Miss Congeniality: South African fiction

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Authors’ incomes collapse to ‘abject’ levels.

That’s what the headline on The Guardian said, and I was frantic to know more. Which authors? Was it me? Were my annual royalty cheques of R250 about to plunge to R50? Less?

Usually I read like a millenial, which is to say I base my world view on the first three words of headlines from Buzzfeed articles on Twitter. But this time I read on.

Many professional authors in the United Kingdom, I discovered, were seeing their royalties plunge. Some who had earned their living from writing books were facing the prospect of – dear reader, are you sitting down? – not being able to write fiction as a full-time occupation.

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Mal Peet, a celebrated writer of novels for children, told The Guardian that his direct income from sales had become “literally abject”. His royalty cheque for the last months of 2013, which included all his books in print, was £3 000.

That might sound like quite a lot to a South African writer, but of course Peet doesn’t live in South Africa, and for a UK resident, twice-yearly cheques of £3 000 are basically enough for a bus ticket down to Lidl and a packet of Jaffa cakes.

Still, for South African writers the alarmed cries of authors in the UK might have a slightly comical ring to them. I mean, 6 000 abject pounds a year can’t keep a Briton in Marmite but that’s still about R115 000 a year, and for most South African fiction writers that’s the stuff of pure fantasy.

In case you don’t already know, here are the financial realities of writing a novel in South Africa.

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Once a publisher agrees to make you a megastar, and you stop screaming, and then stop vomiting from performance anxiety, you are likely to be offered a royalty of about 12%.

As you sign the contract with a fountain pen filled with champagne, this figure sounds like

giphy

But then your publisher explains that it’s not 12% of the cover price of the book. It’s 12% of what the publisher gets, which is the price of the book minus VAT minus bookshops’ 40%-ish cut.

So if your novel costs R150 you’re looking at getting about R10 per copy.

No problem, right? You only have to sell 100 000 copies to make a million bucks, and your mom has already bought six, so that’s only another 99 994 to go. And so you scamper down to Exclusives Books and find your novel, lovingly shelved under Non-Fiction or Mind/Body/Spirit or Wildlife, and you notice that they’ve sold two copies since the last time you were there. Which is actually pretty good seeing as the last he last time you were there was three hours ago, compulsively counting the number of copies of your book on the shelf.

Soon you’re riding the wave. A good review in a local newspaper causes a spike in sales, with literally dozens of copies flying off the shelves around the country. Your publisher organizes a radio interview on a very popular book show, and the beloved DJ provides some articulate insights into the blurb, which is all she’s read. (True story.) Over the course of the following week, up to nine people tell you that they heard the interview. Have they bought the book? Oh, they gush, they will. They almost definitely will.

But as weeks become months, and you start seeing your book in second-hand shops, marked down from R100 to R70 to R40 to Shem to Bwahahahaha, you realize that your publisher’s initial print run of 2,000 copies wasn’t a defeatist lowball estimate to knock your self-confidence. You’ve sold a thousand and change. And that’s that.

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The bottom line is that the vast majority of South African novels written in English sell between 700 and 1,500 copies. Their quality doesn’t really seem to be a factor. Some novels that are basically typed poo sell quite respectably. I know one literary prize-winning novel that didn’t crack 900.

So.

Your novel sells 1 000 copies. You get R10 per copy. Over the entire lifetime of your book (a year or three) you’ll make R10 000. Before tax. That’s about £600. Hence my suspicion that there are a lot of local writers who’d be very happy with Mr Peet’s version of abjection.

Reading your latest royalty statement

But why are our numbers so tiny? What does Mr Peet got that we ain’t got?

The obvious answer is probably that he works in a country that reads.

You know the scene in the Western where a nervous guy in wire-rimmed spectacles walks into the saloon and the Madam of the brothel upstairs says, “Say, where you from, stranger?” and he reveals that he’s a writer from back east? Remember how there’s always that moment when the gunslingers at the bar slowly turn on their stools, chawin’ their spittin’ tobacco, weigh him up – and then decide he’s not worth another thought?

That bar is where we’re at, and that guy is a writer in South Africa.

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I’ve always felt that this country is a small frontier town at the end of a desert railway. In a column I described it as “a place haphazardly knocked together by prospectors and preachers, cattle-ranchers and con-men; peculiarly tolerant of difference in the way that misfits are, but at the same time always up for public hanging or a bar brawl. A place ruled by a long line of venal mayors in the pocket of local mining- and railroad barons, where justice is arbitrary and violence is imminent. It’s proud of itself in a small kind of way, which is why it will stay like this until the railroad is rerouted and it starves to death.”

