A Viticulturist Reading List

Among our group of Young Publishing Entrepreneurs were a number of would-be wine buffs. On the second evening of our study visit to South Africa, we headed for the beautiful Constantia Vineyard, 15 minutes outside Cape Town, to discuss malolactic fermentation. Very soon, however, we were to be found enthusing about our favourite books. This list attempts to reflect a rather unwieldy conversation, fuelled by an elegant and subtly wooded 2008 Semillon.

Constantia Vineyard (image credit: Pablo Rossello)

For starters: books we have read recently
Brooklyn by Colm Tobin
The Buenos Aires Affair by Manuel Puig
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond
La Ciudad Y Los Perros/the City And the Dogs by Mario Vargas Llosa
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
For our main course: a free-wheeling conversation about books both loved and loathed which ignited fierce debate, presented in the order discussed
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Life of Pi by Yann Martell
Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
The Damned United by David Peace
Red Riding by David Peace
Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Netherland by Joseph O’Neil
White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
Dancer by Colum McCann

For dessert: Our ultimate book recommendations
Daniel Crewe: Towards the end of Morning by Michael Frayn
Julia Kingsford: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford
Anna Lewis: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Rachael Ogden: Amongst Women by John McGahern
Pablo Rossello: Tough Guys Don’t Dance by Norman Mailer
Mark Searle: Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene
Gavin Weale: The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy

Constantia Vineyard (image credit: Pablo Rossello)


Common Ground

Birds in Words (Uzumi)

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the cultural differences between South Africa and the UK, and the different challenges our publishing industries face. Nevertheless, on my third day in Cape Town, I find common ground with two publishing entrepreneurs. First, I meet Mark Hackney, Managing Director of Blue Weaver, a company that – like Inpress – operates as a sales, distribution and marketing agency for publishers. Blue Weaver was founded ten years ago and now employs five sales agents and has offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Its list is predominantly non-fiction and reference, and the company works with an impressive list of 120 client publishers, managing a distribution relationship on their behalf with On the Dot.

Despite the trade’s focus on front-list titles, Mark remains upbeat about the publishing industry in South Africa. Blue Weaver and Inpress share a similar business model, and online sales make up around 20% of both our businesses; so it’s not surprising that Mark and I share an enthusiasm for digital publishing: “I think there will be a market for both print and digital books,” says Mark. “The retail of e-content is an open market. I believe it’s going to open up new means of distribution to us and remove some of the obstacles the trade currently faces, for example around distribution and economies of scale.”

Next stop is Umuzi, the imprint launched in 2006 to celebrate Random House’s 40th year of business in South Africa. Like many Inpress publishers, Umuzi employ a small editorial and administrative team, outsourcing typesetting, design and proof-reading to freelancers. Publisher Frederick de Jager has made a clear commitment to publishing literary fiction and poetry with the highest production values and artistic merit. Their list is one of the most interesting and diverse that I have encountered during my time in South Africa, and includes the beautifully illustrated poetry anthology Birds in Words that I picked up at Clarke’s Bookshop in Cape Town. It’s a collection, says editor Gus Ferguson in his foreword, ‘in which the birds are alive and alert and quickly identifiable by their descriptive jizz.’

Equatoria by Tom Dreyer (Aflame)

Scratch the surface, and you’ll find that many of the challenges facing the publishing industry here are the same ones we face in the UK: balancing artistic merit against commercial nous, ensuring production values are as high as possible, and then distributing the books to readers. On that note, the last word goes to Cape Town-based novelist Tom Dreyer, whose excellent novel Equatoria is published in the UK by Inpress publisher Aflame, and in South Africa by NB Publishers: “Publishing in South Africa can feel like quite a small scene,” he told me. “I think all South African authors would like the other English-language markets to pay more attention to their books. Here’s hoping your visit here with the other publishing entrepreneurs can change that.” Here’s hoping indeed.

Getting to the Table

Table Mountain

The view from Table Mountain

Exactly how do a group of 6 UK creative entrepreneurs, recently landed in Cape Town, get an overview of life in South Africa? For a fresh perspective, we headed straight to Table Mountain, the city’s most famous landmark. Once at the summit, some 1,000 metres above the city, we were able to see the city from all angles: to look towards Cape Point where the Atlantic and Indian oceans converge, to see historic Robben Island and the new World Cup stadium with all its sparkling promise of the future of South Africa.

On our first full day in Cape Town we met with Annelize van der Merwe, a trade and investment advisor at the British Consultate specialising in Creative Industries. Annelize complemented our sweeping view of the city with some facts and figures. She tells us that although South Africa represents just 3% of Africa’s landmass, it contributes 40% of the continent’s industrial output and 25% of its GDP. It is, she says, the most sophisticated free market economy on the continent.

The UK is South Africa’s third largest trading partner and is an ideal market for many UK companies, having similar legal and financial systems. Over 1 million people are employed in the creative industries here, which contributes 1.75% of GDP. The publishing sector is “Euro-centric with a predisposition to look to the UK”, says Annelize, with 75% of the £260m book market being sales of titles in English.

