews from Oshun and Jeremy Boraine from Jonathan Ball.

[2] Fred Khumalo. Sunday Times, 21 August 2005. “Free at last, but slow to fly.”

[3] Ben Oswest.. Sunday Times, 2 July 2006. “Tongue-tied literature.”