We are tolerant of some differences, and artists, writers and philosophers are definitely different. So we tolerate them…as long as they don’t upset the ladyfolk with newfangled, unchristian ideas or cause a ruckus by using hifalutin words.

(By the way, this isn’t a condemnation of the frontier town. It is what it is. The gunfighter and the madam aren’t out of place; the bespectacled journalist is. If he finds it depressingly resistant to his charms, he’s free to head back East – or look for readers elsewhere.)

So our society, whatever that means, is generally resistant to reading. But here’s the irony. Knowing that they are growing up in a small mining town that prefers brawls to books, many young writers insist on writing books that no-one wants to read.

I know why they do it, because I was one of them. About 15 years ago I wrote the first few chapters of a novel set in a future Cape Town in which corporations had taken over every aspect of life. (Please, hold your applause for the originality of this premise for later.) Everything was branded, people drank the Kool-Aid, blah blah blah.

Long story short, I deleted the manuscript.

Maybe it was because I wrote it while I was studying at UCT, where huge literary figures lurked in upstairs offices. Maybe it was just something that floated in the stale air of those dim corridors. Whatever the reason, I nuked my book because I didn’t think it was heavy enough.

Of course, it was heavy; a laborious and obvious dystopian mess about capitalism, the kind of thing that a 20-something middle-class man thinks no-one else has ever thought of. But the problem, I felt, was that it wasn’t South African Weighty. It didn’t feature an estranged couple sharing long silences, or a farm in the Karoo where a depressed urbanite discovers the power of landscape shortly before succumbing to cancer.

At the time I thought I was deleting it because it was fluff that nobody would take seriously. In retrospect I realize I destroyed it because I feared it might be too entertaining to the sort of person who buys books for fun.

Don't shoot yourself in the foot

“Do you wish to permanently delete this document? Hellz yes!”

But even if more South African writers wrote novels that South Africans theoretically wanted to read (and I’m not sure what those are), would we read them?

A few years ago I was writing a pilot episode of an English-language comedy for M-Net. At some point in the process we were told by someone fairly high up that, even if the show got made and aired, it would probably be the last English-language sitcom M-Net would make.

Their logic was sound. M-Net’s audience was predominantly Afrikaans-speaking and those who spoke English preferred American and British comedies. (The show didn’t get made in the end, probably to the relief of the bean counters. Making a TV show from scratch costs far more than buying one, even an American hit series, so for M-Net it was a no-brainer: why risk a huge amount of money making a local comedy that might bomb when you have absolute proof your audience prefers foreign stuff that costs much less?)

In the years since then I’ve recognized the same “DSTV effect” in many English-speaking readers in South Africa. With access to English fiction from the entire planet, local novels join the back of a fantastically long and gloriously rewarding queue, with the result that many local readers are a bit like those M-Net execs. Why, they ask, would you risk spending precious time and money on expensive local fiction when you can go straight to sure-fire hits from abroad?

Some writers and academics might answer that one good reason to read local fiction is to gain new perspectives on our country. It’s a fair response, but it assumes that people read for enlightenment rather than entertainment. For most, reading novels is an escape, a glimpse of a wider world, a breath of different air. Gaining insights into the often tragic realities of our country might be very important but who in their right mind would do it for fun?

There are various reasons why we avoid local fiction written in English. Perhaps our high school setworks have coagulated in our memories, convincing us that we spent out childhoods crushed by a single, monstrous tome of despair called Cry, For The Beloved Country Is Waiting For The Barbarians In A Dry White Season. Perhaps we’ve been unlucky since then, and read a few genuinely awful local novels. (I know one of those unlucky souls, a lawyer from White River, who wrote to my publisher to tell them that buying The De Villiers Code was “the worst mistake” he had ever made.)

Whatever the reasons, though, the unavoidable fact remains that local English fiction is languishing in a ghetto of unflattering perceptions.

I recently asked my Facebook friends to describe their gut response to South African writing. A few loved it, a few hated it. But the majority, a large demographic bulge in the middle, had one of two responses: it’s very hit and miss; and it “seems to be improving”.

