Why is SFF Stifled in South Africa?
(This post was originally published by Katherine Kirk on Literogo)
I’ve been in the book trade (on the retail side) for around 10 years now, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the South African book trade is not Speculative Fiction friendly.
In the US and UK, the ‘big’ publishers all have a large and well documented stake in SpecFic – the term I use to describe Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, etc. and which was popularized by Robert Heinlein in 1947. All the ‘big’ publishers in the US and UK have one imprint –at the very least- which is focused on publishing Speculative Fiction.
No such imprints exist among the big South African publishers and distributors.
In fact, visit the submissions pages of the big publishers and you will come to see that Speculative Fiction –in either of the genres which the term encompasses- is laughably (and sadly) absent from the genres these publishers accept.
Penguin Random House South Africa doesn’t have a specific submissions page at all – you’ll have to go to the ‘Contact Us’ page to read which submissions they’ll accept:
General and Literary Fiction
Narrative non-fiction (politics, current affairs, history, military history, sport, true crime, biographies / autobiographies, health and well-being, humour, business and personal finance
Illustrated non-fiction – nature guides and general books pertaining to nature and environment; children’s nature; travel and heritage; cookery, health, gardening, etc.)
A little further down the page you will read this:
Please note that we will not consider the following submissions:
Educational / academic
Scripts for plays, television or film
Fiction works that have been self-published
Young Adult fiction
Let’s see what the other ‘big’ publishers’ stance is regarding submissions of SpecFic:
Jonathan Ball, one of South Africa’s biggest publishers (in terms of the imprints under their umbrella) and distributors, also doesn’t accept submissions of Science Fiction and Fantasy. No mention of Horror, but I think that’s just an oversight. Here’s the full text:
The Jonathan Ball list specialises in South African non-fiction, in particular biography, history and politics. We do not publish children’s books, poetry, plays or short story collections. We do publish fiction, but on an extremely limited scale.
Sunbird Publishers publishes books pertaining to South Africa in the following areas: travel and outdoors; maps and atlases; natural history; illustrated; food; lifestyle; adventure; culture; and wildlife. We do not, however, publish in the following genres: coffee-table photo portfolios; poetry, short stories; general / science fiction; fantasy; scripts; and religion.
Finally, let’s take a look at Pan Macmillan South Africa’s submission guidelines. PanMac opened for unsolicited submissions from the 23rd of November to the 30th of November. In their press release, the following was stated:
As a general rule, Pan Macmillan does not accept any unsolicited manuscript submissions. However, for a limited period, from 23 November to 30 November 2015, we will be accepting unsolicited fiction and non-fiction submissions via the firstname.lastname@example.org email.
This is now the message on their submissions page:
Please be reminded that if you have not heard anything back in terms of your submission by the middle of January 2016, you need to consider it unsuccessful and we cannot enter into correspondence over unsuccessful submissions.
An important thing to remember about PanMac’s call for submissions is that there is no distinction made between Fiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy – a distinction which Jonathan Ball and PRHSA do make. Only fiction is mentioned, and so I can only hope that they accepted submissions of SF and Fantasy.
Now, there are a couple of things that need to be taken into consideration regarding these big publishers:
First off, PRH (Penguin Random House) is now, effectively, the biggest publisher in the world. The amount of Speculative Fiction they publish (by them as well as by the varied and many imprints operating under PRH) is staggering. Most if not all of the SpecFic they publish has gone through the process of being presented and sold to them via an agent, has received a thourough edit from an editor specialising in SpecFic (or Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, etc.), with an art and marketing department brought in to create effective covers and make sure that news of their books is shared everywhere, drafting the help of bloggers and book stores, organising signings and author-appearances, etc. What I’m trying to say is that the books coming from PRH are of high quality, across the board, and are seen as investments.
Jonathan Ball is one of the biggest distributors of books in South Africa and is also a publisher. As we’ve seen, though, they don’t accept SpecFic submissions. At all. Yet Jonathan Ball is the importer responsible for bringing George R. R. Martin’s work into the country – probably one of the best-selling Fantasy series in South Africa (not to mention the world). Jonathan Ball also imports the likes of Robin Hobb, Karen Miller, Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, and many, many more.
PanMac’s parent company in the US has one of the strongest SpecFic imprints in the world – Tor. If you read SpecFic then you’ve read boatloads of great stories from Tor.
Now, considering the amount of SpecFic these three publishers bring into South Africa and combining that knowledge with the information on their submissions pages, the only conclusion one can draw is this:
They will sell SpecFic, but not publish it.
I think there are a couple of reasons for that, which I will get into now, but let that sink in for a moment – our big publishers will sell Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, etc. but will not consider publishing it.
Let’s get into the reasons why (I think) our big publishers don’t publish Speculative Fiction.
The first is that there probably is a fundamental misunderstanding of what SF, Fantasy and other SpecFic is, or can be, or represents.
