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Joanne Hichens

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Behind the scenes of BLOODY SATISFIED

This interview can be found on ITW (International Thriller Writers) news from South Africa.

Michael Stanley chats to Joanne Hichens about the newly released South African crime-thriller fiction collection of short stories BLOODY SATISFIED – ‘A cracking collection, with stories of stunning originality and skill,’ says Sarah Lotz.

Editing an anthology is a great deal of work even if a publisher is in place. You had to find the publisher, raise the money, solicit the stories. What were the major challenges and how did you overcome them to make BLOODY SATISFIED a reality?

Certainly there’s a tendency to underestimate the behind the scenes work involved in getting an anthology off the ground. I’d done it before with Bad Company for which Lee Child wrote the foreword, so I understood the kind of effort it required. I’ve never been afraid to approach people for support, so the first thing I did was ask Deon Meyer to write a foreword. He was positive about the project, as was publisher, Tim Richman of Mercury, an imprint of Burnet Media, and so with an internationally respected author to lend lustre to the collection, and a keen publisher on board, it was all systems go.

Getting the money, of course, was the major challenge, but determination (for better or worse) is one of my personality traits and I kept on soliciting, the glint in my eye sharp. I approached various organizations and businesses, and the South African National Arts Festival agreed to fund the prize for our newly created Short.Sharp.Stories Awards and appointed me curator. I couldn’t have had a better result. The National Arts Council followed suit with funding and it was then a matter of calling for stories, followed by team elbow-grease of editing and production.
Of course, another challenge was making final decisions about which stories to include, and I’m acutely aware that great stories were left behind as we considered the anthology as a whole, how stories would mesh to create a satisfying read. The publisher scolded me, letting me know in no uncertain terms that a 400-page book was simply not a possibility. I had to let go.

But I’d say the major challenge, of any book really, is the marketing and selling. We’ve had plenty of launches, and good sales since the anthology was launched in July. I admit a highlight was the moment Ian Rankin popped into a local bookstore and bought a copy, after which I stalked him, at the recent Open Book Festival held in Cape Town, for the pic on this page!

Was there a point at which you thought it was hopeless or just not worth the effort?

Never! There were times when I wondered why I was expending so much energy to get other people’s writing off the ground at the expense of my own. But I truly believe in the collective South African ‘Voice’, that South Africa is a fertile ground for riveting and thought-provoking crime fiction, inspired by, as Deon says in his foreword, ‘our idiosyncrasies, our headlines, our fears, but above all, by the imaginations of seriously gifted authors.’ I simply kept on reconnecting to my commitment to work towards combing the forces of so many talented people.

Interestingly, Deon Meyer good-humouredly ‘apologizes’ in the foreword for a statement he made a while back in the international press. Can you comment on that?

Yes! He refers to a statement he made in an interview featured in The Guardian newspaper. He was asked if South Africa was taking over from Scandinavia as the new home of crime fiction, to which he expressed his doubts saying that ‘South Africa is just not as sexy a place as Scandinavia.’ He goes on to claim that he said this before he had the pleasure of reading the stories collected in Bloody Satisfied. ‘Before I knew,’ he writes, ‘about the cornucopia of crime writing talents in this crazy country.’

Would you tell us about the prize? It certainly attracted a lot of attention. Is there a chance that the awards will be made annually?

The awards sit currently at 35 000 Rands (equivalent to $3500 dollars), which I’m hoping to swell. The National Arts Festival own the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards and will keep funding the project as long as gifted writers are submitting and we’re able to publish their original, entertaining and well crafted work.

However, the theme of the collection will change every year. This year’s title is Adults Only and we’re looking for stories of love, lust, sex and sensuality, stories that have a bite to them (interpret that any way you choose!) This though does not preclude crime writers from submitting ‘sexy’ twist-in-the-tale stories.

When it comes to crime fiction awards, there’s been plenty of talk of getting an African crime fiction prize off the ground and of course I’d love to see that happen. There’s such an exciting range of African crime and thriller writers each with a fascinating perspective – including Mukoma WaNgugi, Hamilton Wende, Kwei Quartey, Roger Smith, Richard Crompton, Tony Park, and Michele Rowe whom I interviewed for ITW last month. A crime fiction prize would really cement South African and African writers as players in the international crime writing arena.

