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Dave-Brendon de Burgh

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

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.)
        Children’s books

A little further down the page you will read this:

Please note that we will not consider the following submissions:
        Poetry
        Short stories
        Religious fiction
        Educational / academic
        Scripts for plays, television or film
        Fiction works that have been self-published
        Novellas
        Science fiction
        Fantasy
        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 submissions@panmacmillan.co.za 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:

        Poetry
        Short stories
        Science fiction/Fantasy
        Teen fiction/Young adult fiction
        Scripts (drama, film or television)
        Religion

    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.

*blinks*

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.

What’s next?

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.

Nowhere.

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?


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Amazon and South African Authors

First published on The Writer’s Life.

Let me start off by stating that I’m not an expert, or a high-up manager; I’m a bookseller and a writer, and this post is my own opinion and how I see things from my position.

Great, now that’s out of the way – how about Amazon’s new terms, eh? Don’t know what I’m talking about? Here’s the link to the article over at The Guardian.

First of all, Amazon’s new terms probably won’t affect me and sales of “Betrayal’s Shadow” or “A Song of Sacrifice” at all. I’m really not worried about Amazon’s terms affecting me because I’m not published by or distributed by one of the ‘big guns’ in the trade. That puts me, and my fellow South African authors, in a very interesting situation.

The thing is, most of the writers I know write Speculative Fiction, and SpecFic isn’t something that SA publishers directly look at, or even notice. Consequently, we’ve have to look elsewhere to submit out work for publication. This means that you probably haven’t seen or heard of many South African SpecFic writers because we just don’t get the deals or exposure that authors with the ‘big guns’ get. It doesn’t mean we don’t exist – it just means that you probably won’t find out work on the shelves in SA bookstores.

But our work is available on Amazon.

See the weird situation we’re in?

Here it is: what we write doesn’t reach as many readers as we’d like and hope because we aren’t with the ‘big guns’, but if we were with the ‘big guns’…? Well, look at how the Amazon-Hachette argument affected authors published and / or distributed through Hachette; buy-buttons that were removed, upcoming titles that could not be pre-ordered. Which, of course, affected sales.

Our sales weren’t affected.

If you check out this page, you’ll be able to order awesome tales without having to worry whether there’ll be a buy-button for you to click. We aren’t beholden to the choices of any of the massive corporations.

So, you understand how the situation is weird for us?

But the actual problem comes in when you put Amazon’s new terms up against the South African book trade as a whole.

Our trade is already suffering immense pressure because of the prices we have to charge – ordering a book from Amazon and paying for shipping will get the book for much cheaper than our stores can supply it. Regional pricing could conceivably make books more affordable for consumers, but our trade doesn’t have that luxury. Not only do we have to purchase rights to get books in SA, but we also have to purchase the books at the pound or dollar price – South Africa’s economy being what it is doesn’t help, either, since the exchange rates push the prices up even more.

And because books are rapidly approaching the I-just-cannot-afford-to-buy-from-a-bookstore-anymore price levels, people are buying online and overseas. Makes complete sense, right?

The problem just gets worse – buying online isn’t the problem, though. For example, you can purchase my book from Exclusive Books’ website for cheaper than what you’ll pay in a bricks-and-mortar store, and yes, I might get royalties, and yes, my publisher and distributor will make money, too. The same, in fact, applies if you purchase my book on Amazon.

But if you purchase, lets say, Patricia Cornwell’s Dust from Amazon, your money is doing nothing to support SA’s book trade. A book is a book is a book, you might think, but it just isn’t the case.

Where you, as a South African reader, purchase the book, is what matters.

A couple of years ago the Kindle really took off here – and we in the book trade were really apprehensive of the effects it would have on the trade. Because we’re insiders, we knew that every book purchased on or for the Kindle meant a loss of revenue for our trade. But customers were happy, because they could afford to read. It didn’t -and doesn’t- matter to a customer where they purchase a book from.

Of course, these customers, like most readers, love browsing in book stores. That has never changed. They’re just not buying books in book stores because they can’t afford it anymore.

Let me show it to you in this way:

Flesh and Blood by Patricia Cornwell will be released in November, which means that South African stores will probably only stock it from early or mid-December – that’s if we don’t get a same-day release deal.

So, Cornwell fans here in SA decide that they’ll pre-order the book from Amazon because they don’t want to have to wait; as soon as the book is released and payment goes through, the book ships to them and they begin reading the book before stock has arrived in South Africa.

(I’m not even going into rights-issues here because customers don’t care about rights-issues)

Yes, this is an example of something that our publishers could try and work on, because fans are fans, but the point is every single cent of the money that Flesh and Blood will make before it reaches South Africa is a loss for our trade. We cannot force our customers to wait for books simply because we can’t get the books on the official publishing date – so we give them a choice.

