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

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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.

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“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!

EB3

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

EB6

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.

Published by Tom Eaton

Tom Eaton is a columnist, satirist, screenwriter and sometime-novelist.

73 thoughts on “Miss Congeniality: South African fiction

  1. Insightful stuff. I’ve pondered making the recommended retail price of the next book I publish R99 (VAT inclusive) as an experiment (and as a marketing gimmick for an upcoming publication). If I sell double what I normally would, I’ll let you know.

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  2. My understanding (from the last time I read a book thingy), is that the great depression saw a period of very high book sales. This was because people were seriously in need of cheap entertainment so the publishers started pumping out dime books. Basically the stories were a mix of classics and high-drama, set in the dust bowls their readers were very familiar with. There were a lot of short form stories (to get the price down as much as anything I guess) so they weren’t intimidating. They were printed on very cheap paper stock and weren’t sold in book stores but everywhere. So, if SA writers write long form fiction aimed at diminishing sections of the population, get hooked by ineffectual publishers unable to get product to a broader audience who push these into book shops in very expensive malls manned by numbskulls at inflated prices and have a shorter catalogue than any other form of retail imaginable, then ja – it isn’t working. So who should fix it? Retail? Seriously, have you actually met the people who run book retail in this country? Publishers? Average age there? That leaves the writers (published and almost more importantly unpublished). Crowd-fund your own publishing venture. Try and produce something that could really sell at volume. Print scrillions of them as cheaply as you can. Get them into every informal retail space imaginable – hell you could even create your own book sales network (remember encyclopaedia salesmen). Have a go! Hell, I would invest a few bucks if you did it.

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    1. Currently trying to do exactly this, with the added bonus of operating in the ultimate ghetto of genre fiction…fantasy 🙂 Even the boys with the big boots, like George RR Martin are relegated to the underlit back corner of the store, that corner where the security guard keeps popping by to make sure nothing untoward is going on between Hobbiton and the Red Keep.

      South African publishers appear to be convinced South Africans just don’t read that stuff, all my anecdotal experience to the contrary. So, failing the lightning strike of an international publisher actually saying ‘yes,’ the DIY option is the only alternative. So, I agree with your sentiments entirely!

      But printing scrillions cheaply … that’s where Plan B begins to fall apart, getting the unit print cost of a 550 page novel under R70/unit – and that’s if you can fund a 1000 book print run. No mark-up yet for the retailer, no pennies in the authors pocket. If you can fund 2000 or more – happy days. Costs per unit drop exponentially. So if you want to DIY an actual book to go on real-world shelves, squillions are not for the likes of us. 😦

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  3. Totally depressed about the percentage of my income that a new book represents now!
    But to reassure you, there is a very strong local market of voracious readers growing up just outside Cape Town – so if someone wanted to write an addictive YA series that included some of these – horses, spy school, detectives and a dose of teenage boy drama – I think it would be a roaring success.

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  4. Nice piece Tom. After being a serious supporter of Exclusive Books, I’ve moved to the second hand book store over the last couple of years – fortunately there’s four in Melville. I buy 5-10 books a month and the move is precisely because of your disposable income argument. R300 for a “trade” paperback is way too much. The other thing is that I find myself more willing to experiment with authors that I might have binned in favour of something(or someone) that I had more knowledge of or had previously read……as a consequence I’ve read a lot more South African fiction than I was previously. I think R50/book is a good retail price, that would probably allow most income groups to buy a book or two each month without seriously compromising the rest of their jol budget; and you could probably apply the same pricing to music and see an up-tick in hard product sales…

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    1. When Alan Lane started Penguin accessibility (such as vending machines and train station kiosks), size (coat pocket) and cost (equivalent price to a pack of cigarettes) were his focus. I would bet the same model could still be applied successfully.

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  5. “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.”

    You have clearly expressed a feeling I’ve always had but could not quite describe. But this is the reason why I am slowly filling my flat with books, half of which are unopened (because I had read them a decade ago at the library or as PDFs online, and now I can finally afford to buy my own copies).

    I want my children to grow up in a house where they can pick up a book out of curiosity and have their lives changed.

