Pride and publishing

Like many book lovers, I was excited to see the second issue of the new magazine The Afropolitan dedicated to literary criticism. I opened it up eagerly, and flipped to an article by debut author Zukiswa Wanner about the Cape Town Book Fair. These days, I get tingles when I see anything vaguely book-related, because, for the last year and a half, I’ve been working on a rather large literary project of my own: starting a publishing company from scratch.

After ten years working for big booksellers and publishers, in May 2006 I started Electric Book Works with three friends in IT and content development. Everything I’d learned before in big publishing has been invaluable: finance, stock management, strategy, editorial and design skills, production know-how, book-selling systems and loads more. And applying that to a new company, learning easily as much again along the way, has consumed every waking hour of my last eighteen months.

It’s worked out well: our first book, the Xhosa–English uTshepo Mde, has jointly won the inaugural Exclusive Books IBBYSA Book Award, and our second, the medical training manual Child Health Care, which is published online for free and sold in print, has just led to our signing up fifteen further medical titles for the next year. In addition, we’ve helped produce several successful books for clients, including novels, an academic collection, poetry, a coffee-table book, and several textbooks. And our next children’s book, the wacky and wonderful Wie is Dit?, hits bookstores in November. We are well ahead of all our original expectations.

Despite all this, I’m still not driving a Ferrari. In fact, I’ve sold my little red convertible – to which I’d dedicated the greater part of my last corporate salary – and maxed a massive overdraft and two credit cards. Not that I mind. Steve Connolly, the MD of South Africa’s biggest general-interest publisher, Struik, drives a Clio.

Book publishing survives despite the fact that it requires significant financial risk – also called ‘gambling’ – and massive effort by highly skilled people for small margins. It’s really only the romance of books that keeps it going like this. The only other industry I know like it is the ministry, which involves about as much blind faith in your product, and pays as badly.

So I was disappointed to read this in Wanner’s article: ‘It turns out that it costs R16 to print a book and yet books cost anywhere from R100 upwards. … Authors receive less than 20 per cent (closer to 10 per cent) of the net sales.’ I don’t know how she thinks we pay for design and distribution, not to mention editing, which I happen to know her book needed more than a year of. Even the simplest maths shows that this kind of investment is expensive, even if you are paying editors in stale breadsticks. Hers is a dangerously poor understanding of how books are made and sold.

Fortunately, Wanner makes nonsense of her entire argument with this clunker: ‘A fresh angle … questions whether white publishers are raping enthusiastic first time black writers’ intellectual property through constrictive contracts. … Maybe it is about time black people became publishers, not so much to take advantage of black writers but so that they can look out for the rights of their own.’ This statement would be really offensive, to me and the many black publishers I know, if it wasn’t so absurd.

When I’d finished reading Wanner’s article, I put The Afropolitan back on the bookstore shelf. I certainly couldn’t afford to buy anything there – I’m only a publisher.

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