Publishers smiling as local authors gain ground

EVENT: A Word from the Publishers 1 (Wednesday, 21 September; Fugard Theatre)



Publishers Frederik de Jager, Alison Lowry and Veronica Klipp talk to Mervyn Sloman about publishing in SA.

South African writers are selling better than they have for a long time, according to a panel of publishing experts, and there is still a reason to smile, even in the face of a recession. Colleen Higgs (Modjaji), Terry Morris (Pan Macmillan), Alison Lowry (Penguin), Veronica Klipp (WITS University Press) and Frederik de Jager (Umuzi) spoke to Mervyn Sloman, owner of the Book Lounge, about the recession, the success of South African authors and the new world of Kindles and iPads.

As a bookseller, Mervyn has substantial interaction with publishers and remarked that, despite the impact of the recession on the industry, most publishers he meets “still smile”. Alison Lowry suggests the reason for this is the many local authors that are currently “trending”. Bestseller lists are dominated by South African authors, says Frederik de Jager: Take An Inconvenient Youth: Julius Malema and the ‘New’ ANC by Fiona Forde, for example. Or Killing Kebble: An Underworld Exposed by Mandy Wiener, which sold out in four days. And then of course there’s the Spud series, which was a phenomenal success and broke all records.

Alison adds that when you have the right book by the right author, and the author is visible, and the publishers make some noise about it, these books will usually sell. In fact, this is something Colleen Higgs focuses on in her marketing approach, by which she “pushes authors to meet readers”, organising functions where readers and writers can engage directly. On the impact marketing has on sales, Alison feels that “sometimes you can make a tiny book into a slightly bigger book simply by word of mouth alone as a marketing tool”. Coupled with that, the publicity that social networks like Twitter and Facebook provides was also stressed.

Alison pushed the panel to “talk about digital” and the growing interest in e-books, with publishing currently in an interesting and challenging transitional phase. The good news is that people still want books, begins Alison, they just want them in different formats. Also, how people look for their content has changed, so that’s very challenging for an industry that has more or less operated in one way forever. Terry Morris agrees: Digital publishing is a very exciting thing. We fear it because we don’t know what our industry will look like, but it allows access to a wider range of authors – especially South African authors. And, of course, books are cheaper and publishing has become a lot more competitive, which means authors are more professional, producing high-quality work which may see them printing for a third or fourth time.

Veronica Klipp explains that, from the perspective of scholarly publishing, the digital revolution strengthens the field: Manuscripts are more searchable if they’re electronic, which of course leads to a rise in citations from the different academics. That’s always a good thing. And digital just makes browsing, reading and buying books easier.

However, while there are no print costs relating to e-books, the panel stressed that other hidden costs – large infrastructural costs being one – make the matter a lot more complicated than merely uploading manuscripts electronically. Frederik feels that the biggest challenge for publishers is to re-negotiate contracts. Each contract that was previously signed needs to be set up again. Royalties, too, are a  considerable complication because there are different versions of e-books. Furthermore, certain formats require additional input from the writer, which means it costs money to recreate those editions.

Wrapping up the discussion, most of the audience and panel agreed that while “holding, feeling, and smelling” books is still preferable to reading electronic versions – not to mention the “bragging rights” certain hard copies hold for one’s bookshelf – the drawcard of e-books is now unmistakeable.