We had an excellent turn-out for our September monthly workshop, where Terry Morris, managing director of Pan Macmillan, talked to a roomful of aspirant authors about the business of publishing in South Africa.
Terry began her talk by saying that the industry was very much in a state of flux thanks to the global decline of the bookstore and the rise of online publishing. “It’s exciting,” she said, “but it’s definitely not business as usual.”
The upside of all of this, she said, was that people were reading more, and that was always good news for authors and publishers alike.
In South Africa, Terry said, publishers rely a lot on importing books to distribute locally, which means that the exchange rate has an impact on book pricing. But this also meant there was an opportunity to grow the local market as well as local authors. A lot more commercial books – like the Spud series – were coming onto the market.
She pointed out that for most readers, bookstores were places of discovery, not just places to buy books; that was where many people happened upon books they might not otherwise have seen. The decline of bookstores, therefore, would present a challenge to publishers. However, there does seem to be a resurgence of independent book stores in the US and UK, and that was a positive trend.
In addition, while booksellers like Exclusive Books and CNA had dominated the landscape in South Africa for the past 20 years, companies like Readers Warehouse and Bargain Books were popping up in places that had previously been underserviced, which meant the publishers had access to new audiences.
The publishing mix is interesting in South Africa, said Terry – about 10% of books published in South Africa are religious; mostly charismatic Christian books. Children’s books tended to be published in waves, often in tandem with curriculum needs at schools.
However, the local market tended to be driven by trends abroad. “We will see sales on the back of the Booker prize, for example, not local awards, which is very sad.” In the area of fiction in particular, this meant that local authors generally have a tough job competing against international titles.
Terry commented that the South African publishing industry had not fully come into its own yet, because it was only in the early 2000s that publishers started creating lists and publishing locally in a concerted way, particularly in English. Local non-fiction is very strong, however, and there have been wonderful success stories like Frank Chikane’s Eight Days in September, which sold 38 000 copies and Mandy Weiner’s Killing Kebble, which has sold 75 000 copies so far.
Publishers are also getting to new audiences and areas, and have a healthy relationship with many European markets, France and Germany in particular. But the mix was still very much skewed towards importing books – about 80% come from abroad.
Of course, in a room full of aspiring writers, the questions inevitably moved towards advice on how to get published. Terry pointed out that Pan Macmillan alone received over 400 unsolicited manuscripts a year that went through a very stringent process of reading, although most of the books they publish are commissioned, or come to them through their networks.
Her advice was simple: “You must craft your book, edit it and rewrite it till it’s polished. Don’t just write it and submit it after one draft. We can spot a book that hasn’t been polished a mile away. And be aware that publishing is a business, so you must also be aware of your potential market.
“If you write fiction, don’t give up your day job, because you won’t make enough money to live off your writing. Also, network – got to book events, meet publishers, or find an author who will bat for you.”
For wannabe crime writers she had this to say: “Crime takes time. We have a very vibrant community of crime writers in South Africa, but it often takes a few books for readers to really click with your characters and your style.
“And finally, remember that readers like to identify with a character. They like a character who gets under your skin. Write a book that’s personal, not about issues.”
Our monthly workshops will resume in November because of our annual Booker evening at Love Books on Tuesday, 15 October, at 5.30pm for 6pm. Hope to see you there!