Self-Publishing in South Africa

  Sowetan Thabiso Mahlape is a Rising Star in the South African Publishing Scene

By Tumo Mokone via The Sowetan Live

Her association with recent bestsellers published in the country such as Bonnie Henna’s Eyebags & Dimples, Zoleka Mandela’s When Hope Whispers and the award-winning Endings & Beginnings by journalist Redi Tlhabi, makes Thabiso Mahlape one of the rising stars in the local publishing sector.

PIC: LAUREN MULLIGAN. © THE TIMES

Some believe, however, that her recent feats make her the star of the sector right now.

Publishing is one of few industries where women are visible in positions of influence and power and this includes young publisher Mahlape.

This success will lead to the launch this month of her imprint titled BlackBird tomorrow, a publishing subsidiary within Jacana Media.

“I appreciate the compliment but I still have a long way to go,” says the 31-year-old Limpopo-born Mahlape.
“The truth is that I work hard and the recognition and respect I am getting comes from that. But it was never easy at the beginning.”
By that she harks back to the days when she was jobless for a few months after qualifying with an information science degree from the University of Pretoria. But because publishing was her major, she eventually got an internship through the Publishers’ Association of South Africa and has been at Jacana for the past five years.
“My job is not as glamorous as people think. Well, maybe sometimes there is a bit of glitz and glamour but that is one percent of the time. The other 99% is spent going through e-mail upon e-mail of people who promise they have written the next bestseller.
“I had an incident where I almost rejected an author who promised me he had a bestseller. That author was McIntosh Polela … he was actually right and his book has sold and sold. I go through manuscripts and identify what I feel is a good story and that it will be saleable.”
She explains that the other process of finding bestsellers is to come up with an idea that could be turned into a great book and commissioning an author that would do the idea justice.
“Publishing is a very risky business and one has to try and limit the risks. While it pains us as publishers that writers are not able to make a living out of writing, there is really nothing we can do. We are businesses and we need to stay afloat.”

Another challenge for Mahlape is the state of the reading culture in this country, which limits prospects for financial gain for the sector and contribution to the economy.

“It [reading culture] is improving. With self-publishing on the rise, we have been made aware of a bigger reading public than that which find its way to into an Exclusive Books shop or CNA. A lot of self-published authors are able to move four or 5000 units.
She explains that since another aspect to consider is the economic reality of many South Africans, it is not always true that book sales can be conclusive data in measuring reading culture. This is because there are many people who do not have money to buy books.
“But that said there are still many people who are able to afford R2 000 to R3000 worth of alcohol in a weekend and still lament the prices of books, averaging R200. Maybe if one were to find a wand that would change our nation’s drinking culture into a book reading and buying culture.”
Mahlape believes publishing has provided sufficient scope for women to rise up to decision-making positions, “given where the country comes from”. “In my company for example, the only males are one other publisher, a sales executive and our driver. Our MD is a woman. While I was studying I worked for Van Schaik Publishers which not only was run by a woman but was dominated by women.”
Through BlackBird she must continue to expose stories by black writers with a potential to be bestsellers.
“I think one of my biggest achievements is that while the celebrity culture often dictates publishing decisions, I have been able to publish really great stories that needed to be told.”
Though the publishing industry is worth billions, Mahlape is not yet tempted to branch out on her own.
“I am young and still learning a lot about publishing. Even more great, I am in good space where I am right now.
“I am happy.”

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