As a bookseller I can tell you confidently that most SA readers think that SF and Fantasy are the same genre. Why? Well, unfortunately I think book shops are at least partly to blame for that misconception. In most stores or shops, when you find the SFF section, that section is called ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy’. You see the problem there, right? Customers don’t want to waste time reading the headings above sections in book stores, they want to browse and probably buy the books that catch their eye or which they are specifically looking for. To customers, the section is ‘Science Fiction’, and so all the books in that section are also Science Fiction, or Sci-Fi. To them, SF encompasses the different genres they browse through. So Tolkien and Martin are also SF.
I’m not sure why this belief persists (might be something to do with the censorship of Apartheid), but many, many people seem to think that magic and spaceships (to give utterly inane examples) are the same thing. And yes, there are some people who think that describing and categorizing genres of literature is futile and actually hurts books and reading, but then why do we categorize Literary Fiction apart from fiction? Everyone knows what Literary Fiction is (it’s high-brow, important, appeals to a much smaller audience, etc.) and yet very few people know what Speculative Fiction is. I don’t see a problem with the reading public not being sure, but surely the publishers should know – after all, if they don’t, how will they expect to sell it?
This, in turn, feeds into the fact that most of the SFF South Africa ‘consumes’ is imported – we are told by the folks in the UK and US publishing worlds that ‘this’ is SciFi and ‘this’ is Fantasy; ‘this’ is what you should be trying to sell.
And believe me, I’m not complaining – if it wasn’t for South African publishers importing SFF then I wouldn’t have read Arthur C Clarke, David Eddings, Stephen King, etc. I would also very probably have never tried my hand at writing SFF – my novel and short stories wouldn’t have been published.
And here’s the thing – I cannot be the only person in South Africa who writes, or has tried to write stories.
So why hasn’t there been a constantly building list of South African Speculative Fiction writers?
What’s been happening for decades is this: a demand has been created and constantly re-enforced, and this demand has led to thousands of South Africans trying their hand at writing. So how is it possible that there are so few South African SFF writers?
Wait a minute, there are plenty:
Lauren Beukes, Sarah Lotz, Fred Strydom, Louis Greenberg, SL Grey, Joan De La Haye, Monique Snyman, Melissa Delport, Devlin Chase, Charlie Human, Angela Meadon, Sergio Pereira, Greg Hamerton, Suzanne Van Rooyen, Carlyle Labuschagne, Martin John Stokes, Mia Arderne, Yelena Calavera, Kristen A Everett, Nerine Dorman, Cat Hellisen, Mandisi Nkomo, Cristy Zinn, Ashley Jacobs, S.A. Partridge, Liam Kruger, Abi Godsell, Mico Pisanti, Charles Cilliers, Craig Smith, Christine Porter and many more each passing day.
How many of the writers that I’ve listed have you read? How many have you heard of? How many of their books have you seen on the shelves in South African bookshelves?
Let me answer that question for you: Lauren Beukes, Sarah Lotz, Fred Strydom, Louis Greenberg, Charlie Human. These are the names of the writers who write SFF who you’ve seen on the shelves. We now need to look at who their South African publishers are, because obviously these folk are published by publishers who accept SpecFic submissions:
Lauren’s South African publisher is Jacana Media. Jacana doesn’t have a Science Fiction or Fantasy section on their website. In fact, you’ll find Lauren Beukes’ work in the ‘Fiction, Poetry and Literary Criticism’ section of the site. (Moxyland is brilliant Science Fiction and Zoo City is brilliant Urban Fantasy)
Here’s where it becomes really interesting – have a look at their Manuscript Submissions page and you’ll read the following:
Want to publish with Jacana?
Jacana Media publishes a wide range of books and materials, both fiction and non-fiction, with a strong focus on southern Africa and Africa. In particular, we wish to receive manuscripts in the following genres: current affairs, history, politics, biography and natural history.
We receive many manuscripts, and in order to manage them we need you to submit your proposal using the following guidelines.
But before you do, consider the following:
Have you had a look at our current publications? Think carefully about the extent to which your work fits into the list and be prepared to persuade us that your title belongs in the catalogue.
If you’re submitting a work of fiction, we require the full manuscript along with your proposal. If you’re submitting a non-fiction work, we require your proposal and the first four chapters.
Make sure you aren’t submitting something that falls into any of these categories:
Teen fiction/Young adult fiction
Scripts (drama, film or television)
Unfortunately we no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts for these genres.
So, Jacana says, “Make sure you aren’t submitting” Science Fiction or Fantasy, but they do also state that they aren’t accepting unsolicited manuscripts in those genres. In the publishing / writing world, ‘unsolicited’ means you must have an agent who will submit your work for you. No agent, no submission. I’ll get back to the agent-bit later.
So, strike Jacana Media from the list of publishers you’re thinking of submitting to, since they sell SFF but don’t accept SFF submissions.
Let’s look at Sarah Lotz’s publisher: Hodder & Stoughton. Whoops, not even a South African publisher, so strike them from the list, too.
Fred Strydom’s publisher, Umuzi (an imprint of Random House South Africa group, which now falls under Penguin Random House South Africa):
Umuzi, one of the imprints of Random House Struik (Pty) Ltd, under normal circumstances publishes accessible literary fiction with a South African flavour, and narrative non-fiction with literary merit.
