Open Book Festival Report 2: Straight from the horses’ mouths

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The Fugard Theatre played host to a panel discussion about the publishing industry in South Africa, chaired by Mervyn Sloman from The Book Lounge.

Terry Morris from Pan Macmillan

Frederik de Jager from Umuzi, Colleen Higgs from Modjadji, Veronica Klipp from Wits University Press, Alison Lowry from Penguin and Terry Morris from Pan Macmillan started the discussion by telling the audience some good news about the publishing industry today. Their reasons to be cheerful included the fact that people still want books (and that books are still selling, despite the economic downturn), digital publishing and all the exciting opportunities it represents, the fact that South African books are doing so well at the moment, and the ways in which writers and publishers are engaging with readers more directly. Klipp also mentioned the fact that South Africa’s scholarly authors are building up phenomenal respect (and thus symbolic capital) for the country in scholarly communities abroad.

A large part of the discussion was devoted to the digital revolution and how this affects publishing and the way in which books are produced and marketed. Misconceptions about the cost of e-books and the difficulties in their production were addressed, with Klipp and Lowry both stressing the fact that South Africa still has a relative skills shortage when it comes to the expertise required for various stages of producing e-books. Morris emphasised the need for publishers to address these skills shortages more quickly, to move faster in embracing the electronic revolution, so as to not have the carpet pulled from under their feet as happened in the music industry. De Jager pointed out that the publishing industry has been ahead of the game so far, and has kept abreast of changes and developments in the market, and has not been left behind when it comes to technological developments.

Colleen Higgs from Modjadji

All the trade publishers agreed that there has been no downturn in the number of manuscripts they receive. The ballpark figure sits at around 400 unsolicited manuscripts received per year (per publisher), while they can count on one hand the number of these manuscripts that are published. Generally, the modus operandi is still to solicit material or to work through literary agents when planning a publication.

Klipp pointed out some important differences between academic and trade publishing. Works published by scholarly publishers are still largely unsolicited, and the academic market has been slower to embrace electronic publications, in spite of the fact that it holds many advantages for them, like being more easily searchable. It seems that simpler books are more suited to reading on a Kindle or iPad, while academics still prefer to handle actual books and use traditional libraries.

Frederik de Jager from Umuzi, Veronica Klipp from Wits University Press and Alison Lowry from Penguin.

Another big topic of discussion was “The Numbers” and how to make them work with a relatively small reading public. Morris explained that for the books to balance, you need to budget on selling 1 500 copies of a book. Although they do publish books that are unlikely to sell so many copies, these must be financially supported by the profit from so called “Big Books”, titles that sell in excess of 10 000 copies.

The panel also discussed the characteristics and importance of literary fiction, books that suffer from what De Jager calls “midlist disease”. He pointed out the direct relationship between sales and what booksellers are willing to put on their shelves. He also pointed out that the production of literature has been completely ignored in academic studies, and that the downward trend in sales of literary fiction must be seen in conjunction with the hunt for “Big Books”.

Mervyn Sloman from The Book Lounge

As far as trends in the South African publishing industry are concerned, all the publishers agreed that South African books are doing really well at the moment. Lowry noted an increasing interest in personality-driven “political” books, where the focus has shifted from the country to the individual stories that help us to understand who we are.

Higgs mentioned the fact that authors need to master the art of becoming “personalities”. She has found that the authors who are willing to go out and meet their audience sell more books than those who don’t. Big publishers like Pan Macmillan contractually oblige their authors to participate in marketing events, but Mervyn Sloman says it seems unfair to expect authors to “dance on tables” to sell books. De Jager, with his characteristic dry wit, pointed out that someone will end up dancing on the table – if not the author, then certainly the publisher.

After filling the audience in on forthcoming attractions from their publishing houses, they were all off to go and support their authors, the ones who will be dancing all over town for the next four days.

The publishers in conversation.


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