Celebrating SA’s vibrant women publishers

06 Aug 2019
Celebrating SA’s vibrant women publishers

In celebration of Women’s Day, PEN SA is proud to profile three of South Africa’s most vibrant women publishers.

Alison Lowry, Thabiso Mahlape and Zukiswa Wanner have each made a unique and valuable contribution to the local publishing industry.

In the run-up to our Women’s Day newsletter, we sent each of them a set of questions about their careers and received the most wonderful responses!

Alison Lowry

Alison Lowry has worked professionally in book publishing for over 30 years and has been a reader all her life. She began her career with Oxford University Press in Cape Town before relocating to Johannesburg in the late 1970s where she worked with academic books for Macmillan Publishers.

In 1986, together with her late husband, Howard Dalton, she set up her own publishing company, Lowry Publishers. After selling the company in 1989, she moved to Penguin Books South Africa in the position of publisher. She left the company in 2012, after serving as the company’s Chief Executive Officer for ten of those years.

These days, she works as an independent publishing consultant, editor and writer.

PSA: Your extensive career runs the gambit of roles within publishing. Which role has been the most memorable and why? Which one do you prefer, purely from the perspective of the work itself?

AL: Working with an extraordinary team of colleagues – most, but not all, of whom were women – during my 23 years at Penguin gave me much joy for a lot of that time. So, if we’re talking memorable, I’d have to say the final 10 years there in my role as CEO, when I was responsible for the overall health of the company, for its growth and for the wonderful books we published over many years – that was a memorable role indeed.

But the role I have always preferred is perhaps a dual one: publisher and editor. Publisher because I had the responsibility for and privilege of being in a position to build a list of South African books and nurture the writing careers of several authors over the years. Editor because working closely with a writer, especially in the development stage of a book, is the most rewarding job of all. It is what I do full-time at present and it’s a very precious space to inhabit. 

PSA: How has your career in publishing influenced your writing and vice versa?

AL: Wearing two hats, i.e. knowing the publishing industry from the inside and being a writer on the outside, is something of a double-edged sword. It means that I understand how and why publishing decisions are made (whether to take a risk on a book or author or whether to pass). So, when one of the writers I work with as an editor, coach or mentor receives a rejection – which can be mystifying and deeply disappointing – I can sympathise as a writer, but I can also often understand why that publishing call was made. I also understand the commercial realities of a small market, so ‘low’ sales that might come as a shock to an author are not that surprising to me. 

Many writers or would-be published writers try to ‘read’ a market or market trends and aim to get on the rung of the publishing ladder by thinking ‘Oh, I can do that.’ This can be more of an obstacle than a route to an audience and a publishing home. Nothing about writing – or writing well, that is – is easy or straightforward. So, when it comes to my own writing, I don’t have a market, an audience or a publisher front-of-mind (but certainly on the periphery of my vision).

I try to write the best sentence I can. And then another, and another – and then I go back and do it all over again. For me, personally, the goal is not to be published. It’s always about how the words sing off the page.

PSA: Digital media seems to have drastically changed the publishing landscape from author to publisher to retailer. Are there any facets of the business or publishing process that have remained mostly untouched by this shift? If not, what has changed most dramatically?

AL: I have been out of mainstream publishing for over six years, so the industry challenges for a traditional commercial publisher are, fortunately, something I don’t need to grapple with as much as those who are competing for status and sales.

What has changed dramatically is that anyone can publish anything any time. There are any number of avenues for getting your book or story ‘out there’, without having to knock on agents’ or publishers’ doors and hope for a positive response.

This means that many a frustrated writer who has been turned down or pipped at the post by another in securing a publishing slot can find an audience or a community online where their work can be showcased, discussed, appreciated (hopefully) and bought.

For traditional trade publishers, essentially the sheer quantity of books currently being published means, simply, that there are more titles available than ever before, all competing for a reader’s attention or enjoyment. Their challenge is, therefore, to draw readers to the books they publish, the titles they curate, and they have to find increasingly creative means of doing this.

One thing that is still pretty much the same when it comes to commercial trade publishing is this: a publisher’s list is built around that publisher’s individual strategy – usually a balanced mix of fiction and non-fiction, some specialisation in certain houses, and a budgeted number of titles (you can’t publish everything: there’s a limit to internal resources and space on bookstore shelves – physical or virtual).