Ian Rankin with his next read!

Please tell us about the prizewinner and the winning story.

The winner for Best Story, Dawn Garisch, doesn’t describe herself as a crime writer. She writes across genres. She’s written memoir and literary fiction and is currently working on a play. The judges – including crime fiction author Sarah Lotz – responded to her immensely readable and sharply observed story of a date gone wrong. What To Do About Ricky is wickedly noir, and a worthy winner.

Indeed, the beauty of the collection is that the competition was not restricted to crime writers. Primarily we wanted strong narrative. Writers hone craft through short stories, as they often delve into and explore unknown territory. The fabulous response from writers who submitted to the inaugural competition proved the tremendous interest in writing crime fiction.

The collection ranges between big name authors and unpublished writers. The theme was very broad. Would you tell us how the anthology became coherent?

We feature a number of new writers – watch for Liam Kruger and Nechama Brodie who’ve not yet published full-length manuscripts. Andrew Salomon was recently a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel of the Year Award; Anirood Singh has just completed, as part of an MA degree in creative writing from Rhodes University, a manuscript featuring an Indian detective – a South African first; Melissa Baumann will have her debut novel published by Penguin next year. Then we have Roger Smith, Peter Church, Yewande Omotoso, all internationally published, and we have the perfect set of ‘bookends’ with stars Deon Meyer and you, Michael Stanley – thank you for penning an informative afterword in which you place South African crime fiction in a world context.

The coherence in this case lies in the diversity. South Africa boasts emerging writers from all ethnicities and cultures. The range of criminal activity is (unfortunately) spectacular and I wanted the reader to have a sense of the kind of crime story that plays out in a distinctly South African setting. Also, I wanted a reader to have a sense of the diversity of crime fiction itself so I included in the collection the cosy, the hard-boiled, the story from the victim’s point of view as well as from the perpetrator’s. I wanted the collection to be fun too. The use of irony and black humour helps us face the atrocities which inspire our stories.

You were also the editor of the first anthology of South African crime fiction – BAD COMPANY (now available from Amazon as an ebook). Would you be willing to make it a threesome?

I’ll never forget the thrill I got when reading Lee Child’s shout line for Bad Company: ‘They told me there were gold mines in South Africa – and look what just came out.’

I’m certain #3 will become a reality. With so many aspiring writers out there, it would do them justice to showcase their stories in another ‘cracking’ crime-thriller collection.

Bloody Satisfied is available in print from Kalahari or available as an ebook, but currently only for Apple and Android devices at Google Play and iTunes.

Deon Meyer’s bloody marvelous foreword to Bloody Satisfied

Writing a long foreword to a collection of short stories would be a lot like putting fur on the dash of a Ford Cortina Piranha. And even though I come from Klerksdorp, and grew up in the sixties, I’d never want to be guilty of either. And knowing crime fiction aficionados, you want to get stuck in as soon as possible.

So I’ll give you a warning, a confession and a recommendation.That’s it.

Thus, it is my civic duty to inform you that Bloody Satisfied comes with a very serious health warning: THIS BOOK CONTAINS MATERIAL THAT IS EXTREMELY ADDICTIVE. Once you start reading, you probably won’t be able to stop. This could result in relationship problems, trouble at work and general antisocial behaviour, for which neither I, nor the editor or publisher take any responsibility whatsoever.

This book contains stories of a suspenseful nature. It will cause sleeplessness, it will make your heart pound, it will make you perspire, it will sometimes make you afraid. A pre-reading medical checkup is advised.(And don’t even think about suing us, should your health be adversely affected. The authors of these stories obviously know people who could make your life very unpleasant…)
And so, on to the confession.

I’m the idiot who recently told The Guardian newspaper that ‘South Africa is just not as sexy a place as Scandinavia’ when they asked me, ‘Is South Africa taking over from Scandinavia as the new home of crime fiction?’

But there are extenuating circumstances, Your Honour. I uttered this before I had the pleasure of reading the stories collected in this book. Before I knew about the cornucopia (yes, I know, that’s a big word for a Dutchman. But hey, gimme at least one opportunity to show off) of crime-writing talents in this crazy country.

