|The publisher of Struik's new
women's imprint, Oshun Books, has some random thoughts:
When you've never worked in the book industry and you become a publisher who has to launch a new imprint (and because it isn't profitable yet, you have a skeleton staff, which wouldn't be so bad if you knew any of the industry freelancers) ...
When you're a newly-minted publisher who has only ever dealt with writers (as opposed to authors - big difference), who's had to conceptualise covers only within very defined paradigms (on magazines), who isn't sure what paper means (I mean really, deep down in its fibres), who doesn't know what an imprint page has to have on it, who doesn't realise that if you write somebody a 1 000-word constructive letter that should have been a straightforward rejection you won't be able to get rid of them …
When you're doing something that should be classified as "anti-gravity" up the learning curve, you find that you don't have much time to think extensive, expansive, yet coherent thoughts.
You find that you think very practical, focused thoughts, like "Is this the right font?" or "What is an ozalid?" or "What's the best way to reschedule this?" or "How can I teach this person how to use the 'word count' function?"
But in between, and over and above, you have other thoughts, some of them inspired, some naïve, some curious, some cheeky, some irritable. Sometimes you ponder the great questions of publishing, sometimes you wonder whether you know - or anyone knows - what the great questions of publishing actually are. Somehow these thoughts are shifting and coalescing, but, as yet, they are not a theory, they are barely an attitude (in a way, that's what's nice about being at the beginning). These thoughts go something like this:
Thought 1: I can't read a local book on the beach.
It's not that the Camps Bay crowd have suddenly started to care about what (or even whether) people read. It's not the glares; it's the glare: that damn white paper! What's with that anyway? Why can't we have nice, warm, slightly fuzzy creamy paper? And while we're at it, do the spines have to be so pinched that you're forced to watch the words float across the meniscus of the page? No, that's not all: Why are the books often such awkward formats - a little too big, a little too square? Why are we making ugly books?*
Thought 2: Oh blasphemous thought!
Oh self-sabotaging wondering! Is there actually space in the South African market for an imprint catering to women? With my brain trained on local women and their needs I see gaps all over the place. For example: there are 14 500 registered women golfers in South Africa and it is the fastest-growing sport among women in the country - why is there not a resource book that caters specifically for them? Then … Could there be a space in the market for an imprint catering to men? An imprint that doesn't assume that rugby exposés and biographies of warmongers cover it? The truth is (according to non-empirical data, admittedly) that women buy more books. Partly it's down to the fact that women belong to book clubs (which raises the question, why don't men?). Are men not reading? Will men not read books written by women? Why are my authors afraid that by signing on with an imprint that publishes, almost exclusively, women authors, they will lose their male audience?
Thought 3: What is it with the apostrophe s? Huh?
And why do I rant at people at dinner parties when they use amongst? "It's among!" I yell. "And it's while," I add, my eyes bulging. Why are people not fazed by the slow phasing out of the correct spelling of fazed? Why do I receive manuscripts back from editors with people eating Lemon Meringue Pie and Steak Tartar and Chicken Casserole - properly? Maybe it's because I'm a wanky ponce who photostats pages from Eats, Shoots and Leaves to give to my friends.
Maybe it's about thwarted dreams: perhaps I would have tried to make my career as a proofreader if I didn't have to say "i before e, except after c" every time I write receive. In other words, if I weren't so crap at proofreading. Probably it's because we're only going to find time to put our house style guide together in December. Still, a small voice inside me cries: Where have all the good proofreaders gone?
Thought 4: Where is our Toni Morrison, our Maya Angelou, our Alice Walker?
Sindiwe Magona asked this question at the recent launch of a book of essays on her work. And I've heard it asked before. Why are we reading about pappies and porches and ironic/subversive references to watermelons? Where are our strong young women writing about their African identity? They must exist … They do. I have heard them faintly, somewhere. But their novels should be in every schoolgirl's satchel, on every woman's bedside table. Why aren't they being published and publicised? (And then, what if our Toni Morrison doesn't write in English or Afrikaans? Who will publish her? Will she be read?)
