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