Born free

<p>Independent literary publishing has existed in South Africa for decades, and has in the past been manifest mainly in the production of literary journals such as The Purple Renoster and Ophir in the 1960-1970s and Staffrider in the 1980s. Until about 1994, independent publishers were faced with two main challenges &ndash; access to the huge amounts of capital required for conventional production and printing, and government censorship.<br />
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With the first democratic elections in South Africa, this situation changed. As Karen Press pointed out in literary journal New Coin at the time, with a new government committed to freedom of expression and a sense of being able to emerge from a conflict-ridden past, the country experienced a burst of optimism and creativity.<br />
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At the same time technological advances in home computers and software, as well as digital printing, created a situation whereby publishing could be done on a home computer and small print runs of books could be digitally printed on a demand basis. Independent publishers were therefore freed up from the requirement for huge amounts of capital for equipment and conventional litho printing.<br />
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Since then, South Africa has seen the emergence of many independent literary ventures, some of which have ceased publication, while others, such as Botsotso and my own Dye Hard Press, still remain from the mid-1990s.<br />
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At the moment there are about eight print literary journals &ndash; Carapace, Chimurenga, Botsotso, Ons Klyntji, Timbila, Kotaz, New Coin and New Contrast (two print literary journals &ndash; Fidelities and Green Dragon, recently ceased publication). Among independent literary presses there are Dye Hard Press, Deep South Publishing, Pine Slopes Publications, Botsotso, Timbila, Protea Books, Modjaji Books, Ten Workers Media and Third Word Publications.<br />
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But it has only been relatively recently that some of us have forged the identity of being independent literary publishers. For some time we were referred to, and referred to ourselves, as small publishers or home publishers, thus distinguishing ourselves from commercial publishers in terms of size, access to capital and capacity. And while we may have occasionally talked of independent publishing, the terms &quot;independent&quot; and &quot;small&quot; were used interchangeably, as is the case in other countries.<br />
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The crossroads came at the 2007 Cape Town Book Fair. The previous year (the first year of the fair) there had been a stall representing about 10 small publishers, but last year the small publishers&rsquo; stall was huge and represented about 39 publishers, their books ranging widely in production and content quality, and covering poetry, fiction, biography, autobiography, history, children&rsquo;s books, gardening and cooking. It was, I had said at the time, &quot;a real mishmash without any real focus&quot;. <br />
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It was clear that what the nucleus of literary publishers was doing, and what other &quot;small&quot; publishers were doing, was very different. We were (and still are) infused with a purpose of promoting new and often groundbreaking writing, and particularly a writing that regards itself as intrinsic to the&nbsp; socioeconomic and cultural context within which it is created. <br />
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Also, and just as importantly, by drawing comparisons with commercial publishers, it became clear that the differentials were not so much a matter of size or capacity, but of intention. Unlike commercial publishers, we were not concerned with only publishing works that would prove to be marketable to a mass public and thus highly profitable. Thus, while most independent publishers do tend to be small with limited capacity, and commercial publishers tend to be large with bigger capacity, these are characteristics. To talk of small and large publishers was confusing the issue.<br />
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This sense of confusion is best illustrated by a remark made by a well-meaning friend, who said to me: &quot;Gary, I have been thinking about this whole Dye Hard Press business of yours. You&rsquo;ve got to stop publishing poetry and literary journals &ndash; publish books on sport &ndash; that&rsquo;s what sells.&quot; Thus he saw Dye Hard Press as an aspiring commercial publisher with the wrong product mix.<br />
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But the forging of such an identity has not waved the magic wand for the more practical challenges facing independent publishers. A major challenge is access to funding, but over and above that the main challenge is that of recognition &ndash; by bookstores, book editors, distributors and the reading public. Independent publishers in South Africa often suffer from the stigma of not being &quot;real&quot; publishers, of being amateurs, when in fact there are many independently published books in South Africa which are equal to, or even surpass, those of commercial publishers in terms of both production and content quality.<br />
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The difference in intention between commercial and independent publishers has also led to a few independent publishers, including myself, wondering whether we have a role to play in commercial exhibitions such as the Cape Town Book Fair. Some have suggested that independents should be organising their own book fairs and perhaps even their own awards system, much in the same way as the independent film industry does. <br />
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While I endorse such suggestions and feel it is the route independent literary publishers should explore, I do not think we are ready for such a move just yet, although with some cohesive energy and promotion, it might not be too far ahead in the future.</p>