Thought 5: Nicola Barker was long-listed for the Booker Prize.
She lived in South Africa for six years. It's like seeing a literary mirage of onse Charlize … (Yes, and Achmat Dangor was short-listed, but he's a man [he looks a bit like Dustin Hoffman in the photos I've seen]. Of course, Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize, but the Booker, and Barker, are sexier.) Bring on the South African woman über-authors!
Thought 6: Well, it's the Tube that keeps the cosy book industry in the UK plumped, innit?
If we had a Tube, we might sell more books. Instead, we have people clogging up the roads, each alone in his or her car, crawling to and from work … Hey, what about audio books?! Why not? Sure, their jewel-cases are dulled by dust as they languish on the shelves (well, the one shelf) at the bookstores … But surely we can find an angle on this? I mean, audio books aren't for old people whose corneas are going opaque, they're for busy people, fulfilled people, people who make the most of every minute of their day! And audio books could even revive poetry - think about it: apparently no one buys poetry books anymore, yet hundreds of people scramble for tickets to Urban Voices every year. It's called spoken word, and it has to be heard! And back to the Tube; no not back, but forward: poetry plastered on minibuses for everyone to read, for everyone to remember, for everyone to love … Poetry lives again! Why not?
Thought 7: Usually people don't know what they want to read.
Thought 8: I've become blasé about Eve Ensler.
No, actually, I find her yoni honeys quite irritating. When we were trying to find a name for the "women's interest" imprint, I reneged on a brief but intense fling with "Pretty Little Head" (saving it for an all-girl punk band). Then I was forced to give up a serious love affair with "Akimbo". In my impotent rage I facetiously suggested "Guava Juice". Our MD thought it was hilarious. The booksellers didn't. When I went, tongue in cheek, to the MD with a title for a book about how to be a fabulous post-partum mom (Who Stretched My Vagina?) he semi-seriously considered it, but conceded with a smile that perhaps "the market wasn't ready". Maybe sassy New Yorkers can be frustrated by electioneering tactics such as the Vaginas Vote, Chicks Rock concert, and maybe it's understandable that I come over yawnish about a play I've been watching for years, but many South African women still have a problem with the "V" word. No ownership of or pride in their reproductive organs (vagina, womb and all) means that women struggle to demand respect and make informed choices. So, there are issues that South African women need to address ...
Thought 9: Can a woman write sci-fi?
Can a woman write about a man walking through a city for a day? Can a woman write about a tiger on a boat? Can a woman write about a walled city in a desert? Can a woman write about a circus troupe? Can a woman write an economics thriller? Why is there an assumption that women write novels only about certain things?
Thought 10: What makes a good cover design?
Hmmm … striking, obviously. But not so striking as to freak out the tannies and get yourself pulled. But not so safe that you look like everyone else. But try to look a little like some of the others, so that people know what they're looking at. Try to have an international feel, while letting locals know that this is relevant to them. Try to design one that pleases Sales and Marketing and Eleanor from Wordsworth and the 13-piece book club of a work colleague … I think white stands out, but only because more experienced publishers don't make their covers white because they get grubby and the booksellers send them back … Is a serif font inherently trashy? ... Foiling or metallic Pantone? ... Why do so many covers show photographic images of peoples' shoed feet? Hmmm? Hmmm ...?
Visit the Oshun Books microsite: www.struiknews.co.za/oshunbooks
* The answer to question one is apparently that the paper is too expensive. It's actually cheaper: we've made the costings work, but had to commit ourselves solely to the ton of creamy paper that was shipped in for us from Finland. (I have since found out that there are, in fact, several local publishers who've started using creamy paper - so I'll be able to pack a novel with my sun cream this summer.) The answer to question two is simpler: Paarl Print acquired a PUR binding machine only early this year. Polyurethane resin (PUR) adhesive is extremely strong and flexible, allowing a book to lie open flat without damaging the spine. The answer to question three is a mystery: most of Oshun's books are a standard fiction size ("B" format, ie 198 x 128 mm). Some of our books are made A5 with white paper, for design and "feel" reasons.