The gambling game of South African publishing

EVENT: A Word From the Publishers 2 (Saturday, 24 September; Townhouse Mostert)


A panel of publishers talks to Mervyn Sloman about a wide range of topics related to publishing in SA. Featuring Jeremy Boraine (Jonathan Ball), Maggie Davey (Jacana), Nelleke de Jager (Kwela) and Debra Primo (UKZN Press).

Publishers are gamblers: it is not about churning out bestsellers every time, but rather it comes down to taking a gamble on interesting and innovative new works. So says Maggie Davey of Jacana at the second panel discussion of the state of South African publishing.

Much like the earlier panel discussion this week, the main focus is on the way forward in this digital age of e-books and e-readers. Despite the recession and tough market, publishers seem largely optimistic. Maggie contends that the quality of South African literature has “never been better”. Indeed, all publishers present agree that this is an exciting time for South African literature in respect of  the extended parameters of what can now be published that perhaps could not have been before the advent of Kindles and e-books.

Jeremy Boraine of Jonathan Ball agrees: While few unsolicited manuscripts from the slush pile see the light of day, it is the finding of fresh ideas and good writing within this pile that makes the job worthwhile.

Inevitably the word ‘digital’ quickly comes up, with chair Mervyn Sloman probing the panelists to calibrate their feelings about this new trajectory of publishing.

Debra Primo of UKZN Press eloquently sums up hers: “For me, it is about the written word, the content. It is just the format in which this word is distributed that’s changing.” This idea seems to be echoed by the other panelists, with emphasis on the opportunities that the digital phenomenon is opening up. Nelleke de Jager of Kwela points out that the Afrikaans literary market too will benefit from online publishing.

But there are definite setbacks and difficulties still to be overcome. Some problems mentioned include residual resistance in the industry, format changes, creating content that can be used across a variety of hardware, and the all-important issue of e-book rights. Difficulties aside, the digital move seems to be welcomed, with publishers envisioning not the death of the hard copy book, but a move towards a hybrid model encompassing both e-books and hard copies.

This of course begs the question of what is currently dominating the share of the e-book market versus what is selling in bookshops. Jeremy mentions that the e-imprint has become quite popular for romance fiction. Mervyn tactfully refers to “lowbrow” genres gaining more ground in the digital market, with books like Mills & Boon being particularly popular, hinting that the anonymity it grants its readers when reading an e-book in public places may be a drawcard, as opposed to having to whip out one’s lowbrow novel in public, to endure almost certain derision. Of course, it is not just pulp fiction being read, as highbrow readers are also attracted to e-books because of their competitive pricing.

All said and done, Nelleke believes South African publishers are finally moving forward with this new technology.

The topic turns to current trends within the South African market in terms of what is selling well and where the market currently is. Crime fiction, South African politics and autobiographies, as well as humour are among the more popular genres. Exactly where the market is in terms of financial position seems to be a matter for debate. While Jeremy feels sales have been consistent over the last few years, Maggie has seen more growth in South African sales, rather than just imports. Debra sees big strides in scholarly publishing, with more South African academics turning to local publishers rather than taking their works abroad. Nelleke is less optimistic, speculating that the “seven fat years” are now behind us.

Questions from the audience move the discussion to pressing local issues. South Africa’s lack of a reading culture, inadequate government support and funding, as well as the availability of books in all official languages are among the problems raised. There is clearly a certain amount of frustration with government on the side of the publishers, but booksellers’ exceptionally high prices as a complicating issue have repeatedly been raised during the festival.

The implication of these issues is how then do we stimulate a reading culture in this country? Despite gains in the industry, there are clearly some bumps ahead yet.