    Incidentally, it’s nigh-impossible to type a comment from a phone on your blog. I suspect it might be a global WordPress issue.

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    1. This is the best thing you can do for your kids. My parents and grandparents are avid readers with grandpa teaching me to read before I started school. There was a constant stream of kids books flowing into the house and a hell of a lot of their own stuff for a curious kid to pick up. My dad bought two kids encyclopedia sets and I practically lived in my well stocked school library making my way through all the fiction and picking up non-fiction when I wanted to expand on something not adequately covered in the encyclopedia (interestingly I found my ‘model-C’ primary school library far better stocked and friendly to visit than that of the private girls school I attended for high school). Then off to the local library when I’d exhausted the school one (fortunately my local library is MASSIVE). My dad had a rule that he’d never complain about spending money on books and my sister and I took full advantage once a month at exclusive books. My more pragmatic mother only applied that rule to second hand book stores where we got our hand on mountains of fiction that were out of print, stories that only we were reading in our circles of friends and classmates (also the advantage of preserving your current book collection, awesome stories sometimes don’t sell well and go out of print but your kids will have to access them; also why I’m a big fan of e-publishing).

      I buy most of my books on ereader now because books in South Africa cost way too much and I’m fresh out of Varsity earning about half of what Tom listed as average earnings. But I hope to be able to replace my favourite ebooks with paperbacks over time. As wonderful as ereaders have been for us, I firmly believe that if you want children to read they need to be surrounded by books. As many and as wide a range as possible (why the dearth of well stocked, well managed libraries in township and rural schools is a sin). And most importantly, parents and role models who they witness opening and reading books almost every day just for the sheer pleasure of the act.

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  6. Not sure why but I found this enormously cheering. Maybe hearing that your royalties are as bad as mine? Maybe that someone else sees how ridiculously unaffordable books are (and I have a good day job)? Maybe all the pictures of shiny new books? Maybe it was the corgis. Yeah, probably that.

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  7. Aaaargh I LOVE THIS. I am so extremely saddened by the lack of reading culture in South Africa. I’ve been reading some incredible books by local authors – and I’m getting them all for dirt cheap because THEY DON’T SELL. So then I manage to unearth them from a dusty shelf in Bargain Books.
    I’ve written a little about it before. Especially this one about bookshops on the African continent (sorry for the plug, but I think it’s relevant): https://barefootmeds.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/africa-needs-more-books/

    ANYWAY. I so want for our country to read more, and specifically to read local works more. The “We Need Diverse Books” movement makes a really good point about people being able to read books about people like them; and I remember how much it sucked when I was a teen having to read all these books set in far off countries that were simply not relateable.

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  8. I think this is an extremely insightful read but there is another aspect to this that you are missing, South Africa is not reading friendly.

    Having lived in the UK for six years now, I see everywhere I go that people read while waiting for stuff. Waiting for the train, waiting for the train ride to finish, waiting for people to join them at lunch, waiting for work to start.

    The society as a whole is so reading friendly that most companies have libraries where staff can leave books they have finished with and take one that someone else left behind. (I read Lauren Beukes’ the shining Girls from one of these). Lunch time at any office usually has large groups of people who go and eat their lunch with a book, either in the office, or weather permitting, outside in a park, playground, coffee shop or somewhere they can simply sit and explore the imagination of someone else.

    Yes books cost less as a percentage here, but how much they cost is largely irrelevant. I can pick up second hand books from Amazon for 2p plus postage of about £2, order it and have it delivered within 2 days.

    The tubes are full of people reading free and paid for newspapers every day, kindles and other readers abound.

    South Africa simply doesn’t have the kind of transportation system where you can read. You’re either driving or making sure your purse isn’t nicked. South African offices are set in office parks and as a culture South Africans tend to continue to work though their lunches holding meetings or continuing discussions about stuff.

    Because people in the UK are used to waiting for things like trains and busses, they are used to having large chunks of solitude, where having something to avoid causing you to look a stranger in the eye accidentally, would be a massive boon, they are used to the escapism that books can so readily provide.

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    1. South Africa has sunny days beckoning potential readers out of doors. I would read much more if I were to live in the UK.