Because this book is uniquely South African. These stories are inspired by our idiosyncrasies, our headlines, our fears, but above all, by the imaginations of seriously gifted authors. They represent the excellent efforts from writers of all ethnicities. They are enriching in their diversity of points of view – from the perpetrators to the victims – and their themes, styles, subject matter and settings.

This collection is a snapshot of modern South Africa, with a lot of thought-provoking social commentary (but if that sounds too serious, hang on for the recommendation at the end). And the quality of storytelling and writing is as good (and often better) than anything I’ve encountered anywhere. Scandinavia included.

The fact is, these stories show that South Africa is a very sexy place for crime fiction – probably the sexiest in the world.

I apologise to The Guardian and all its readers. I was wrong.

So, finally, here’s the recommendation: This book is immensely entertaining. And fun. Exactly the way crime fiction should be. It contains the best twenty-four out of (an astounding) more than two hundred contributions. It includes world-class, internationally famous authors, and a very large number who will soon fall into that category.
It is a great honour, pleasure and privilege to add my name to it in the form of this foreword.

Buy it. Read it. Relish it. It will leave you pretty bloody satisfied.

Deon Meyer
April 2013

-Thank you Deon, I am so grateful.


Even though BLOODY SATISFIED has just hit the shelves, it’s time to announce the 2013 competition. So here goes… the SHORT SHARP STORIES team look forward to reading tales of love, lust, sex and sensuality.

‘The fact is, while certain aspects of sexual behaviour may never change, and ‘a kiss is still a kiss’, there are elements of how we behave towards one another in moments of intimacy that are products of the time.’ J.H. Blair, editor of The Good Parts, The Best Erotic Writing in Modern Fiction.

Our new title is: ADULTS ONLY…

This collection will be devoted to stories of love and lust, stories with an element of sex and sensuality. We’re looking for stories that are raw, dangerous and powerful, as well as those that are delicate, sensitive and funny. Your story can titillate the senses, it can be highly provocative; it can be sacred or profane, playfully perverse or deeply poignant. It can be tender, reserved, and full of self-possessed restraint, or it can speak of rapacious appetites. Your erotic fantasy (tending to arouse love and desire, but with arty aspirations) can set readers on fire or rock them in romance, but the sex and/ or sensuality must be part of a strong, compelling narrative. We want stories that will challenge stereotypical thinking, cross-cultural stories that explore how South Africans engage when cultures collide, stories that explore sexual orientation, stories of forbidden love with an historical kick-back, stories that inform us that Cupid’s arrow can find its mark at any age. We want stories that explore the struggles and celebrations around sexuality in whatever form it takes, bearing in mind that Love can be heroic, it can be tragic, it can make you laugh and cry.

Once again we will be selecting from new as well as established voices. The Awards are open to writers 18 and over, who are either citizens or residents of South Africa. The stories must have a South African setting. The deadline is 01 December 2013. Please refer to the full rules on

“There are few writers of literary merit who approach the subjects of sex and sensuality. Advertisers and pornographers have annexed not only the terrain, but the language. It is very difficult to write about sex because the language is so limited, so blunt. Yet we can’t hand over such an important topic to commerce. Another important question: Why is it permissible for a writer to make a reader cry, laugh, get angry, and feel happy, but s/he may not turn us on? Perhaps writers know that, like humour, what turns one person on is ludicrous to another…. Let’s get back to where we all came from – sex and its place in relationship – with all the attendant pleasure and grief.” Dawn Garisch, winner of the first SHORT SHARP STORIES AWARDS

Check out the site for more info:
Any queries can be directed to

My Next Big Thing…

Thanks to Jenna Mervis, for the invitation. Poet, blogger and short-story writer, her Next Big Thing entices at Her Perfect Worlds sounds just up my street – a Sci-fi exploration into hate crimes, amongst other realities. Can’t wait to feast on her baking, whenever ready!


As for my Next Big Thing? Here goes…

What is the working title of your book?