All countries set their own definitions to measure literacy, making comparisons difficult, but South Africans have begun to use the phrase ‘active literacy’ to reflect the fact that adults need to maintain their reading after leaving school for at least four years to avoid becoming illiterate. Annelize estimates that 75% to 80% of the country is actively literate. Despite this, she says, “less than 12% of South Africans buy more than 3 books per year.”

Excitingly though, for a group of publishing entrepreneurs considering the opportunities and challenges that digital publishing will bring to their work in 2010, Annelize tells us that South Africa is the fourth largest user of mobile phones in the world, with 101% market penetration. Facebook is a huge cultural phenomena here; Twitter less so. There are 4.5m Facebook accounts in the country and 3.7m of these are accessed via mobile phones.

“Poorer communities don’t have fixed phone lines or a broadband connection, so they access the internet through their mobile phones. Young people are highly engaged with the site Mxit which is a very cheap social networking tool that enables users to send SMS messages for 1 cent.”

With a population of 48 million people and an emerging economy, South Africa is clearly punching above its weight in some areas. One huge challenge for developing new readers in the country is the cost of books: with paperbacks typically costing between 130 and 150 SA rand (a CD costs 100R; a film 40R; a pint of beer 15R) there are clear barriers to accessing literature for some communities.

A Fork in the Road?

A Fork in the Road by Andre Brink

As I write this, I’m about to board a plane to Cape Town, and I’m taking two books with me: Andre Brink’s A Fork in the Road and July’s People by Nadine Gordimer. The difference is that Gordimer’s book is a traditional paperback, but I’m reading Brink’s memoir on my Kindle e-reader. ‘A fork in the road’ is a suggestive phrase: the digital revolution is a hot topic in UK publishing right now – but what effect will it have on readers, writers and publishers in South Africa?

Sales of eBooks already represent 3% of the US book trade, and that figure is expected to rise to 5% by the end of this year. It’s not surprising that in the UK and US, the development of digital content (whether it is free or paid for) is rapidly becoming a priority for almost every publisher. At Inpress, we’ll be launching our first series of eBooks in the Spring; but as I get further along the process of converting, producing and launching our eBooks, it seems that for every question I answer, many more are raised.

Last week, I attended the Tools of Change conference in New York, organised by the digital-savvy US publisher O’Reilly’s. The conference has established an international reputation as the leading forum for digital publishing. Three key questions emerged:

  1. Digital Rights Management. Given the lending culture around book buying and reading, how much should we limit the file-sharing of eBooks and what lessons can be learnt from the music industry?
  2. Platforms and Devices.  How can publishers best serve all the distribution outlets for eBooks?
  3. Given the prevalence of social media, how should publishers best focus their online marketing efforts?

The prophets of the eBook revolution have already started to appear. From a legal point of view, Jason Epstein remarks in this week’s New York Review of Books: “Traditional territorial rights will become superfluous… A worldwide, uniform copyright convention will be essential.” There will also need to be a sea-change in how books are marketed: transmedia wunderkid Jeff Gomez suggests “The key is getting people to ‘light torches’ and to be ambassadors for your content and stories.”

The Tools of Change conference saw discussions begin about how the eBook revolution will affect non-Western countries. Trailblazing e-enthusiast Arthur Attwell’s presentation asked us to consider opening up the licensing of eBooks in emerging economies. According to Attwell, publishers are missing a trick by worrying over devices, formats and distribution. Instead, he says, they ‘need to let people on the ground repackage and distribute their content in unpredictable ways.’ In any case, the Kindle (and presumably most other eReaders) currently only supports the Latin alphabet, so multi-lingual countries like South Africa will experience barriers to accessing the technology via eReaders will be above and beyond the significant financial and cultural ones. Perhaps we are precipitous in calling this a ‘revolution’. The dream is that eBooks will open vast new markets and bring access to world literatures to all; but we should remember that technological advances can just as easily be used to bolster the consensus.

Lingua Franca

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

South Africa is an extraordinarily multi-lingual nation, with 11 official languages spoken, written and published in the country. Although it is the home language of just 10% of the population, English remains South Africa’s primary language of government, business, and commerce. Issues of language, communication and representation have been on my mind this week, as I’ve read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and seen Invictus.

Disgrace is set in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape. At the centre of the story is David Lurie, an egocentric professor of Communications who (despite his day-job) is poor at articulating himself and unable to see events from other people’s point of view. As he gains self awareness, Lurie comes to feel that the English language is insufficient and ‘tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites’. Following the pivotal moment when he and his daughter are attacked, Lurie comes to a realisation about the limitations of language: ‘More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa.’ Unsurprisingly, Disgrace was denounced by members of the ANC and by many white South African communities.

