Rachael Ogden files the third of a series of reports from the UKYPE finalists' tour to South Africa.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the cultural differences between South Africa and the UK, and the different challenges our publishing industries face. Nevertheless, on my third day in Cape Town, I find common ground with two publishing entrepreneurs. First, I meet Mark Hackney, Managing Director of Blue Weaver, a company that – like Inpress – operates as a sales, distribution and marketing agency for publishers. Blue Weaver was founded ten years ago and now employs five sales agents and has offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Its list is predominantly non-fiction and reference, and the company works with an impressive list of 120 client publishers, managing a distribution relationship on their behalf with On the Dot.
Despite the trade’s focus on front-list titles, Mark remains upbeat about the publishing industry in South Africa. Blue Weaver and Inpress share a similar business model, and online sales make up around 20% of both our businesses; so it’s not surprising that Mark and I share an enthusiasm for digital publishing: “I think there will be a market for both print and digital books,” says Mark. “The retail of e-content is an open market. I believe it’s going to open up new means of distribution to us and remove some of the obstacles the trade currently faces, for example around distribution and economies of scale.”
Next stop is Umuzi, the imprint launched in 2006 to celebrate Random House’s 40th year of business in South Africa. Like many Inpress publishers, Umuzi employ a small editorial and administrative team, outsourcing typesetting, design and proof-reading to freelancers. Publisher Frederick de Jager has made a clear commitment to publishing literary fiction and poetry with the highest production values and artistic merit. Their list is one of the most interesting and diverse that I have encountered during my time in South Africa, and includes the beautifully illustrated poetry anthology Birds with Words that I picked up at Clarke’s Bookshop in Cape Town. It’s a collection, says editor Gus Ferguson in his foreword, ‘in which the birds are alive and alert and quickly identifiable by their descriptive jizz.’
Scratch the surface, and you’ll find that many of the challenges facing the publishing industry here are the same ones we face in the UK: balancing artistic merit against commercial nous, ensuring production values are as high as possible, and then distributing the books to readers. On that note, the last word goes to Cape Town-based novelist Tom Dreyer, whose excellent novel Equatoria is published in the UK by Inpress publisher Aflame, and in South Africa by NB Publishers: “Publishing in South Africa can feel like quite a small scene,” he told me. “I think all South African authors would like the other English-language markets to pay more attention to their books. Here’s hoping your visit here with the other publishing entrepreneurs can change that.” Here's hoping indeed.
The UK Young Publishing Entrepreneur (UKYPE) award celebrates entrepreneurial ability within publishing, and strengthens creative leadership, networking, and capacity building in the UK publishing industry. It also focuses on strengthening the engagement between the UK and publishing in emerging markets, and seeks to further stimulate the development of the UK publishing industry in an international business context. After an open application process, a judging panel chaired by Andrew Franklin (Profile Books) short-listed six finalists to compete for the award and to take part in a 10-day study tour of South Africa’s publishing industry. The group will visit Cape Town and Johannesburg in early March 2010, meeting with senior figures and fellow young entrepreneurs, and learning, first-hand, how the South African booktrade works. The winner of the award will be announced at The London Book Fair, on Wednesday 21 April 2010. UKYPE is a British Council award done in collaboration with The London Book Fair, and supported by the Publishers’ Association and BookBrunch. For more information on the award, visit ukype.wordpress.com or contact Pablo Rossello at Pablo.Rossello@britishcouncil.org