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LitNet Special: Writers on the Marketing (and Shelving) of SA Lit

Concerned about what she sees as a lack of exposure for South African books in South African bookshops – and desperate to have a “bookstore literary moment” akin to the awakening to SA music that hit her in the eighties – poet and editor Ingrid Andersen has initiated a thread on the topic at LitNet, which has subsequently developed a life of its own. Several figures in the world of SA Lit have responded, including BOOK SA members Colleen Higgs, Helen Moffett, Jassy Mackenzie, Fiona Snyckers and Richard de Nooy – several of whom mention this network (thanks for that).

Check it!

Halfborn WomenColleen HiggsStrange FruitHelen MoffettMy Brother's Keeper

Jassy MackenzieTrinity On AirFiona SnyckersSix Fang Marks and a Tetanus ShotRichard de Nooy

Ingrid Andersen

The first time it happened to me was with a song. It was one of those songs that reaches in and possesses you – I kept hearing it in my head. I had no idea whose it was – I knew only the words of the chorus, so I googled them.

My jaw hit the desk. It was South African.

It outshone everything else on the playlist: it was catchy, clever and very memorable. When I went to the music store, I found it, not in the South African music section, but in the Dance section.

Fiona Snyckers

I think most writers would gladly acknowledge that our local media are immensely and endlessly supportive of South African writing. I can only speak from my own experience, but I think it reflects that of many local authors. Our TV talk shows make a point of iniviting South African authors on to the set for interviews, as do our radio shows, to an even greater extent. South African newspapers and magazines give priority reviewing space to local books. As a female author I have also been profiled several times by women’s magazines, and am often asked to write for them.

So from the point of view of our local media, we in South Africa have very little to complain about. The placement of South African books in bookstores is, however, an entirely different matter. I have yet to meet a single South African author who is happy with our relegation to the so-called “African fiction” or “South African fiction” sections of the shops. I am familiar with the booksellers’ argument that local books actually sell better from this African ghetto, but that doesn’t mean I believe it. Too many people have told me they couldn’t find my books, simply because it didn’t occur to them to go looking in a section they would normally associate with guidebooks to Ghana and coffeetable books about the Masai Mara.

Helen Moffett

Imagine walking into a bookshop and seeing books by Salman Rushdie, Agatha Christie, AS Byatt, Jeffrey Archer, Jane Austen and Cathy Kelly standing side by side on a shelf – crime, chick lit, Booker Prize-winning novels and classics all thrown together under a label “British fiction”. It might make an entertaining collection in someone’s home, but in a bookshop the combination would be laughable.

Why, then, is this what I see every time I enter a local chain bookstore – but under the heading “African Fiction” or “South African Fiction”?

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Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    June 22nd, 2010 @13:49 #
     
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    Word on the SA Lit street is that this series has got legs - watch out for further perspectives over the next many days:

    http://www.litnet.co.za/cgi-bin/giga.cgi?cmd=cause_dir_custom&cause_id=1270&page=shelf

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    June 22nd, 2010 @20:01 #
     
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    THIS! Such a pet peeve from mine. I agree with Helen. It isn't just South Africa - plenty of countries do it - bow down to the great "culture" of USA and UK and don't look at or promote what they do themselves.

    South Africa book stores, by in large, bury their local talent. It would be fabulous if the books were both in the section with the mainstream (crime, romance, mystery, literary) along with being in the South African bookshelf, but they are not. They are relegated to a dusty dark shelf with books that bare no relation to one another other than they were published in SA. And most of the SA books on the shelf are the standard "Cry Beloved Country..." which, while a classic, is not doing anything to promote the writing world of NOW.

    The average book buyer does not have time to hunt down books. They pop in and pop out. Time is essential. It takes a truly passionate reader to want to read SA talent. Otherwise - the promotional material, the signs, the layout all say "Buy abroad - it must be better..." So they do.

    Drives me bananas.

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  • Mervyn
    Mervyn
    June 23rd, 2010 @09:04 #
     
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    While most of the contributors to this thread have qualified their comments with the use of words like "most" as in "most bookshops", there is a tendency to all encompassing generalisations. Let's try to remember that there are some bookshops out there (and not just us) who do not lump SA lit into a patronising sub-genre, who believe that we are privileged to have as many talented writers as we have in SA and who work our collective asses off to promote SA lit in a variety of different ways.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    June 23rd, 2010 @09:16 #
     
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    Very good point, Mervyn. I think a further contribution to the seminar needs to be made acknowledging the role of those booksellers who do place SA lit front and centre.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    June 23rd, 2010 @09:45 #
     
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    Fully agree, Mervyn. I did try to make a distinction between smaller independents and the book chains. I certainly hope the independents will serve as an example to the larger chains, but I believe it ultimately all depends on the individual(s) at the helm and the extent/leanings of their bibliophilia.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    June 23rd, 2010 @09:56 #
     
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    Okay, I have sent off a further contribution to Imke at Litnet. It may be that the seminar is now closed, but I hope not.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    June 23rd, 2010 @10:58 #
     
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    I sent my contribution on Monday so I hope it will be up soon. It looks at some of the challenges of corporate booksellers, but I shan't give away my conclusion until it's published on LitNet.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    June 23rd, 2010 @12:36 #
     
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    Mervyn, I believe you that there are better book sellers out there. I have heard rumours of this from more than just yourself. But living where I live...nope. Not all South Africans live in the big cities. Not all South Africans visit the big cities a few times a year. (Or can afford to). If they are not online - then the South African books are extremely hard to find. The reason I own them is because:
    1 - I'm stubborn.
    2 - I have internet.
    3 - I visit Cape Town a few times a year.

    That said, the problem goes far beyond the (average) book store.

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    June 23rd, 2010 @12:40 #
     
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    on the other hand, I *much* prefer book stores that keep a separate shelf for South African poetry because:

    1. It makes book stores aware that there is such a thing

    2. The (probably) empty shelf will work as a wake-up call to the store's buyer

    3. It'll save me wasting time flipping fruitlessly through the dead white men who usually (over)populate the general 'Poetry' shelf in search of something, anything by s'africans

    4. It'll save me even more time not having to track down the one on-file copy of Botsotso squeezed between history and cultural studies books - because the book height happens to be the same (over large) size (EB Hyde Park if I remember correctly)

    5. I'll not have to traipse from one side of the store (Afrikaans lit) to the other (hidden) corner (Eng poetry) to decide which language to buy the Krog in.

    6. So what if the books don't sell - how much rent does 20cm of shelf space cost? And just 20cm is enough to house a coupla dozen local poets.

    7. Because ok, if shelf space is really really too valuable for s'african poets, how about a sideways pile on one of the reading tables? Or a little 's'african poets' labelled square basket that can be moved all over the shop to fill empty spaces here or there until the back order of the latest Dan Brown or motivation guru arrives

    8. Since most book stores would be hard-pressed to list a coupla dozen s'african poets with published collections, imagine how unaware the reading public is of what we have and which might just sell if we knew about it.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    June 23rd, 2010 @14:25 #
     
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    Moi, the SA bookshelf is great for reasons you mentioned. But I've always maintained the books should be on both. This is what is done for the latest international reads - they get on the NEW BOOK TABLE and a few copies are also in which ever section is applicable to their genre. So why can't that be done for SA books?

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    June 23rd, 2010 @14:41 #
     
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    you mean carry two(!) copies of a bunch of s'african poetry books - that I'd love to see but not holding my breath :-)

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    June 23rd, 2010 @15:09 #
     
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    Yes, they should. Although, from my understanding, not all of this is a bookstore issue, it is also the publishers. It is they who often negotiate the space and decide what to fill that space with. (yes?) From my understanding - many big biz bookshops often don't "buy" their books, until the book has sold. Which often makes publishers play it safe. (yes?...)

    The whole thing is a wee bit of a headache.

    Then again, it is all how something is marketed. Once upon a time my boss left town and told me under no certain terms I better figure out how to get all the (accidentally dyed green by him) rum-raisin fudge sold before his return.

    I managed it. If I can figure out how to sell a screwed up batch of fudge, then I think the book world can figure out how to sell local books, regardless of genre. It is a matter of making it a priority, which at present, it isn't. Maybe because we, as readers, are too quiet, which allows the rest of the book world an easy way out.

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    June 23rd, 2010 @15:39 #
     
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    or we just vote with our feet and buy our books from online book stores that do deliver

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    June 23rd, 2010 @16:02 #
     
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    Such an NB debate and I am in such frustration -- my initial column was close to gibberish, partly because I couldn't operate my laptop mouse (yeah yeah bad workwoman blames her tools) and my cut-and-pasting was more like hack splat where the frick did that paragraph go??

    And now I can't repond properly because I am once again in the outer darkness of Internet Cafedom (Hellkom is toying with me again -- no internet connection for the last 24 hours and no sign of restoration any time soon). But Mervyn, I tried to make sure I referred to "CHAIN bookstores". We all know the BL and places like it are what Dante had in mind when he was referring to inner circles of Paradise. :)

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  • <a href="http://cynthiajele.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Nozizwe Cynthia</a>
    Nozizwe Cynthia
    June 23rd, 2010 @23:02 #
     
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    Location, location, location. Perhaps the 'African ghetto' section needs to move just a little to the front as opposed to it's current location - the back somewhere like a naughty child on time-out.

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    June 24th, 2010 @11:02 #
     
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    like sqatter camps, the section should smear itself right out there where it can't be unnoticed by the blink of an eye or turn of the head :-)

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    June 24th, 2010 @14:53 #
     
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    The South African or African bookshelf is a peculiar and extreme hybrid of colonial self-loathing and a global, postmodern fragmentation of markets (read: multiplication of markets) according to various 'identities'. Think, for instance, of the Gay/Lesbian shelf - is it a ghetto or is it a market response to an 'identity' demand. I've never understood how such demarcation helps the selling of books. Would, for instance, a 'gay novel' not reach a possible wider readership of novels if it was on the fiction shelf, by catching the eye of a browser?

    While the demarcation makes for easier target browsing (functional, efficient), don't we lose something (broadening culture) in directing people only in the direction of things they think/know they like. Gay person goes to gay shelf, straight person goes to straight shelf. Youth interested in philosophy goes to philosophy shelf and ignores the feminist phiolosphy shelf. Etc.

    I know the SA/African shelf is a slightly different monster, but it seems that part of its continuing justification is now part of a piece of the seemingly non-problematic justification for other demarcations. Soon we will have shelves for all the poetry anthologies collecting poems about Thursdays.

    Talking of Thursday, will Italy go through? ;-)

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    June 24th, 2010 @17:02 #
     
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    not looking good right now but ghana did so I'm happy

    =====================<0 ♪ ♫ ♥

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    June 28th, 2010 @12:44 #
     
  • <a href="http://www.amillionmilesfromnormal.blogspot.com" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    Paige
    June 28th, 2010 @22:05 #
     
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    I'm really loving this thread. Fascinating to hear about it from so many different sides. Authors, book store owners, publishers, readers, the works. I think it's all changing, and I think it's all changing soon. (Well a girl can always dream.)

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