What is also much the same is that publishers have a profile, often attached to separate imprints within the same company, where a potential reader will know more or less what they’re getting: a high-quality literary novel or a fabulous summer beach read; an authoritative analysis of middle American history or a memoir by someone completely unfamous but which will make your heartache with the sheer quality and beauty of the writing. Quality and value are important and they reflect on the imprint. Within whatever genre their focus is, publishers strive for excellence, not only in terms of content but also in how the book is produced, and how well it is edited and proofread. In the plethora of titles bristling for attention, sometimes it’s good to be able to identify a brand or an imprint you can trust and which will deliver on expectations.   

PSA: What advice do you have for young writers/publishers wanting to make an impression in an intensely competitive industry?

AL: I think when it comes to trying to get a foot in the industry door, it’s a good idea (the same as with most industries or professions really) to be prepared to take on projects, jobs or positions that weren’t perhaps exactly what you had in mind. Lots of people want to be an editor – which can sound more glamorous than it is – but those jobs don’t come around as regularly as, for example, a position as a marketing assistant or sales representative. The important thing is to put up your hand and say ‘I’ll do it.’ Then you will be an insider and have an opportunity to prove what an asset you really are. So, as you’re compiling sales material in the back office and trying not to fall asleep, you can let it be known that you’re keen as mustard to read a manuscript or two … And when someone puts a manuscript on your desk, you can show initiative by writing a killer reader’s report before anyone’s thought to ask you to.

As for writers – their worst fear is multiple rejections from publishers. The reality is that this happens routinely. What’s important for them to know is that the rejection is never personal. Nine times out of ten there are three key reasons for why a book is turned down:

(1) because it simply doesn’t fit with the shape of the publisher’s list of titles, (2) because they only have slots for five novels in a given year and on average they receive more than 80 submissions, and
(3) the book is plain awful.

Writers who are finding the going tough and the closed doors distressing, an informal writing group where work can be shared and feedback is honest and helpful, can allow them to see their work more clearly and find ways to improve, shift focus, change tack – and perhaps get a publishing deal. 

Visit Alison Lowry’s website for more details.

Thabiso Mahlape

In August 2015 the face of South African publishing changed. This is the day that Thabiso Mahlape launched her new book imprint BlackBird Books. The imprint, incubated by Jacana Media, provides a platform and a publishing home to both new voices and the existing generation of black writers and narratives. 

Mahlape honed her skills as a publisher with a number of highly acclaimed bestsellers; the award-winning Endings & Beginnings by Redi Tlhabi, the ground-breaking My Father My Monster by Mcintosh Polela and Malaika wa Azania’s Memoirs of a Born Free, all books which talk to multiple audiences on issues which impact us as South Africans.

PSA: Can you describe the ethos behind BlackBird Books?

TM: Access, that is the first thing. I wanted to give black voices a chance. I wanted to tell the stories that I know and that I am familiar with, which are the stories of the majority of South Africa.

PSA: We were fascinated to discover that you actually started out studying engineering! How did you end up finding your path as a publisher?

TM: Studying engineering was the move that made sense post-school, I was a black girl child in the early 2000s with great marks in maths and that is exactly what companies like Eskom were looking for.

So what I did as a pimply 17-year- old, was to disregard my love for books, writing and reading to pursue it. I spent the next four years depressed and completely killing my self-esteem.

In the 5th-year my dad agreed that I pursue what I loved, what we all knew I loved, instead. At that point, I had thought journalism to be the gateway to the life that I wanted. Unfortunately, however, applications for the journalism course I wanted to pursue had already closed. It was then, that some suggested publishing… and the rest, as they say, is history.

PSA: How would you describe the aesthetic and the types of narratives BlackBird Books set out to publish in 2015 and have there been shifts since?

TM: As I said above, I wanted stories that felt, looked and sounded like South Africa. I want to be a champion for new voices. I want to be the midwife that helps birth careers.

There is no doubt in my mind that some of the people whose voices have taken flight through BBB will become superstars.

PSA: BlackBird Books strikes a noticeable balance between publishing fiction and non-fiction. Is this a conscious choice? If so, why do you think it’s important to keep this balance in place?

TM: I am at a weird place regarding this. This year alone, I have published only fiction and will do just one non-fiction and you will see why, it is a young, brilliant South African Voice. Next year sees me leaning a bit more into non-fiction.

All stories are valid, and that’s all we need to remember, we treat the delivery by the merit of the story and that’s what gets published over the other.