I think it’s fairly safe to assume that most of my Facebook friends befriended me because they read my columns or have encountered my books. I think it’s probably also fair to assume that they are readers, perhaps even book readers and buyers. And for most of them, it turns out, local fiction is basically Miss Congeniality.

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Even its fans are shooting it in the head without realizing it. Every week I encounter somebody urging us to “support South African fiction”. Please, for the love of all things holy, can we please stop using that godawful s-word anywhere near local books? “Support” is an adult diaper. It’s a machine that helps you breathe when you are unconscious. It’s a charitable donation to fight a degrading, incurable malady. It’s a word so steeped in fatalistic despair that everything it touches instantly becomes a lost cause and therefore awkward and best and repellent at worst. Buy local fiction. Steal it. At very least borrow it from a library. But don’t you fucking dare support it.

If you are going to buy it, try not to be entirely put off by the bookshop. Because most of them seem to have been designed by professional book-burners.

Behold the layout in a nearby branch of Exclusive Books…

Once you’ve made your way past 50 Shades of Poo, detoured around Banting cookbooks by Tim Noakes, Tom Nokes, Nim Tokes, Noms Tik and 14 other writers cashing in on the success of the original, and finally reach the back wall, you see this…

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NATURE. This is apparently where a dog called Judy lives, and where cats and dachshunds romp. We’re not off to a great start, but let’s press on…

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AFRICAN PICTORIAL. More pictures, fewer words. So that’s two shelves for animals.

We’ve now gone from books about animals with lots of words to books about animals with very few words and no story.

So what’s the next logical step in this progression? Maybe books with no words and no story, featuring single-cell animals floating around in a primordial soup of illiteracy?

 You got it!

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AFRICAN FICTION! Or, as it’s also known, WHERE LOCAL NOVELS GO TO DIE. In this case, Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland has swum over from the BOOKS THAT SELL shelf to cheer up everyone else, like Molly Brown on the Titanic.

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“Don’t give up hope, darlings! Oh look, I think I see a book-buyer over on the western horizon!”

Moving on.

One shelf to the right we encounter –

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It’s not fiction. It’s not non-fiction. It’s just AFRIKAANS. Like the Borg. Resistance is futile. Weerstand is vir poepholle. Moenie – oh wait, hang on…That’s not Afrikaans, it’s…Why, it’s more local English fiction! Including all 1 083 Wilbur Smith novels, from Aardvark Armageddon to Zebra Zero Hour.

To be fair, though, I don’t blame Exclusive Books for filling the Afrikaans shelf with local English fiction. The problem is that Afrikaans novels sell faster than EB staff can pack them on the shelf. Deon Meyer’s thrillers never even get off the delivery truck. They just evaporate in a puff of money.

OK, next shelf:

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NEW FICTION is self-explanatory. This is for new fiction. Which means it’s not for South African writers, even if they’ve written new fiction. They need to go in African Fiction or Afrikaans. New fiction is for actual writers.

And finally

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This is where international novels go once they’re no longer new. Local novels that came out last year? Geez, pal. What part of FUCK OFF BACK TO AFRICAN FICTION are you not understanding?

So there it is.

I know there are some great bookshops in the country that find interesting and intelligent ways to sell books, but the inescapable fact is this: the largest specialist bookseller in the country, the shop most likely to sell your novel, believes that it belongs next to Poodles Of The Serengeti, and that African fiction can by definition never be new or read to be enjoyed like the international bestsellers.

(Aside: one notable Exclusive exception is the Waterfront branch, which puts local fiction right at the front of the shop, stands it up on little stands, launches tiny fireworks over it, employs small chorus-lines of dassies to dance around it, and hangs on the ankles of tourists as they march towards the stack of ‘Grey’, begging them to reconsider.)

*

According to the Guardian, British publishers released 20 new titles every hour in 2014. I suspect that’s verging on insanity. I struggle to believe that there were readers for every one of those titles or that they all deserved publication. But the sheer weight of books pouring onto British streets is proof that they have an extraordinary reading culture.

I mean, for god’s sake, they’ve got entire towns named after it.

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To a South African, the numbers are astonishing. 50 Shades sold 5 million copies in the UK. That means one person in every 13 bought a copy, which is the equivalent of a novel selling 4 million copies in South Africa. The last crazy runaway bestseller we had was the Spud series by John van der Ruit, and I think those had total sales of just over 500,000.

So why do the Poms buy and read books in such vast volumes and we don’t?