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  9. Very well put. To put it into deeper perpective – the minimum wage in the UK is £6.50 per hour. A plethora of books and magazines is available on the shelves in any British bookshop at that price. In SA the minimum wage is around R10.50. You could buy a couple of newspapers, but you’d have to work half a day to buy any respectable monthly magazine, or at least 3 days to buy a novel. And this is the demographic that really should be reading more.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Somehow this is all very similar to the SA music industry. Great local musicians struggle on as a result of the middleman/publisher/producer/marketer making the lions share of the money (while being under marketed) in favour of the easy to deliver (on-sell) foreign artists that have the economies of scale to demand big budgets for big rewards – even though their product is usually crap – but “popular” (boy band marketing)

    Someone needs to explain why e-books are still so expensive when there is NO printing, paper, distribution costs etc. ?

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  11. A depressingly insightful read. A question if I may. The literary quality of his novels aside, Wilbur Smith appears to have been massively successful. He is South African and as I recall, was living and writing in South Africa, when he published “When the Lion Feeds.” How come, as a South African fiction writer he has been consistently successful?

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    1. A large dedicated readership both in South Africa and Australia (apparently) that will read anything he writes. There are a lot of authors who have entire shelves to themselves at exclusive books who produce books that some of us might consider poor or formulaic but who do well because they have a large dedicated fan base that will read anything they produce and enjoy the formula (this isn’t to say there aren’t really good authors who produce large bodies of work or that there aren’t a few gems hidden in the pile written by someone whose style/formula you might ordinarily dismiss).

      Interestingly, the exclusive books I used to work at stocked Wilbur Smith with general fiction (‘fiction’ fiction not African fiction)

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    2. The difference with Wilbur Smith is that he started publishing many decades ago when the publishing landscape was also very different than it is today – and I stand to be corrected, but I’m sure he was published by an international publisher, not a local one.

      As his books became popular, they appeared in SA stores. With decades of successful books behind him, he’s a multi-million seller and so considered ‘eligible’ to sit with the non-South African writers on the regular fiction shelves. The sad fact is, SA retailers collaborate in the weird habit of relegating ‘local’ to back corners, until and unless they gain international favour, or it’s the latest local celeb cookbook or sports-star memoir, at whch point they will be proudly displayed on stands right by the door, ala Deon Meyer’s latest thriller.

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  12. Reblogged this on Allaboutwriting and commented:
    A funny and sobering analysis on being a writer in South Africa, the cost of books, and if you are lucky enough to be published where you might find you book should you look for it on the shelves. You just have to read this.

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  13. I am a huge book reader and love physical books but the costs for both local and international books in this country is absurd.

    In fact I had Miss Conception in my hand yesterday at the Exclusive at OR Tambo and put it down when I saw the price was R194! For a soft cover! Books are no longer an impulse buy.

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  14. What an excellent blog/article. I enjoyed it very much. I also have a book lying around on my desktop … but I think I will go the Online publishing way. Love the doggies 🙂

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  15. Great post, thank you! Must say that, apart from science fiction collections, I’ve moved to ebooks: damn sight easier to find, generally cheaper AND YOU CAN INCREASE THE FUCKING FONT SIZE, which is important at my age.
    Of course, that means you don’t get that many SA authors, because apart from Lauren Beukes, they don’t seem to have discovered the inetwebthingie.
    Which is to their detriment, sadly.
    I have just published (three weeks ago) two books via the iBooks Store: I am already at about 6% of what the TOTAL sales would be if published via dead tree locally – with no production costs, and royalties up at 75%. Time to go digital, South Africa.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. My son has attended two southern suburbs boys-only prep schools. Fair to say the kids at both are privileged. It may cheer you to know that they are voracious readers, from the gentle to the jocks. They have also grown up behind screens. As much as it pains those if us who love to hold a Book in our hands, isn’t the easiest way to make reading cheaper digital books? Pop some of the money saved on printing and distribution into marketing and the rest into lowering the “cover” price and everyone wins. My boy requested a new rugby ball and an e-reader for Xmas two years ago.

