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Modjaji Books

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All you ever wanted to know about getting published in South Africa, but didn’t know who to ask

The Small Publishers' Catalogue 2010 (Africa)OK, so the title is a tiny exaggeration.

Marcia Raymond invited me to give a talk on “getting published” at the Cape Town City Library on Saturday afternoon, February 13th, as part of the monthly Poetry Circle, one of activities of the Friends of the CTC Library. About 60 people were there, full of different questions and expectations. The talk was partly based on the blog I wrote last year about publishing poetry. But from a raised hand exercise it was clear that most of the audience were interested in other publishing issues, and not just poetry.

How can I improve my writing? Make it publishable?

I think writers need honest, clear, helpful feedback as a key step in improving their writing and getting published. But how do you get honest, detailed feedback? Well unless you are extremely lucky you will have to pay for it. Or you can belong to a group of writers who give each other feedback. If you aren’t part of a writers’ group, you can start one. The Centre for the Book has a pamphlet written by Makhosazana Xaba about starting a writers’ group.

Maire Fisher is the person who set up Live Writing , a fabulous service for writers, from which you can source feedback, reader’s reports, mentoring, editing, proofreading, and ghostwriting. Here’s a brief description from the Live Writing website of what’s on offer:

When you send your written work to Live Writing we establish exactly what it is that you need and then ensure as close as possible a match between editor and writer. No matter what sort of writing – a novel, poetry, creative non-fiction, short stories, a children’s book – Live Writing will give you honest, constructive feedback in a comprehensive report. The Live Writing team is highly competent and skilled, with years of writing and editing experience. We number among our ranks published authors, prize-winning poets, playwrights, journalists, copy writers, graduates from creative writing programmes and creative writing tutors.

You could also contact the Professional Editors’ Group for editing services. You need to get your manuscript into as polished a state as possible before submitting it to a publisher. I say this advisedly, having seen many manuscripts that look suspiciously like an early draft, if not a first draft.

How do I find out who the publishers are that might accept my manuscript?
You have to be prepared to do some research. You can either go to a bookstore and browse amongst the books that are similar to your manuscript or you can check out the PASA website and then proceed to the individual publishers’ websites. The useful aspect of this research is that you will find out what each publisher’s specific submission guidelines are. PASA also puts out a PASA Directory with the contact details and brief description of what each member publisher’s focus is. You can also find the Small Publishers’ Catalogue (Africa) 2010 which has contact details of small presses including literary magazines, by contacting Blue Weaver or from a bookstore. The Small Publishers’ Catalogue will be out in early April 2010. Basil Van Rooyen’s book, Get your book published in 30 (relatively) easy steps : a hands-on-guide for South African authors (Penguin, 2005) is a useful if slightly discouraging book for self-publishers and writers. It also focuses much more on non-fiction than on fiction, poetry, memoir, drama, short stories, essays, and so on. (Clue: Non-fiction is a much more lucrative side of publishing than the aforementioned.)

The PASA website also has a lot of useful information about copyright, plagiarism, vacancies in the industry and so on.

What are literary magazines all about?
You need to read at least one or two before submitting poems or short stories. In order to get a collection published you need to have had at least 10 poems and at least 5 or more published. Even then it is very difficult to get either published. Literary magazines need to have subscribers to keep them going. Not just those who submit writing. Here’s the tough question – do you subscribe to any literary magazines? If not, why not? If you think they are too expensive, can you answer these questions. How much is a subscription? Could you share a subscription with friends or other writers? Does your library subscribe to any of them? If not, why not? Which ones are most likely to be suitable to your type of writing?

How do I find out about launches and other bookish events?
Join the loyalty clubs that bookstores have, or join their Facebook pages or groups. They will send you invitations to events.
Check out Book SA and LitNet regularly. Attend readings and book launches when you can. Go to cultural events like Woordfees, Wordfest at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, the Cape Town International Book Fair, the Jozi Book Fair, the Franschoek Literary Festival, the KKNK, the Time of the Writer, Poetry Africa, Badilisha.

Especially for Cape Town writers:
You can go to Off the Wall events in Observatory, at Kalk Bay Books and at Espresso Dot Kom in Kommetjie. To get onto the mailing list you should subscribe to this group, run selflessly by Hugh Hodge.
You must get onto the mailing lists of The Book Lounge, Kalk Bay Books, Wordsworths and Exclusive Books.

What about self-publishing?
A Rough Guide to Small-scale and Self-publishingIf you want to self publish you need to get hold of a copy of A rough guide to small-scale and self-publishing published by the Centre for the Book. I wrote it when I worked at the Centre for the Book when a big part of my job was to give advice to people wanting to self-publish. Even if you don’t want to self-publish, the book offers a useful insight into publishing and how it works.

It isn’t cheap or easy to self-publish, but it can be rewarding and frustrating in equal measure. There are lots of little and big pot-holes to fall into in publishing. Do you homework before you embark on the process. Here are some good contacts: Megadigital is a Cape Town based printer that is worth it’s weight in gold to the small-scale publisher or self-publisher. Mousehand/Readhill is a company that can help you do quality self-publishing for a reasonable price. Some other good companies to know about are New Voices and Aernout Zevenbergen has an excellent blog post where he describes both the joys and pains of self-publishing.

What about e-books and e-publishing – as a writer, what do I need to know?
The short most effective answer is, go to Electric Book Works website, sign up to everything they have going and you will get the answers you are looking for. Follow Electric Book Works EBW and Arthur Attwell (the genius behind EBW) on Twitter and you will learn more than you could ever expect to learn about e-books and e-publishing.

Right, if you have any other questions – there are lots, I will endeavour (as will my fellow bloggers) to answer the questions or at least point you in the right direction.

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    March 10th, 2010 @22:18 #

    Brilliant, Colleen, so useful. I wish I could carry it in my pocket for everyone who asks me the questions you list.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    March 11th, 2010 @07:45 #

    Please add to this, @Helen, @everyone - I saw you put something on your facebook page...

    I promised the writers at the CT City Library that I would do the blog, it took me nearly a month to get down to it. I didn't answer all the questions, like "Do I need an agent to get published in SA? and "Should I try to get published here or overseas first?" I sort of ran out of steam, but would love others to address these and other questions.

    Also @Ben, please link your YouTube talks on getting published that you did was it almost 2 years ago?

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    March 11th, 2010 @09:18 #

    You don't need an agent to get published in South Africa - although it is a good idea to find out as much as you can about contracts and how they will work for you the author. It is not easy to sign up with an agent based outside of South Africa, but if you do get one then they will advise you and guide your writing career

    If you don't have an agent or an international sale then I always think it is sensible to get published locally if you have not found an agent overseas somewhere. Just be careful to retain world rights if you can so that you can sell rights on in other territories if someone were to want them. As soon as you have one book published then you will seem like a writer (to publishers) rather than a pest.


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