Two Next Big Things will be published this year:
Bloody Satisfied is the working title of the first of the ‘Short Sharp Stories Award’ annual anthologies, to be published June 2013. This new award, for South African short fiction, is sponsored by the National Arts Festival, with the first collection dedicated to crime fiction. Sweet Paradise is the next in my Rae Valentine crime series, following Divine Justice, and will be on the shelves October 2013.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Talking Sweet Paradise, I worked in a psychiatric clinic for five years and am still interested in, and fascinated by, mental health issues and addiction in particular. The name of the psych facility in my book is Paradise Place – where each patient suffers in their own private hell.

What genre does your book fall under?

Squarely in the crime fiction genre, with a touch of Noir…. I capitalize on absurdity. The world I’m creating, in this dysfunctional rehab facility, is maudlin, hellish. There’s suicide, murder, the blood flows.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

SA actors please! Kim Engelbrecht as Rae Valentine would be just perfect! Though there’d have to be a special effects team to recreate her as an amputee (Rae has one leg) in a couple of scenes.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Rae Valentine is contracted to look into the cold case of a missing female drug addict who spent time incarcerated at Paradise Place, where her partner, Vincent Saldana, is co-incidentally in rehab…. Let’s leave it at that!

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Mercury, an imprint of Burnet Media, will publish. They’re small, they’re hungry, they’re innovative, they’re risk-takers. Sweet Paradise fits their bill of irreverent fiction.

Bloody Satisfied, the crime fiction anthology, will also be a Mercury publication. BTW, the acclaimed Deon Meyer will write a foreword for this collection.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’ve had this idea in my head a long time…. and I’m still honing the first draft. Ha ha ha! (Hysterical laughter, I break out in a sweat…). I use multiple points of view to unfold the story, as I did in Divine Justice, and am continually adjusting the different voices…. the police, the victims, Rae and Vince….

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m writing hard-hitting black humour. Carl Hiaasen does it, as does the master crime-writer Elmore Leonard, also the fabulous US writer Mark Haskell Smith, and Vicki Hendricks writes Noir white-trash crime which I collect. I humble myself before these writers. I don’t compare myself. Their absurd plots, off-the-wall characters and entertaining dialogue makes for pages that turn almost by themselves.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

As an art therapist, I was acutely aware of the vulnerability of patients. I worked in an excellent clinic, but as a creative person, my imagination allowed to me see how possible it would be to exploit the patients as victims.

And I keep these Dylan lyrics in mind:
If you don’t believe there’s a price
for this sweet paradise
Just remind me to show you the scars ….

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Divine Justice was well received, and I hope readers will enjoy connecting again with my intrepid pair of PIs as they get caught up in the evil perpetuated at Paradise Place. Rae, of course, still hankers after love…


Now, for someting completely different, I hand over to Heather Parker Lewis who started self-publishing way back when it was definitely not in fashion. Her informal biography Olive Schreiner, the other side of the moon, is a delight. It’s an engaging eye-opener about Olive, acknowledged as the first writer of English literature in South Africa. The book explores Olive’s Bohemian lifestyle and exposes previously unpublished facts about her life. Heather has published a number of books under her iHilihili Press imprint. Read about the just released Dance of Bliss, and her Next Big Thing, on facebook at


Yahoo! So now it is official! I am in partnership with the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, bringing you the “Short Sharp Stories Award”, the first of which will be made next year (2013) for best crime fiction or thriller fiction short story. You can read all about it at or at

Bloody Satisfied! (Or we may call it Deadline! as the deadline looms….three months to go…) will be published in July 2013 and will feature in the region of twenty-five crime/ thriller short stories. The National Arts Festival is sponsoring the prize money, so far at thirty-five thousand rand. This will be an annual competition, but bear in mind that the theme for the anthology will change from year to year. So this is your chance to send in a crime/ thriller tale! I am really hoping to get a range of stories – from established and emerging authors. We have so many diverse voices in SA, and the whole idea behind this series of anthologies (over the years) is to showcase that diversity, and talent of course.

The stories will be sifted and chosen independently and a panel of three judges will choose the winning tales from the selection to be published. Deon Meyer will write the foreword, and Fred Khumalo has agreed to be one of the judges. I’ll keep you posted as to developments. Basically it is now over to writers interested in trying their hand at crime/thriller fiction.