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    1. PS. I have read 15 books in the last 3 months – all on my cellphone. It is admittedly one of those you need a handbag to lug about

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  17. Bwahahahaha… ha… ha… hmm… I was trying to come up with a way to effectively communicate my appreciation of the fact that you made me laugh so hard after a bad day, until the sad point of the whole thing settled in. Not so funny, really. I’m a wannabe writer, I’ve never even finished a manuscript, nor do I have any training or relevant experience in publishing, but even I could see after working night staff at EB for a full four months, that selling English in South Africa at any rate that would sustain a steady income is about as easy as penning the next LOTR. No rocket science needed there. Even worse, I am just articulate enough in English to convince myself I can fool people in to forgetting I’m actually Afrikaans (which still is light years removed from being any good compared to native English writers – there goes my Man Booker, ag deksels!), and ironically not articulate enough in Afrikaans to even attempt to entertain the soustannie readership who like their Afrikaans with an extra dash of ATKV. But how exactly DOES one go about attempting to lower printing costs in South Africa? Could there be room for a community based initiative to try and change this? What exactly makes publishing so expensive here? Odds are my pie in the sky won’t budge a foot in altitude, writing (and finishing) a book is very, very hard work after all and life just gets in the way, but I do know some local novelists personally and if I could help come up with a solution that would change their stars, I’m in.

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  18. Hey I don’t know how your article got to me… I read it because my godfathers son I believe is in south Africa and he is a journalist I could be wrong… Anyway you kept me interested so I read it… but in SA…. South Australia not South Africa it happens the confusion I mean…… finally maybe you could try a South Australian bookshop……? Maybe….

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  19. I found this article interesting as I’m in the final draft stages of my novel. It may sell, it may not. I’m enough of a newbie that I just want one stranger to read and enjoy it. I can tell you though that I would never consider asking an SA publisher to handle it. Our market is way too small, they don’t have the budget to market it internationally and I think the numbers lie in USA and UK.

    I read South African authors but to be honest I also read to escape, to live in a fantasy world for a while, so reading urban fantasy is far more up my alley than say, Durban. I’ve been there, I know the place and I’m not sucked into a new world. I want to learn about the streets of Georgia, the dim pubs of Sussex and weird alleys of New York.

    Digital is most definitely the way to go. People wax on about the feel of the pages…utter crap. I’ve had a kindle for 6 years if I remember correctly and haven’t bought a paperback for myself in all that time. There is no need. I get access to free books on Kindle, discover new authors and can buy their other books if I like their writing. I only have so many years left to read and there are so many books. I can delete the rubbish without a financial thought. Digital books are also cheaper in most instances and our bookshops can only carry a limited amount. Amazon is endless they recommend books according to my tastes and I can read the reviews first.

    My boys both read and I will gladly buy them any book they like, but price is a factor, so we head off to Bargain Books where I get more for my money and keep them entertained for days.

    I think foreigners would love to read about South African cities and our people, but they have to know about the books first…herein lies the dilemma.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. In the early 2000s I worked as a bookseller in SA, where, with a staff discount, I could afford to buy a novel after a day-long shift. And not eat. Then I moved to London and starting working in publishing, not bookselling. But in an idle moment, I worked out that UK booksellers could afford (approximately) a novel per hour of their shift … About 8 novels then. Or, they could buy 3 novels, pay for their transport, save some, and buy a sandwich. And be the richer for it.

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  21. As a specialist publisher in SA I can say that all this is true – what we have been telling authors for years. The only solution would be to get the price of ereaders down to some thing affordable. The dream of a book for R50 is right there. All you need is a reader or a decent sized smart phone.

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  22. Perhaps I should have added that on e-books we share the profit 50/50 with the author. It’s still not a lot, but it does seem fair. Are other publishers doing this, I wonder?

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  23. Im a 20 something from SA, i used to love physical books but once I bought myself a kindle books became much more of an impulse buy. EBooks at R100 a piece is much more palatable instead of R200 to R300 in a local store. It’s even worse when you’re a poor student who can’t afford to buy books.

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  24. I’m fascinated by the idea of affordability of books, and your suggestions around their disposability.