One explanation might be that the UK is a rich country while ours is poor. This answer also offers hope to sad South African writers with is implied promise that once our middle class grows, book sales will grow along with it.

Except I don’t think it’s true.

In my experience, money is no guarantee of a reading culture. The more luxurious the home, the fewer books it usually contains. The most expensive house I’ve ever visited, a sprawling mansion covering most of a Constantia hillside, contained a single shelf supporting a single line of leather-bound fake books. Empty shells simulating literacy. Erudition as interior design.

Yes, OK, me wandering through a few kitsch houses isn’t proof of an economic truth, but I don’t think this is just a hunch based on my loathing of the Top Billing “lifestyle”.

A friend of mine lectures at a very wealthy university. Recently, as we commiserated over coffee, he described his despair of the illiteracy of his undergraduates. These youngsters, most of whom are wealthy products of extremely expensive private high school, just didn’t read. Ever.

This was no idle eye-rolling. My friend is not afflicted with schadenfreude or misanthropy. He has a fundamentally kind view of humanity. He wants people to thrive. But, he sighed, it’s not just that his students don’t read: it’s that they don’t want to read. He and his colleagues had discussed the crisis and were starting to resign themselves to the fact that a large proportion of South Africa’s privileged students is actively anti-intellectual.

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“Dad’s got a wine farm so ja, I’ll probably just pay someone to read shit for me.”

So no. I’m not convinced that economic development automatically implies a reading culture.

Money doesn’t make readers. Books make readers. And most importantly, free books make readers.

I would guess that most avid readers developed their relationship with books that were free. They grew up in a house with lots of books or they had access to a good library. Very few would have been bought books regularly. I remember looking at the odd prices on my parents’ books, amounts in shillings and pence on Faber paperbacks from the 1960s. Even though I was looking at price tags it never really crossed my mind that all of these books had once been new, in a shop, and that someone had paid for them. After all, why would you buy a new book when there were more old ones than anyone could read in their lifetime?

My guess is that a reading culture requires access to books that are more or less free.

Which brings me to my final point. Which, I think is THE point of the whole sad story.

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Let’s consider two as-yet-unwritten crime novels.

Let’s call the first one Knife and Phorque. (Dianna Phorque, a brilliant pathologist, faces her ultimate test from a cannibalistic serial killer who uses only antique fish knives when eating his victims). It sells for £6 at Waterstones in London.

The other novel, Death On The Rocks, sees washed-up detective Staal ‘Yster’ Irons try to patch up his relationship with his estranged daughter and confront his drinking habit as he investigates a series of murders on the West Coast. This one sells for R180 at Exclusive Books in Johannesburg. [Yes, publishers, I’m open to writing both of those. I accept Pounds Sterling, American dollars, or prego steak rolls from Chippies in Rondebosch.]

They’re basically the same product: a weekend’s worth of short chapters, shock-horror reveals, and choppy, macho dialogue zinging between choppy, macho caricatures.

At first glance, the prices seem a little out of whack. £6 is about R115 at the moment, so paying R180 for On The Rocks seems a tad excessive. But, you tell yourself, that’s to be expected because books are expensive in South Africa because of importing and exchange rates and the overseas and stuff.

But I think we’re missing a trick here. I think we’re spending too much time talking about how expensive books are and not enough time talking about how expensive they feel.

Ideally, a trashy weekend read should be a temporary, disposable pleasure. It’s a small indulgence, on a par with a glass of good wine in a restaurant – the kind of thing you can buy yourself with the banknote you’re delighted to find in your back pocket.

And when you look at how affordable books feel, you realize that we live in a parallel universe to the book-buyers of London, New York and Berlin.

Averages and means can be horribly misleading, but bear with me for a moment.

Let’s assume that the average income in the UK is (very roughly) about £2 000 per month.

That means that when a British person wanders into Waterstones and sees Knife and Phorque she’ll turn it over and see that it costs £6, or 0.3% of her monthly income.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the average monthly income is officially somewhere around R15,000. So when a South African goes into EB and sees On The Rocks selling for R180, she’s being asked to cough up 1.2% of her monthly income.

The percentages look small, but they translate into vastly different perceptions of affordability, and therefore vastly different book-buying experiences.