Damn, so no luck there, either. Mention Science Fiction and Fantasy among Literary Fiction circles and you’ll get strange looks, because SFF is most definitely not considered Literary at all. So, take Umuzi off the list – unless you’ve written a Literary Science Fiction or Fantasy novel.
Louis Greenberg’s publisher is also Umuzi – see the paragraph above.
Charlie Human’s publisher is also, you guessed it, Umuzi.
What this tells us is the following – some South African publishers publish SFF but don’t accept unsolicited submissions; other South African publishers accept Literary Science Fiction and Fantasy.
So, either write Literary Science Fiction and Fantasy for Umuzi, or get an agent to be able to submit to Jacana. Those are your two options when looking at the biggest South African sellers of Speculative Fiction.
Only two options in a country with bookshops whose SFF sections are some of the most well-visited and well-loved sections in the shop.
Let’s change gears and look at Agents in South Africa. Or, South African literary agents.
Wait a minute – there aren’t any. Yep, no South African agents.
You search a bit further and discover that there are plenty of agents in the US and UK, and this is where you should be realising that getting yourself an agent is a Very Good Thing but absolutely useless for the South African publishing trade. Unless you really, really, really want to publish with Jacana Media, you’ll know that there are some incredible publishers of SFF in the US and UK which your agent could submit to on your behalf. So why would you choose Jacana?
That’s right, you wouldn’t.
You would want a reputable publisher to publish your work, or at least consider publishing it. That means that the publisher should have a proven track record with Speculative Fiction – something all the big publishers in the US and UK have, but not something which can be found in South Africa.
Well, obviously you can’t consider a South African publisher for your work (well, only if it’s Literary Science Fiction or Fantasy), so you begin looking for venues in the US and UK. You don’t have an agent and so you look for a publisher who publishes SFF, is open for submissions (un-agented), and who just might consider publishing your work.
You’ve now entered the world of the small or independent publisher.
And this is where the South African SpecFic author can be found.
I’m published by an independent UK publisher and I’m am extremely happy with them – they are SpecFic focused, excited by what’s continuously happening in the varied genres, and they look after their authors.
BUT you publishing with an independent or small publisher means that your book very probably won’t be seen, EVER, on bookstore shelves in South Africa.
Yes, you read that correctly. The reason for this is pretty straightforward:
Book stores in SA cannot afford to stock books that won’t sell, or which cannot be returned if they don’t sell. So, a store will very probably be able to order in a copy of your book (for a customer, so you can tell your friends and fans to order your book) but not in the quantities to build a nice, eye-catching display of your novel.
First of all, the exchange rates between South Africa and wherever the store orders from (either the US or the UK) aren’t in our favour, so the book will be quite expensive.
Secondly, most bookstores cannot order stock from a publisher who has never previously done any business with the store. If the store orders cool quantities, and those books don’t sell, where do they send them to? From whom do they receive their payment? (Yes, bookstores don’t just sell books – they pay to sell books and must be reimbursed if the books don’t sell) This isn’t something that can be sorted out with “I’ll pay the money into your account”, because most South African bookstores have Head Offices with a Financial Department whose job it is to make sure that everyone and every publisher gets paid, and to make sure that payments from publishers come through.
So you’re a published SFF writer, but you can’t tell your SA readers to go to their nearest bookstore to order your stock or even browse your backlist (if you’re lucky enough to have a backlist which is still in print).
Yes, that’s the situation. South African publishers keep away from Speculative Fiction (and the many genres which that term encompasses) for whatever reason – perhaps they don’t think it will make enough money or be a good enough investment. The fact is, there isn’t a specific reason for this which South African writers of SpecFic can find anywhere. Not on websites. Not in press releases.
All these writers know is that SA publishing will sell SpecFic but won’t publish it.
How do we change this?
Well, the simple fact of the matter is that writers cannot change it. Writers are folk who look for a place that will publish their work (if they want to get it published), and when they can’t find a venue in their own country then they look elsewhere. Or self-publish through Amazon and CreateSpace, but that means their books won’t be available in SA bookstores.
The only way this terrible and completely exclusive state of affairs will change is if South African publishers begin to take Speculative Fiction (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Urban Fantasy, etc.) seriously. That means creating an imprint which focuses ONLY on SpecFic, and which seeks to find, develop and grow the talent of South Africans writing SpecFic. No such imprint (or department) exists within the big South African publishers. As we’ve seen above, either they don’t accept SpecFic submissions at all, or only accept those submissions if you have an agent or have written a Literary Science Fiction or Fantasy novel.
Until that step is taken (instituting a department or creating an imprint), South Africa’s publishing industry will continue to be the party which the weird, cool, crazy kids are excluded from. The message being sent is pretty clear: “If you write Science Fiction, or Fantasy, or Horror, or any other genre under Speculative Fiction, then look elsewhere to publish it, because we won’t.”
Isn’t that sad?