    Except we don’t really think of books as disposable, right? Perhaps “disposable” in that we can sell it to a second-hand bookstore, or that we’ll never revisit it, but we don’t simply dump the book in the trash once we’re done. There’s this expectation of durability, even in mass paperbacks.

    Why not use newsprint with a magazine-like binding? Like the pulp fiction magazines of old. Or, if you want a modern example, consider Japan. The country has a history with printed works, from self-funded fanzines to weekly comic magazines. One of the most popular of these magazines, Shonen Jump, prints weekly with 400-500 pages and sells for roughly 300-400 yen. Price-wise, it translates to around R50 an issue.

    It uses newsprint, so the quality is obviously really low. In terms of durability, unless you’re diligent, it’ll degrade rapidly. It lacks prestige – hard to put on airs if you’re reading something you could potentially hang up in the bog. But it’d put fiction in reach of a broader group of people.

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  25. I worked at Exclusive Books for just under a year and I absolutely abhorred the separation between fiction and ‘African Fiction’, history and ‘African History’. Unless a customer has made a conscious decision to expand their collection of specifically African works they rush right past those shelves.
    I noted with interest that books written by non African writers but set almost entirely in Africa (the Langani trilogy by Barbara and Stephanie Keating for instance) is placed in fiction whereas a book set anywhere (even fictional settings) and across every otherwise separated subgenre (scifi/horror/fantasy are separated from general fiction) is placed in ‘African Fiction’.

    So exclusive books isn’t facilitating a bias against books about or set in Africa, they’re facilitating a bias against any fiction written by Africans regardless of what it is. Were these books just placed in the fiction shelf they’d be picked up according to title, cover and authors name (where admittedly bias either for or against African writers would begin to creep in) and then purchased upon interest in the blurb and a solid first chapter.

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  26. I think that what you are getting at, was to some extent proven by the patrons of exclusive books on Mandela square last week. The shop is closing down this month (not even JCW endorsements, Noaks variations or any shade of Grey could keep such a large bookstore in business). Point is – they had a clearance sale. 50% off all books. Never in my life have I deliberately attended a “sale” before, but I was very keen to get to the shop on the first day and buy some cheap books (particularly those ones in the “classics” section that are already much cheaper than the rest).

    I was not at all prepared for what I saw. Sandtonites abandoned all their unsubtle pretensions of being mild tempered upper middle class citizens – they went mad. Bumping, queueing, pushing for books. When I got there by mid morning, the shelves were ravaged. I watched all the Coetzee, and K.Sello Duiker books being grabbed by the most unlikely of grabbers. Only Ayn Rand remained on the “classics” shelf…and one confused patron even picked up The Fountainhead, flirted with the idea of reconnecting with his inner dickhead but then put the book back…but I mean someone actually almost bought the fountainhead just because it was so cheap.

    I couldn’t bring myself to scavenge for a book to buy because 1)there were too many people blocking my view of and physical access to the books and 2) I felt embarrassed by the book-gluttony around me. There were people with dozens of books in their hands running around like those kids from Reggies Rush who we all use to hate.

    If books are cheaper, people will buy them. Or people in Sandton at least. As I said, somebody even almost bought The Fountainhead.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. I read your piece with interest. I just returned to Canada from South Africa where I dropped R3000-4000 on books, mostly new, mostly fiction. That was a definite objective of my visit but then I am a bit of an unusual and idiosyncratic reader. I was also careful to purchase books I could not readily source outside SA. Apart from a few titles picked up in a second hand shop in East London (where SA books of all sorts fill an entire shelf!!!) I did my shopping in Cape Town. I primarily visited independent booksellers where SA lit is more abundant and was shocked to find bookstores, one new, one used, focusing exclusively on SA fiction and non-fiction. A bookstore dealing exclusively in Canadiana would not last a week here. The thought is unfathomable. And Canadian authors are never highlighted by section (or history and biography for that matter) in the way that I did see in a chain store in Cape Town.

    Canada is similarly a small book market and we have the overwhelming influence of the US to the south. It informs what people tend to buy and want in fiction (what I call the paddling off in to the sunset formula here). Margaret Atwood has trademarked herself as the alpha and omega of lit fiction. Newer writers barely stand a chance. Our crime writers probably fare best. But a best seller in Canada is 3000+ copies and that can take years. As a novelist you can be sure there will be a book on chainsaws or something sitting near the top of the list.