How much would local novels have to cost for us to share the novel-as-cheap-entertainment, banknote-in-the-back-pocket experience? If the UK’s reading culture is any indication, I suspect we couldn’t go much over 0.3% of our monthly income. Which means being able to go into Exclusive Books, picking up a new South African novel, turning it over and seeing a price tag of R45.

cost of book

I know you can’t really compare average incomes in a developing country and a wealthy one. I know that the priorities of someone earning R15 000 are radically different to those of someone earning £2 000. But local book prices stay crazy even when you include the experience of richer South Africans.

For someone earning, say, R30 000, a new novel is obviously going to feel more affordable than it does to someone earning R15 000. But will it feel Waterstones affordable? Affordable enough to encourage a culture of casual, regular book-buying? Not even close. Do the same sum – 0.3% of R30 000 – and you get R90.

In short, even for South Africa’s (relatively) wealthy readers, that R180 novel is still 100% too expensive. And for the majority of salary earners, it’s probably closer to 400% too expensive.

Buying a novel in South Africa country isn’t a disposable pleasure. It’s a financial decision. And, unless you know that novel is going to rock your world, it’s a pretty goddamned terrible financial decision.

In the ongoing debate about getting South Africans reading, some keep calling for VAT on books to be scrapped. Given the figures above, I can’t help feeling that this an almost futile demand. It’s a bit like French peasants in 1788 demanding that they be allowed to visit Versailles for three minutes a day instead of never. In our fundamentally a-literate society, scrapping VAT on books won’t even make a dent. Until books can be produced in a way that allows them to be sold for something close to R50, absolutely nothing will change.

Having said all that, I don’t want to end on a downer. There is a lot to be optimistic about. Just none of it involves reading or writing in South Africa. But corgis are amazing. And right now there are thousands of corgi puppies being born around the world. So on that note, here’s a GIF of a baby corgi stampede.

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The end.

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73 comments

  1. Reblogged this on JT Lawrence and commented:
    You think you’ll be able to give up your day job when you land that agent / publisher / 3-book deal? Think again. I’m always sharing this post by Mr. Eaton with fellow writers, and now I’m re-blogging it here. Realistic, funny, slightly depressing. If nothing else, it’ll make you hustle.

    Like

  2. I am a librarian and love books. Our whole household are avid readers. But the price of books are like climbing Mt Everest. High dêmmit. R285 for a new Trudi Canavan book. So we scoure 2nd hand bookshops in the hope that nobody loves the same books as us.

    Books have become too expensive and it is killing the love of the adventure of reading. As with most things, SA will only realise it after it is too late.

    Like

    1. @Tom: Great article. I am not a fan of old style publishing houses. Self-publish on Amazon – you can get 70% of the list price from most sales.

      @Nestusv: Agreed re. the high prices. That’s why my wife and I have switched to Kindle exclusively and we don’t buy anything over 10 USD. Mind you, that’s still R160, but it means we can’t and don’t buy any new releases. We wait until the prices drop eventually. Sad but true… On the other hand, we’ve read some really good books that cost us only 2 USD or 5 USD.

      I think the last time we bought a bunch of paperbacks was on a trip to Oxford many years ago. We were like kids in a candy store. We found books we liked that we’d never seen in SA. The Rand was about 10 to the Pound at the time, so books were relatively cheap. Since then the Rand has lost so much ground that book prices, like everything else imported, have shot up.

      A catch-22 really. The very people who need to read more can’t afford to…

      Like

    2. I print my own books. Printing is expensive. My 600 plus sci-fi stories must sell for for at least R300 so I can make some profit on it. Thinner books are not as expensive to print though and can definitely come down in price. But once again, it is the process of all the middle fish that needs feeding. If I should be with a publisher I might see R21 per printed book, if I am lucky. And then the agents and publishers do not do much to encourage sales or promote your work.
      Again, if I was with Amazon, I would have to sell thousands of books for $0.99 to make some return on investment. This does not sit well with me and I do not think with most authors either. My ebooks sell for R110 at the moment (about $9) from my own website and readers are not upset to pay this, seeing it as a fair price for 300 000 words of pure entertainment.

      Like

  3. This was a brilliantly written, sadly humorous article. Writers in Canada experience a similar angst: unless you are writing obscure, literary meta fiction, assuming it has not a wiff of any genre, you have a 30% chance of being picked up by a small independent publisher. So unless we decide to sell out and write a Harlequin romance, us aspiring novelists are shit out of luck. A more promising route would be to make a sex tape, release it in the US, and then wait for your platform to build- you might get a book deal that way. Are sex tapes viable is, SA?

    Liked by 1 person

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