Disgrace is a subtle novel about an unsubtle individual; the recent Hollywood release Invictus has it the other way around. Nevertheless, it does effectively demonstrate Nelson Mandela’s sensitivity to language as he soothes tensions during his first months as Prime Minister. In a key scene, set on the morning of his first day in office, we see Mandela translating the headline of an Afrikaans newspaper for the benefit of his assembled bodyguards (some of whom are black, some white). The headline reads: “He can win an election but can he rule the country?” To which Mandela remarks: “It’s a legitimate question.” Mandela graciously overlooks the undemocratic, racist implications of the headline, whilst showing how his ability to speak Afrikaans (unusual for a black man in that society) was crucial to his success.

Keorapetse Kgositsile

I’ll be interested to see how these 11 official languages are reflected in the South African book industry. Meanwhile, the British Council has this week announced some of the writers involved in their Market Focus programme at London Book Fair 2010. The linguistically rich line up, which includes South Africa’s Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, and novelists Achmat Dangor and André Brink, will mean that 9 of the 11 official languages will be represented.

Picturing South African Literature

Excited by Daneet Steffens’ recommendations, the following day I pay a visit to my city centre bookstore, wish list in hand. The shelves reveal a male-dominated picture: the only well-represented South Africa author is J.M. Coetzee. A wide selection of books by Coetzee, a multi-Booker Prize winner and the second South African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, are available to buy. By contrast, of the eight leading women writers Daneet suggests, only two – Nadine Gordimer and Gillian Slovo – are available. Gordimer, the first South African writer to win the Nobel Prize in 1991, is represented by a single book.

How accurate is our picture of South African literature? Looking for people with first-hand experiences of books, writers and writing in South Africa, I visit Mark Robinson in his Newcastle office. Mark is Executive Director of Arts Council England, North East; he is also a poet, critic and blogger on cultural policy. Mark has made a number of trips to South Africa through the Swallows Project, an artist exchange between the North East of England and the Eastern Cape: “There are barriers to reading and experiencing literature in South Africa,” he says, under no illusion about the challenges which face the publishing industry there. “Books are expensive in relation to the average wage, bookshops are few and illiteracy levels are high.” Adult illiteracy currently stands at 24%, meaning that 6 to 8 million adults in South Africa are not ‘functionally literate’.

We discuss how these societal factors might impact the publishing industry in South Africa: how and where do marketing directors effectively promote their titles? “Television didn’t arrive in the county until after Apartheid, in 1976,” Mark explains, “and it still doesn’t have the advertising pull that it does in the West.” There’s a strong culture of newspaper-reading in the country and the lower cost of attending book events makes them more accessible than book-buying. This, combined with a strong oral culture, has given rise to a vibrant performance poetry scene, showcased in a national tour of the UK last year by four South African poets, managed by Apples and Snakes.

Mark Robinson

I tell Mark about Daneet Steffens’ enthusiasm for the new generation of women writers coming out of South Africa and he notes an interesting parallel: “The prevalence of women novelists in contemporary South African literature makes sense,” says Mark. “From my experience of visiting the country, and one of the reasons that it was so fascinating to me, is that women increasingly occupy important political roles there: much more so than in the UK. Their pivotal role during Apartheid has meant that they have lots of political experience; women are now able to use this in building the new South Africa.”

The image we have of other cultures is always informed by our own culture’s preoccupations and prejudices. I’m left wondering why the vibrant, balanced scene that Mark describes does not export.

This is the Wide Expanse

In four weeks time, I’ll be taking part in a publishing tour to South Africa as a finalist with the British Council’s UKYPE project. Before I go, I want to answer a few questions: how do we value South African literature in this country? How and where do British readers interact with South African writing? To what extent does the industry nurture South African authors? Does our marketing do justice to their work?  This blog will record my conversations and research before I leave the UK, and report on the book trade while I’m in South Africa.

Of all contemporary African literature, it is probably Nigeria’s which has loomed largest in the UK and US literary pages over recent few years, thanks largely to novelists Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helen Oyeymi, who have introduced a younger generation of readers to an established literary tradition which includes luminaries Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri and Wole Soyinka. Two South Bank Shows were devoted to Nigerian literature in May 2009 (and specifically to Adichie and Achebe). Has the rise of Nigerian writing has left South African authors behind?

Daneet Steffens

Not so, says Daneet Steffens, well-travelled bibliophile and editor of Mslexia, the magazine for women who write. Daneet believes that the UK offers a relatively solid representation of writing from throughout the Commonwealth via publishers, bookstores and prizes. “What’s particularly exciting and vibrant about South African women writers at the moment,” she says, “is that there is a strong multi-generational and multi-ethnic presence, covering an intense and highly-charged time.”

Some of the writers who are particularly exciting to Daneet are Nadine Gordimer, Sindiwe Magona, Gillian Slovo, Pamela Jooste, Zoe Wicomb, Rozena Maart, Gabeba Baderoon and Rachel Zadok. “At a critical moment of the South African story, you’ve got a chorus of vibrant voices, contributing to a rich, all-encompassing narrative that’s still developing.”

I wonder how many of these writers are accessible to the British reading public. In my next blog, I’ll be reporting from the high street on the representation of South African authors in our bookstores.