The jury will forever be out on what constitutes crime or thriller fiction, or crime-thriller fiction, but my own take is that a crime should be central to the story, and it should thrill, intrigue, have a twist in the tail/ tale, and hold the reader in suspense till the very last.

Happy writing. Any queries can be directed to me at

Or leave a comment or query here. And please spread the word. The more people writing, the better for all of us.

New Short Fiction Award to be announced

More news on Bloody Satisfied!

Getting an anthology of short fiction together takes time and effort, and a measure of wheeling and dealing too. So I now have the latest, as promised, on developments towards getting the crime-thriller collection off the ground.

To recap: after the success of BAD COMPANY, the crime-fiction short story anthology published 2008, which featured the crème de la crime writers of South Africa, I had decided it was time for another collection and made a call for stories a couple of months back.

My first bit of good news was that Deon Meyer agreed to write a foreword. I am now happy to announce that in exciting negotiations with CEO Tony Lankester of the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, he and his team have agreed to underwrite prize money for a new fiction award under the name Short Sharp Stories. A collection of short fiction will be published annually, and will be launched during that year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

I am thrilled to announce of course, that the first of these volumes, with prize money attached, will be this collection of crime-thriller fiction stories.

In this collection I will be including veteran crime authors, but am also wanting to include new voices, with an original take on things. Skop skiet en donder is one way to go about it, and I look forward to those nail-biting tales, but I am also looking for stories with more subtlety, and am hoping to include a range of stories which show diversity of crime, from murder to white-collar crime.

At least twenty stories will be published in what will be an exciting home-grown collection which shows the diversity of writers in SA. With this latest development, then, the deadline has now been extended to 31 November 2012.
So all writers out there interested in the seamy, nasty, murderous, sometimes all too human side of life, I look forward to your killer tales glinting sharp as knives. If you’re working on something slick, sexy, flirty, dangerous, thrilling, a twist-in-the-tale story, that’s just up my street. I am hoping too that a number of stories will deliver a measure of justice so sorely needed in SA. The only proviso is that the story must be set in South Africa.

The competition is open to South African citizens. Stories of between 2500 and 5000 words are to be written in English. Independent judges will choose the winning stories after the initial selection process by a panel of writers.
A full set of rules will be published on the website on 30 August 2012.
Any queries can be directed to me, Joanne Hichens, at
Submissions are also to be made, via email, to

Thanks for your patience on this, but I am so thrilled that we will soon have another fiction prize which will celebrate South African fiction writing.

Update on Bloody Satisfied

Dear All

I am in exciting negotiations with a sponsor for not only Bloody Satisfied but future titles.

Hopefully you’re already working on something slick, sexy, flirty, dangerous, thrilling, a twist in the tale story with a great setting (and a resolution that delivers a measure of justice and surprises!)….If so then you’re well on your way to delivering a great story!

From what I’ve seen to date, the stories are out of the box and un-put-down-able, certain to leave the SA readership gasping for more crime thriller fiction.

I’ve had queries from African authors living beyond our borders – I will only verify who is eligible for publishing in by end July.

No worries, the closing date for stories will be extended. View the call for submissions here.

Will keep you updated with some good, and interesting news soon!!

And will clarify the queries that are coming through to me.

All best,


Call for Submissions: Crime Fiction Short Stories

With the breaking news that Deon Meyer, the King of SA crime fiction, will write a foreword, it’s time to announce a new crime-thriller anthology on the roll for 2013!

After the success of Bad Company, the crime-fiction short story anthology published 2008, which featured the crème de la crime writers of SA, it’s time for a new collection. Oh yes. So this is the call to all writers out there interested in the seamy, nasty, murderous, sometimes all too human side of life, to get writing.

The (working) title is Bloody Satisfied, and the only limit to your imagination must be that Justice is done. With so much bloody crime in South Africa, it’s time we had satisfaction – at least twenty stories worth – with killer tales glinting sharp as knives.

The collection will feature experts at the craft – internationally acclaimed Roger Smith, Sunday Times Fiction Prize shortlisted author Hawa Golakai, Edgar Award nominated Michael Stanley – but we’re looking for new voices.