We will get the stock and display it and posters will be hung up and promotions will be run – but the price of the book in-store, versus the online price, will still be a problem.

So, fast-forward to Amazon’s new terms (which may or may not actually be implemented): if Amazon is able to dictate that “books cannot be sold for a lower price than Amazon’s anywhere, including on a publisher’s own website”, imagine what happens when Amazon offers a promotion on a big-name title that even US and UK retailers cannot compete with:

Customers will buy online – they’re saving money and getting what they want. In fact, it’s already happening. The knock-on effect, though, is what we should be worried about.

Increasing prices means less sales – Amazon sells cheaper so they sell more.

So, South African SpecFic writers who aren’t published or distributed by any of the ‘big-guns’ will very probably enjoy on-going sales in spite of or even despite what Amazon does – BUT – Amazon’s new terms could affect South Africa’s book trade even more negatively.

Catch-22 – we have millions of readers in South Africa who want to buy books on a regular basis but can’t because it’s too expensive, so they purchase what they want online – putting our trade under even more pressure.

Mother of all Catch-22′s, eh?

How do we go about trying to turn this situation around? I have no idea, honestly.

The average South African book-buyer cannot afford to purchase books in-store, so trying to drive people toward stores just won’t work.

Added to that, the South African SpecFic’s writer’s books probably aren’t available in book stores, which means the books are purchased online.

So, the weird situation for South African SpecFic writers in a nutshell:

Our book trade is under immense pressure, but our books are still selling, and are more affordable online than if they had to be purchased in-store.

One thing is for sure – reading is reading, folks. Customers will read where they can and as they can afford to.

How we, as writers, distributors and publishers, continue to give customers what they want needs to be either changed or radically revised, because, after all, publishers weren’t strong-armed into selling their product on Amazon: publishers chose to sell their product on Amazon.

So perhaps, just perhaps, the ‘big guns’ need to be BOLD and REMOVE their products from Amazon. ;-)

Something to think about, however this all pans out.


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Review: Only the Dead by Hamilton Wende

This review has been a long time coming, and I can only thank the author for being so patient. :)

I’ve got a list of authors whose work I begin reading as soon as I can, and Hamilton Wende’s work is on that list. His first novel, ‘House of War’, though not what I focus on reading (because it’s not SFF), really impressed me with it’s mix of authentic, emotional characters, dramatic plot and beautifully realized settings. ‘Only the Dead’ is not only further evidence of his skill as a writer and story teller, but also an indication of just how damned good he’s become since then.

The focus of the tale in his second novel is something very few of us have witnessed and can probably even understand. Child soldiers seem to be like the wind and the sun, in terms of what is expected on the African continent. I think it has become a subject that we no longer even talk about, or wonder about. It takes place far away, doesn’t affect us.

But Wende manages to make this a very real and very important subject by telling aspects of the story in ‘Only the Dead’ from the point of view of a child-soldier. It’s not a nice place to be, but the reader is given the chance to understand just what pushes these children into making these often-fatal choices. There is a strange kind of brutal innocence in the prose, when it comes to the child and the scenes he is the focus of. His interaction with the other characters, many of them also children but some the adults who are directly responsible for his situation, show not only how damaged he is but also how much of a capacity for strength and caring he has – a feat Wende pulled off with grace and deep empathy.

Sebastian, the main character from Wende’s first novel, returns in this tale, and one of the things that impressed me most about his character arc was the fact that Wende allowed him to stumble and fall before allowing him to grow again – he’s the same man we got to know in House of War, but he’s also harder, more skeptical, and knows (as we do) that we can be deeply hurt even when we think we’ve done enough to remain unhurt.

Another focus of the tale is that of unmanned drones, previously a subject mainly Americans would discuss; but here we are faced with the fact that everybody should be talking about drones, not only the countries with the technological capability to use them, or even the countries who’s people suffer when the drones are deployed against them. Wende manages to do this by also telling sections of the story from the point of view of a drone pilot who is thousands of kilometers away from the story’s setting, and we are given an unflinching look at just how what these drone-pilots do must affect them. They are among the thousands of unknown, uncounted casualties of a war that seems to have no end in sight.

All things considered, this isn’t a novel about any one thing. It is a detailed and emotionally powerful look at subjects which always take a back seat when the Kardashians get married or the Pitt’s and Jolie’s of the world conduct their Africa Trips. It is also a novel that beautifully and brutally portrays the depths of empathy and forgiveness, and also a call to force us to try to better understand what we would so easily dismiss or forget about.

In short, ‘Only the Dead’ is a novel that proves that Hamilton Wende is a damned good writer and story teller and not a one-book wonder. I’m definitely looking forward to his next novel! :-)

9 / 10

only the dead

 


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