PSA: What types of stories do you hope to see published under the BlackBird imprint in the near future?

TM: More women definitely. But stories that honour our ancestors without betraying who we are now.

Visit BlackBird Books to find out more.

Zukiswa Wanner

During her illustrious career as a journalist and writer, Zukiswa Wanner has published five novels, a memoir, a number of children’s stories and an array of essays for the likes of Oprah, Elle, Afropolitan and Sunday Independent, amongst others.

Her idea to establish Paivapo Publishers, along with her college friend Nomavuso Vokwana, in 2018 stemmed from a desire to create greater access to literatures from Africa and its Diasporas. Furthermore, Wanner was keen to make more children’s literature available in a variety of African languages. This became a reality when Paivapo recently published the magical anthology of folk tales retold, called Story Story, Story Come (EN) / Chosi Ntsomi (XH)/ Pavaipo Dzepfunde (SH).

PSA: What inspired you to start Paivapo Publishers? How would you describe the ethos behind it?

ZW: As a writer published in South Africa, for a very long time I felt that we ignored the rest of the continent despite our own stories at our own peril. Word for word, South Africans are out-writing everyone.

Unfortunately, not enough people on the rest of the continent know us unless and until we have been acknowledged by the West. I wanted then to find the stories in South Africa that the rest of the continent could relate to and in the continent that South Africa could enjoy. And I wanted to ensure that I distribute widely beyond SA borders because I know, Africa Reads.

Paivapo is also very much about the interests of my writers because that is what I expected from publishers.

So, for instance, I have refused to have a story in my children’s anthology Story Story, Story Come translated and published elsewhere because the people who asked for it told me they didn’t have a budget for it. And I promised the writers that I would always ensure that they got paid for every translation of their story. 

There are those who would argue that I may have missed out on sales of the whole anthology.

But I am enough of a writer to know that mention in one medium that ‘this is an excerpt from…’ doesn’t always translate to sales. Heck. I was a columnist in a magazine for a while where my sign-off line read ‘Zukiswa Wanner is the author of…’ and people who had read the column still asked if I had any books.

PSA: Has becoming a publisher changed your perspective as a writer and, if so, how?

ZW: The only way it has changed my perspective as a writer is that I know there are not enough hours in a day, so I manage my time better and have days I am a writer and days I am a publisher.

PSA: You recently published a delightful collection of re-imagined folktales from across Africa, available in English, isiXhosa and chiShona under the titles Story Story, Story Come / Chosi Ntsomi / Paivapo Dzepfunde.

  • How did you go about collecting these tales?

ZW: I was lucky that my friend, Maimouna Jallow – who is the editor of the English anthology – did all the groundwork. She did a call-out, had 100 submissions from across the continent and then had a judging panel consisting of, among others, Chuma Nwokolo and Muthoni Garland, decide on the best ten stories.

She, then, approached me as soon as I set up Paivapo and asked whether I would be interested in publishing the stories. I asked that she sends them to me. I read them, liked them, then the two of us each added a bonus story.

  • How has the book been received?

ZW: The reception has been beyond my expectation. We are now doing our third reprint and the book was first published in December 2018! But it’s also a testament of the hunger our people have for stories that centre them and their children and for that, I am happy that I could fill that gap.

  • Finally, why do you think it is that folk tales continue to capture our imaginations, children and adults alike?

ZW: I think it’s because we love to escape into other realms and see what else is possible. The fact that folk tales continue capturing our imagination is the reason I don’t take people who are convinced that nonfiction sells better than fiction seriously.  The only reason the former sells better in South Africa is because we are unimaginative about how we market fiction. For what is adult fiction after all if not grown-up folktales?

PSA: Your most recent M&G article recognises a problem in public libraries where African books are not front–let alone–centre-stage. Is there too little attention given to representation of Africans and African literature in public libraries? How should this be remedied?

ZW: A big remedy would be for South Africa to first understand that it’s an African country. NOT America-lite. NOT Little Britain. In Africa.

Once we understand this then maybe we will understand the importance of loving ourselves. It’s utterly absurd that I can find Damon Galgut in a bookstore in Jaipur or Angela Makholwa in Lahore or Masande Ntshanga in Lagos but cannot find them, alongside their fellow South African writers, taking pride of place and more shelf space in libraries and bookstores in South Africa.

I can’t even imagine the opposite happening in US or UK libraries and bookstores and yet we do it without a second thought.

Visit Paivapo Publishers to find out more.