Kill, steal, maim whomever, whatever, as long as you do it on the page, and as long as the baddie gets a certain comeuppance, legal or otherwise. Oh yes, set in South Africa please. Diversity, of setting and especially voice, will mean the publication of an exciting home-grown collection.

Word-count? 2500 to 5000

Deadline? 31 August 2012. Three months from today.

Submissions? via email to

Editing? October/ November

Publication date? March 2013

Publisher? Mercury

Prize? Maybe

Is that it? For now…

Oh yes – it’s worth repeating – Deon Meyer, the King of SA crime fiction, has agreed to write a foreword.

Any queries can be directed to me at

Paradigm shift required to promote and sell South African books

The Cape Times, by its tremendous effort to bring books to schools through the One Library for Every School campaign, acknowledges an ailing reading culture. It is to be commended, too, for giving books the space that it does on the Friday Books page, in the capable hands of editor Karin Schimke.

Nevertheless, as the recent passionate exchanges on the letters page indicate, there is a need to debate whether the media in general is successfully reviewing and promoting a reading culture in South Africa.

Aggrieved local publisher Tim Richman has criticised as ‘faux-intellectual catatonia’ a Kavish Chetty review of Out To Lunch…Ungagged by David Bullard, as an example of reviewers taking an exaggeratedly literary approach to popular writing. And Darryl Accone raised the counterpoint, on the Books LIVE website that ‘a delicate balance exists between promoting South African literature, the “‘local is lekker’ mentality”, and simply mollycoddling local writers as a default to nepotism.’

Some local fare is certainly more competently written than others, and certainly publishers are discerning about the titles they choose to publish while at the same time trying to nurture fresh talent. Love Sifiso Mzobe’s work, or hate it, the praise heaped on his local novel Young Blood is an indication of the desire to support new voices. The consensus is that we are telling home-grown stories with aplomb, and that many South African writers are as talented as their international counterparts.

Yet the Nielsen trade figures, which track sales of major bookstores show clearly that South African fiction especially is struggling to make inroads, Deon Meyer and the Spud novels notwithstanding. Much well-penned South African fiction ends up dead in the water. The question is whether this can be laid squarely at the foot of lingering ‘cultural cringe’ which stops readers from investing in SA fiction, or whether the promotion of South African titles falls short of the mark?

It goes without saying that it’s necessary to uphold standards, but in a country with a population which is barely literate, never mind engaged with the written word, it is perhaps time that we – as a collective of writers, publishers, promoters, and sellers – work more closely to save local fiction.

I write here in my capacity as author and editor, and relatively new face to crime writing. I am keenly aware of the difficulties faced in the publishing industry, as albeit with a top ten ranking from two major publications, for a novel published by Burnet Media, it remains a challenge to promote and sell.

Here lies the rub. Money makes the publishing world go round, like any other. Everybody wants a reading culture, everybody claims to want SA titles to flourish, but the only way for this to happen is that people fork out for SA titles. One way to encourage readers is to create a buzz around new, accessible titles, to bring them to the attention of readers through reviews and interviews.

Books pages in general – whether they be printed or online, whether reviewing literature or genre fiction – must always have as a goal to create balanced opinion. Criticism best be substantiated when splashed across the pages of a major newspaper. If overly negative reviews come from uninformed reviewers, the ensuing damage – a book killed in its tracks – to writer, publisher and book industry in general is unforgiveable.

From a collection of online comments, it is clear that readers crave thoughtful reviews. They want comparative reviews. They feel cheated when a review is simply a rehash of a book’s blurb, they are ‘ticked off’ when the reviewer flashes around his or her ‘style’ rather than deal respectfully with the book in question.

The review should not be a thumbsuck. The reviewer should obviously read the book – sometimes one wonders – and have a background in the genre being reviewed.

Rather than wading through academic jargon, many readers want to be encouraged by reviews, enjoy thoughtful expression about a cluster of books thematically linked, or a writer’s collected tome; readers want to feel the reviewer’s disappointment or surprise.

A book is an intimate product, commented one respondent, to be approached with discernment and integrity. Over the top, elitist language should be dropped, commented another.