    We complain about book prices here because our covers tend to list the US prices which are invariably much lower. Fine when our dollar sucks (like now) but we were at par or above the greenback for quite a while post 2008. The price of books in SA is startling. Even many of the second hand books I looked were R195 or so. About what we would pay here for trade paperbacks. I was budgeting my expense, and stayed with a friend for much of my visit so I did not regret my expense (I spend a lot books here too). Small print runs are probably a huge factor, I can’t imagine the publishers are getting rich… not many are these days. Against the US and the UK, smaller English language markets face a huge challenge.

    Oh and although I carried a book and notebook every where I went in Cape Town I did not see people reading (it is hard to read and jog) and I noticed that the books tend to be so large. Maybe scale is meant to justify the R240 sticker price but I had to reject purchases based solely on size and weight if I wanted to get them home.

    Keep up the good fight.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Tom, you must be a “little dog person”. Otherwise you wouldn’t sneer at Judy. Judy – A Dog in a Million is a fascinating and heartwarming book about a beautiful liver and white English pointer (a breed bigger than those you seem to favour) who was the only official POW dog of WW2. Her unbreakable spirit saved many lives and even when interned in a hellish Japanese prisoner of war camp she would forage for food for the Allied prisoners. A wonderful book. Now you must be wondering – is it as good a read as Marley and Me? Obviously, Marley is the benchmark for canine biography, and Judy is a very different kettle of fish, being historical and set in a time of war rather than in the United States. How can we compare the two? Well, I can tell you that Marley has stood up to repeated re-readings over the years, and I suspect that I’ll be picking up Judy again before this year is out. Whether or not I’ll be dusting Judy off and dipping into her in five year’s time is another question.

    But I think I’m giving you the answer you seem to be searching for – write a book about a dog. Firstly, dog books sell and transcend national borders, so if you can write a good one you can sell it in England and earn those pounds you crave. Secondly, it wouldn’t be fiction, so you wouldn’t have to worry about your book being put in the African Fiction section. To my knowledge Exclusive Books doesn’t segregate animal books into African Animal Non-Fiction and International Animal Non-Fiction. Or “Nature”, as the signage seems to indicate that this sort of thing is being classified as in that book chain.

    Although I did see in your photograph that the African Fiction shelves held many copies of Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which by no means could be said to be a dead novel (you know, you said that that section is where books go to die). I also spotted a book by that cracking author Bryce Courtenay. Now his books don’t sell as they used to, and he used to be African before he became Australian, but he was a bestseller in his day. Adichie also used to be African before becoming American. (And I just thought of JM Coetzee who is found on the African Fiction shelves even though he too is Australian.) So I’m in a quandry – should there be a section for Real Africans and another for Ex-Africans?

    My colleague Olumayowa says he seeks out the African fiction section because it is there that he finds the books he wants to read. He says he doesn’t have time to wade through the tripe found in Fiction.

    Anyway, have a think about a dog book and best of luck!

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  29. When I was in London in 2001 they had a book promotion whereby Penguin republished all the classics and sold them for a whole GBP1 each. Any chance we could persuade a local publisher to produce books for R20 a pop? Now that would be fun!

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  30. This is fantastic, and I read the whole thing instead of just the headline & first 3 lines. You make many valid points. On price: I’ve definitely started buying more books since e-books/kindle downloads became a thing. These are often at least a bit cheaper, and that is enough for me to make the choice to take a risk on a book (plus, if there are lots of good amazon reviews I’m more likely to make a spontaneous buy than if I were just browsing in Exclusives and picked up a title I hadn’t heard of and saw a hefty price tag on it).
    I think the point about writing what people actually want to read is also key: its an age-old debate amongst writers, film makers, even artists: do you create what you’re inspired to create and to hell with the audience demand or do you craft something that the market wants? No clear answer, but clearly if you’re wanting a sustained income you probably need to take audience preferences into consideration in your writing formulae, without the story and style becoming too, um, predictably formulaic and generic..

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