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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Independent Publishers: How do they survive?

Janet van Eeden - 2011-06-21

Untitled Document

Janet van Eeden in conversation with Mindy Stanford, Mariss Stevens and Crystal Warren of Aerial Publishing, a community publisher

For some years I’ve wondered how on earth publishers survive in this less than literary country. Perhaps the one or two bestsellers like Spud can make up for the years of publishing books which won’t necessarily do as well. Then I began to think about independent publishers. How on earth do they manage to make ends meet when they have no back-up or a large stable of books to carry them through the tough times? I put these questions to Aerial Publishing in Grahamstown.

Mindy Stanford

Can you tell us a bit about your publishing house?

Aerial Publishing is a Grahamstown-based community publisher mainly for unpublished writers. It emerged from the creative writing course offered by the Rhodes Institute for the Study of English in Africa. This very popular course, started in 1998, has always published an annual collection of prose and poetry, then in 2003 the people running it decided to set up Aerial Publishing to publish individual manuscripts from “graduates” of the course. The first two poetry collections were published in 2004 and we’re still going strong.

How viable is it to be an independent publisher? Can you survive financially just by small-scale publishing on its own?

Aerial Publishing doesn’t try to make a profit. We started off thanks to a grant from the Community Publishing Project. Proceeds from book sales are channelled back into the kitty and used to finance the next books. Most years we’ve covered our costs from sales, although in 2007 we made our second appeal to the Community Publishing Project for funds.

We keep costs down by doing small print runs with reprints where necessary, and the editing and admin work is done voluntarily by the Aerial committee, made up of people who have either taught the course or been published by Aerial.

How many books have you published?

We’ve published 12 books. Ten of them are poetry collections:

Bodies of glass – Crystal Warren, 2004
The peeling of skies – Rosamund Stanford, 2004
As each new year opens – Paulette Coetzee, 2006
Exposures – John Forbis, 2006
Do men wear clothes – Dudu Saki, 2008
On gardening – Mariss Everitt, 2008
Flashes – Carol Leff, 2009
Rage against the beast – Sonwabo Meyi, 2009
On another page – Marike Beyers, 2011
Everyday anomalies – Anton Krueger, 2011.

We’ve also done a book of interpretations of a Chinese poem, “Seven variations on a poem by Du Fu”,edited by Robert Berold (2010), and a non-fiction IsiXhosa book, Ngexesha localu-calulo nasemva kocalu-calulo, by Zolile Calana (2007).

Mariss Stevens

What are the attractions of small independent publishers? What can you offer in terms of marketing that larger publishing houses can’t?

Being small and non-commercial means it is fun, so literally we publish what we like. Our main market is Grahamstown and we put a lot of energy into our local book launches, which are always well attended. If the author has connections in another centre we hold a launch there too – we’ve had launches in Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Hogsback. Grahamstown is a writer-friendly place and the National English Literary Museum helps by hosting book launches, and they have photos of local authors on display. We sell on average 150 books per title. This year our books will be in the Festival bookshop run by Van Schaik.

What plans do you have for the future of your publishing house? Is there any particular style of book you’d like to continue publishing instead of others?

Our raison d’être is to offer new writers a publishing opportunity. Future plans are to keep doing this. Most years the Aerial committee calls for manuscripts of poetry and prose, and chooses two to publish. The book style has been chapbooks and poetry has become our trademark.

Could you describe to the readers of LitNet the process you go through once you have decided to publish a manuscript? I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of publishing a book yourself.

Selection is a collaborative effort with all committee members reading all the manuscripts. Editors are then assigned for each book and they work closely with the authors. Other committee members handle the production, finances and marketing.
Do you see yourself continuing to publish hardcopy books in the light of the e-book phenomenon?

It’s difficult to predict what the effect of the e-book phenomenon will be on the book trade. We doubt if it will affect our small corner of the publishing world.

Do you get financial aid from any of the arts councils? Do you put up your own money to get a book out?

As mentioned, the Community Publishing Project (a partnership between the Centre for the Book and NB Publishers / Via Afrika, which falls under the National Library of South Africa) has funded us on a few occasions, but mostly we keep going on our sales. For this year the launch sales of our last two books will cover the cost of printing two new ones.