According to Andrew Marjoribanks, of Wordsworth Books, ‘the best reviews are the ones that make you rush out and buy the book. To hell with prose style. I want a reviewer to enthuse me with the story.’ Preferably, he adds, reviews are to be tackled by reviewers with impeccable taste and discernment. This would imply that a reviewer has a good idea of trends, but will focus on titles which they enjoy.

Trust is built up over time. Readers come to appreciate and value the judgement of the reviewer in it for the long-term. Reviewing then, like novel writing, is a profession to be developed.

According to writer David Derbyshire however, print book reviews are going the way of the dinosaur. ‘They are space fillers. They run the risk of being nothing more than an outlet for self-satisfaction by opinionated individuals. ‘What is needed to encourage readership – particularly amongst the young – is a more collaborative means of evaluating reads. And social media has made this possible. Publishers need to give everyone an outlet to share their opinions via electronic media.’

I disagree with Derbyshire’s suggestion that the printed review should merely be a well-penned summary of shared opinion, but the points he raises are valid. The struggle remains how to create excitement around books and reading. At a time when print newspapers are losing readers to more accessible and engaging media, every precious column centimetre must be used to tantalise rather than to bore.

One must note too that the top overseas newspapers don’t exhibit the kind of snobbery that elevates literary fiction while diminishing genre or popular fiction to the back benches. Britain’s Financial Times, The Guardian, The Spectator and Independent, as well as the most authoritative newspaper in the US, The New York Times, all review crime fiction, for instance, with gusto.

Another issue is that South African titles are given scant space and exposure in book stores. Our major bookstore chain, for instance, relegates South African literature to what some local writers call the ‘ghetto’. Human nature ensures a resistance to scrounging for SA titles in the dark crannies of the Africa section.

An industry insider is more critical: ‘Exclusive Books appears to be doing its bit for local authors and publishers with the Homebru promotion, which focuses on local work, but it’s practically under duress. Publishers are held to ransom with stringent stipulations including a heavy fee to make the cut.

‘Exclusives stipulate an amount of stock which needs to be available so there are no shortages if it sells out, but they reserve the right to return every single copy. And once the promotion is over there doesn’t seem to be any logical management of stock. I know of titles that have done very well for the Homebru month, then been instantly relegated to the back shelves and stock returned. Then sales dry up. If the browser doesn’t see a book on display, he or she simply won’t buy it. In-store presence, or shelf space, is the most important factor in boosting a book’s sales. That’s why good store managers are so vital. Many books succeed or fail based on what Exclusive Books decides.’

In an article by Julie Bosman, called The Book Store’s Last Stand, she quotes David Shanks, the chief executive of The Penguin Group USA: ‘For all publishers, it’s really important that brick-and-mortar retailers survive. Not only are they key to keeping our physical book business thriving, there is also the carry-on effect of the display of a book that contributes to selling e-books and audio books. The more visibility a book has, the more inclined a reader is to make a purchase.’

She adds that publishers count on this so-called browsing effect. Surveys indicate that only a third of the people who step into a bookstore and walk out with a book actually arrived with the specific intention to buy one.

So where are the piles of SA titles right at the front door? Publishers pay a premium for the space, and with mass-printed foreign titles coming in at cheaper prices due to their larger print runs, this creates a very real problem for local publishers who can’t compete.

As for independent bookstores, catering to the special needs of valued individual customers is laudable, but it won’t keep a bookstore open. Corina van der Spoel commented after the closure of the Johannesburg Boekehuis, that we have to look at ‘this inability to tap into new markets and an inability to market books to the market we do have.’

This brings me to the reader. If publishers are taking a risk, if book pages are bringing a choice of titillating reviews to the reader, if book stores offer better visibility, offer exciting events and book signings, it is then also the responsibility of the reader to try out what is on offer. As important as literary fare, are the popular, more accessible titles, the ‘easy’ reads. Whichever one chooses, and risks, the result will be a stronger reading – and writing – culture.

In a time of not only diminishing readership but of diminishing responsibility, it is time we stood up for our own literature.

Published in the Cape Times and reproduced with permission

Female detectives get centre stage

My article on the female detective in local crime fiction was recently published in the Sunday Independent. Read it here: