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"Stories are in our DNA" - local publisher, Charles Siboto, on South Africa's reading culture

Local publisher, Charles Siboto, on our reading culture, competing with international titles, and reading as tool to raise our standard of education


 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The South African publishing scene is a strange one, consisting of many peculiarities and oddities. The first thing that you notice is that it’s not representative of the country and its diverse range of cultures. There are many factors that lend to how lopsided our reading statistics are. The biggest factor is that as a nation we don’t read much and there are no books in most households, so a reading culture is never fostered. I have worked in publishing for four years and can testify that books are luxury items for most households because they are expensive, especially local books. Publishers would love to make books more affordable but the reality is that publishing books is expensive, with the highest cost being printing. In order for publishers to survive, they have to print enough books to cover the cost of producing the books when most of that print run sells. The more books publishers print the cheaper the cost of printing and thus the cheaper the book for buyers, but if those books don’t sell they sit with excessive stock and pay warehouse costs for that stock, which eventually will have to be pulped. The South African publishing scene, thus, is a fine balancing act of publishers trying to make books as accessible as possible while making enough money to continue existing so as to publish more books. Now, as both publisher and reader, I am thinking we can all do more to promote diverse South African literature, especially as readers.

South Africa already has a model of what a healthy, local reading culture looks like in the form of Afrikaans books. Afrikaans publishers are the biggest in the country and Afrikaans readers buy books. The Afrikaans community does have more buying power than most other language groups in the country but the other thing they have is pride in their language. Afrikaans speakers can still largely get by in our economy without having to learn English. Parents know that the country is constantly becoming more and more English but they still don’t stop placing an emphasis on children speaking and reading Afrikaans. In many cases, English is more the supplementary reading. With the other language and culture groups in the country the emphasis is more on English than on the mother tongue, and for the most part, we all know why and I will touch on this later.

Having spent some time reading books by local black writers in English, I know this is by no means a bad thing and it allows for more people being able to enjoy those books. There is an increase of the black middle-class and publishers realise that they have to tap into this market. Young, black and especially female writers are also on the rise and this makes for a great recipe to produce local books that are entertaining, informative, address social issues, expands minds and are just straight up ‘woke’. The problem with publishing in English is that people still buy more international titles than local ones in English. I am one of those people and I have made conscious decision to buy more local titles and readers who can afford to should do this. Afrikaans publishers usually do publish in English and to a smaller scale some of the other local languages but they have realised long ago that they cannot compete with the international market and have opted to focus on their strength, publishing Afrikaans books. Competing with international publishers is difficult because as a country we are not yet confident enough in the power of our own stories and this should not be so. South African publishers publish books of a high caliber that can compete with titles from the UK or the US but they get lost in the crowd. Publishers have had to be much more creative in their marketing a can continue to do so, but as readers, we should also come to the party.

We have great stories as a nation, our cultures are rich in stories that deserve to be shared with the world. I am in no way asking people to stop reading international titles but simply saying that you can read both local and international. It is refreshing to read stories where the heroes and villains are people you can relate to and people that you can imagine meeting when you walk down the street, stories where the lovers and their secrets are people like you. Local books are still expensive to produce but if we all do a little to support the local reading scene it goes a long way. We can do a lot simply by each person in a circle of friends buying one book and then swapping the books among themselves until everyone has had a chance to read every book in the circle. These are things that help to nurture our reading culture. The stronger our reading culture becomes the cheaper and more accessible books will be and publishers will be able to work with more new writers adding their voices to the tapestry of our stories.

The last thing I want to mention, especially having spent most of my publishing career working with children’s books, is that we have to promote our children reading in their mother tongues. This is way easier said than done because the resources are scarce. Resources aside, many black households are afraid to focus on children reading in their mother tongue because they might then miss out on learning English. This is not so, children who can read their own language well can better transition into a second language and excel at it. Being a multilingual society is complex but we gain more when we allow people to read in their own language and learn English in addition. This makes for more people who are truly bi- or multilingual, in the sense that they are equally proficient in multiple languages. This will take some time and resources to fully implement, though. Some publishers do prioritise publishing books for younger readers in multiple local languages and that is a great start and a process that we should support where we can. I come from a family that does not read but I was lucky to fall in love with books because we lived near a wonderful public library when I was a child so I understand that many families are too busy with the business of surviving from day to day to worry about books. But if we are to raise the standard of education and want to invest in a society of knowledgeable people we have to nurture our reading culture. Resources like public libraries help with making books accessible but all of us can add something to the culture. We can do things like buying local books if we can afford them, sharing books, giving away old books or just telling people about the magic of stories. Stories are in our DNA as a species and adding to that collective pool of knowledge only helps us to progress as a nation and as human beings.

Book Bites: 24 September 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Let Go My HandLet Go My Hand
Edward Docx
, Picador
****
Larry Lasker is dying. Louis, his youngest son, is taking him in a camper van on the kind of road trip they enjoyed as a young family. Except that this time, the destination is Switzerland, to Dignitas, to discuss ending Larry’s life. Lou’s two half-brothers join them, and together they rifle through the baggage of their collective past. It all sounds rather bleak, but in fact, while it’s poignant, the novel is often funny. It is thoughtful and inquisitive – how could it not be, in the shadow of death? – but it wears its philosophy lightly, with surprising and enjoyable detours through matters of love, duty, family and the big question, how to live and how to die. Perhaps as these men do, enjoying the simple pleasures of food and wine, music, connection and companionship – on their way to the inevitable end. – Kate Sidley @KateSidley

Operation RelentlessOperation Relentless
Damien Lewis, Quercus
****
Lewis’s latest book raises interesting questions about “The Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout, labelled as such due to his infamy as a global arms dealer. Was Bout simply a shrewd businessman who flew anything and everything, or was he indeed a Lord of War? And if so how did he obtain US government contracts to bring freight to Iraq? Lewis takes us on the mesmerising journey of Bout’s rise and fall – culminating in a 25-year sentence following a US Drug Enforcement Agency sting operation. Operation Relentless reads like a James Bond thriller yet it is also an intense look at one of the world’s most reviled personalities. – Guy Martin

Bad SeedsBad Seeds
Jassy Mackenzie, Umuzi
****
Fans of PI Jade de Jong will be delighted their kick-butt heroine is back. The security of a nuclear research centre in Joburg is under threat and Jade is called to investigate. But fate places her in the company of the No1 suspect. As the body count climbs, Jade finds herself running for her life alongside a potentially deadly criminal. Fans will adore Jade’s emotional arc along with the plot twists. But do not fear, crime fans, if you have not read earlier books in the series. Bad Seeds is a page-turner that can stand alone and be enjoyed by all who love thrillers. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Book details

The Wretched of the Earth available as Kwela Pocket Revolutionaries-series

What was the point of fighting if nothing was really destined to change?

In this international classic, Frantz Fanon examines the traumatic effects of colonisation on the colonised. He explains the consequences of a decolonising struggle on individuals and on the nation as a whole as he explores class, race, violence, culture – and freedom. His thought has become freshly topical in South Africa in recent years. A major influence on human rights and liberation struggles around the world, The Wretched of the Earth is particularly current and compelling for South Africans today.

‘The book is the most influential force that moved the #Fallist generation to take action. It is a must-read for all of us in South Africa today.’ – Chumani Maxwele

Frantz Fanon was an Algerian psychologist and one of the most influential theorists of revolutionary struggle, colonialism, and racial difference in history. For decades Fanon’s work has been informed for the fight of decolonisation and international liberation struggles.

Book details

Trade Secrets contributor, Michael Yee, on Auschwitz angoras, writing violence, and second chances

Michael Yee was born in Pretoria. His story ‘Mouth Full Teeth’ appeared in Short.Sharp.Stories Incredible Journey and he’s thrilled to be included again. He’s had the privilege of working in Joburg, Prague, Frankfurt, London, and most recently as a freelance creative director for an ad agency in the Ivory Coast. He looks forward to living in a world where things are more equal. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, recently conducted an interview with Michael during which they discussed the cruel history behind his entry, having to stay detached while writing scenes of violence, and why short stories shouldn’t be age-restricted.

What was the initial spark for your short story, ‘Satins and Giants’?

I received a horrific video about the angora fur trade from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that I wanted to write about for this year’s competition.

Your story is a hard-hitting exposé of your protagonist, Achim, who gets caught up in a cruel family system as well as the taint of the worst of European history… How did you marry these ideas?

I would love to take credit for that, but really, once the protagonist appeared it was just a case of staying out of his way. He showed up after some digging revealed that Himmler kept secret angora farms in Auschwitz, using the fur to line the jackets of SS officers. In fact, the photo at the beginning of ‘Satins and Giants’ are of rabbits raised there.

The story, influenced as it is by Nazi war crimes, highlights this evil in a visceral way. Was it difficult to write?

Having to stay detached while rewriting those scenes of violence was really tough, many nights I went to bed seeing double.

Your protagonist, Achim, perpetrates a kind of unspeakable cruelty to animals. It has been suggested that your story should come with a ‘trigger warning’. Do you agree with this? (Or are we too molly-coddled as readers?)

I guess movies and music albums use warnings, but that’s a legal requirement to protect minors, which is not the case for short stories, so I would tend to disagree. I hope nobody is ambushed by the cruelty though, as I tried to avoid that with a pretty dark tone from the start. (Having said this: I’m even more thankful now that the story was included in the collection, given the subject matter.)

“Some digging revealed that Himmler kept secret angora farms in Auschwitz, using the fur to line the jackets of SS officers. In fact, the photo at the beginning of ‘Satins and Giants’ are of rabbits raised there.”

 

Did you feel you were taking a risk with this subject matter, a risk which might exclude you from publication?

Definitely, I was nervous when the time came to submit and with so many excellent writers with great stories to tell, the risk of not making it always looms large. But a year on, I’m very grateful to have a story included that I cared about in the collection.

Back to Achim. He does find some kind of redemption. Was this important to you as writer?

Yes, I’d like to live in a place where people get second chances, no matter how badly they messed up. Plus, after everything Achim had been through, he deserved a break. He had earned it!

Is the setting an echo of the concept that ‘wealth corrupts’? Yours is a fascinating scene …

Very much so. After realising what this story was about, it guided many decisions: the setting of structural rot, mansions overlooking other decaying mansions in ‘Sol Kerzner’ country in Johannesburg, and props, dialogue, Achim’s relationships, his motivations. The order that this brought was comforting because the protagonist was so chaotic!

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Be kind and patient with whatever arrives on the page.

Trade Secrets

Book details

Op pad: ’n Reisjoernaal is Dana Snyman se snaakse, skerp en onthutsend eerlike relaas van die land deurkruis op soek na stories

Dana Snyman sien dinge op sy eiesoortige, aweregse manier. In deel een is hy op pad saam met die TV-span van Op pad met Dana.

Soos hulle die land deurkruis op soek na stories, beleef Dana nie net die lief en leed van die mense met wie hy gesels nie, maar ook sy eie innerlike reis. Hy kom huistoe met ‘n optelhond – en met ‘n nuwe manier van kyk.

In deel twee kyk hy rugby. In kroeë, township-huisies, saam met oom Frik du Preez en Joost van der Westhuizen.

Snaaks, skerp en onthutsend eerlik.

Dana Snyman is bekroonde skrywer met ’n rits topverkopers agter sy naam. Hy skryf gereeld vir Die BurgerBeeldBy en veral Huisgenoot, waar hy sedert 2014 feitlik eksklusief werk. Dié tydskrif, die grootste in Suid-Afrika, het hom talle nuwe volgelinge besorg. Dana is ook aktief op sosiale media en het meer as 5000 volgelinge op Facebook.

Boekbesonderhede

Theme for next year's Short.Sharp.Stories Awards announced

Instant Exposure – stories inspired by photographs

We live in an age in which increasingly we all take or view photographs. Visual language is growing and developing every day as we record our world and our experiences in visual terms. One could go as far as to say that every one of us has, by default, become a photographer as billions of images are uploaded online at any given moment.

We invite you to find a provocative photograph which inspires a powerful story. The image can be a spontaneously captured selfie, a bold news pic, a childhood snap in an old album; perhaps a framed tribute that brings back memories of joy, or a hidden print that haunts your past. Whether the photo is a portrait of a loved one, or an evocative landscape, whether colour or black and white, as long as the photograph has meaning to you, we encourage you to ‘find your story’ – the humour, the pathos, the drama – in the image.

As ever, we’re looking for stories with strong narrative drive, and characters and settings which reflect our South African experience and diversity.

Deadline 30 November 2017

This process is in three parts:
1) Choose the photographic image that inspires you…
2) Write a caption for that image…
3) Use the caption as a springboard to create your story of between 3000 to 5000 words.

We require the photograph, the caption, as well as the story to be submitted.

Please see full rules at www.shortsharpstories.com