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Modjaji Books

@ Books LIVE

A true history of the trials and endeavours of a small publisher


 
Chapter One

Once upon a time, not that long ago, a woman decided to start her own publishing company. She wondered what to call it.

One day as I was driving home in the traffic, the name Modjaji popped into my heart and didn’t leave. I knew that this had to be the name of the imprint. It also made a lot of sense to me, because as a child growing up in Lesotho, my Sotho name was Pulani, daughter of the rain. The theme of rain, rain queen, tears, fertility, growth, new life, rain-maker – all of this seems to be associated with Modjaji. The name came to me after I had already decided to publish Megan’s book and Azila Reisenberger’s book Life in Translation.

Since then Modjaji has taken on a life of her own, I feel her presence with me all the time, tugging at my arm, breathing down my neck, and it is slightly disturbing. She seems to want to fly before she can walk. Like my own daughter Kate, she is determined and in a hurry, impatient, and she has very clear ideas of where she is going and what she wants, and I find myself listening breathlessly and feeling both thrilled and daunted.

At the beginning of the life of Modjaji Books the publisher was a little starry-eyed, to put it mildy …

Modjaji Books is gestating her second child. Life in Translation by Azila Talit Reisenberger is almost due to go to the printer and I feel a bit like I’m eight month’s pregnant. Making the book and getting it to this stage makes me think about how publishing is also a work of translation. Translating from imagination to real, realising a book from a sheaf of poems, a novel from a word document that needs work, a pile of pages, some random thoughts and jottings and dreams.

Publishing is a work of miracles and wonder. In an ordinary way, the way that being a mother, a midwife, an airline pilot is working small miracles or big ones that we have just gotten used to. Publishing is a collaborative translation. For me it offers a rush like no other. Giving a local habitation and a name to aery nothings…

She went about her business in a most unorthodox fashion and what’s more she told the world about it as she did it too!

Life in Translation went to the printer, quite a relief, that last bit is sort of exhausting and you have to keep on being meticulous even though you would love to stop. Work as a small publisher never stops. Even things that used to be just for fun are now work. Like browsing in a bookstore. As you will see. The line between life and work is totally blurred.

The other thing is — I don’t see Megan Hall’s Fourth Child in any of the Cape Town book stores that I have been to in the past couple of weeks. So all you book.co.za readers who care about small/independent publishing/ poetry/ or who don’t mind being a pain in the ass (am I allowed to use words like that on the blog – Ben?) — do me and Megan and small publishing in SA a favour and ask for it, even if you have got a copy and if you don’t – go into your local bookstore and order a copy. Blue Weaver is Modjaji’s distributor, but it seems to me they need a bit of help?

Oh and if there is anyone who would like to review Fourth Child for any particular publication, let me know and I will send you a copy. No chancers please…

And BTW – there is an interesting looking new literary magazine out – have you seen a copy? I got mine at the new Waterfront Wordsworths this evening – the magazine is called Wordsetc. They have a special on subscriptions. Check it out. I heard about it because I am on the Boekehuis mailing list, even though I don’t live in Joburg. It always seems that they have wonderful bookish events on there.

One more unrelated thing – well not entirely unrelated. Richard I bought your book to read on holiday. Your blog posts have intrigued me, so I read up on the book and it looks interesting. I will let you know how I find it, if you like.

These early blog posts give a charming sense of how the publisher got on with things.

Creda delivered the books today, almost a week before the launch. I am thrilled with the book and thrilled that I won’t be greying unnecessarily or grinding my teeth as I panic about whether or not it will be here in time for the launch. I don’t know if large publishers worry about these sorts of things. Maybe there is a designated person to worry – maybe everyone worries. But when you are a small publisher, you are all the people who can worry, except for the writer, and the writer’s nearest and dearest. Although maybe one doesn’t let on to the writers that there is something to worry about.

Azila or Tzili as she is known to those who have the good fortune of knowing her, likes the book, the physical object, so does her family. Another sigh of relief.

It’s strange how there are many books in the one book that we all think we are referring to — there is the book – the concept, the book – manuscript or content, the book – the proofs, the book – the actual, real, physical book and probably many others too? As the publisher – one of the things you try to get right – the real physical book – and then there are always things – if you could have just seen it as a physical book – you might have changed something. But by then it is too late, for this edition at least. So you gotta love the one you are with… as it were. You have to accept that it is a “good enough” book.

The cover looks wonderful – thanks to Hannah Morris – cover artist extraordinaire! Wait till you see it.

The content is excellent, pruned, carefully chosen, polished, shining.

So I have a number of boxes in the front entrance to my home. (Note to myself – need to work on warehousing.) It is wonderfully comforting though to keep passing the boxes and peeking inside. Yes – there they are.

Does this publisher stay so perky and cheerful?

How is this for a small publisher’s hoop? You have to be an exhibitor at the Cape Town Book Fair in order to run an event, like the one I want to do for Tracey Farren’s new book – Whiplash – which is the main thing I want to do at the book fair.

I thought Modjaji Books could just be a Trade Visitor for her first Book Fair. No, you have to be an exhibitor, if you want to host an event in a room. So I register for the Small Publishers’ Pavilion – which wasn’t cheap – over R5000. Not available, has been cancelled due to lack of interest.

The best possible option is to do the regular small stand 4m-squared, which costs over R10000.00 – or find someone(s) to share with.

Every time I think I have the problem solved, I find that no, not yet, and the deadline is 29th Feb, maybe I should have titled this piece leaping through hoops….

Not easy to get a foot in the door of the CT Book Fair as a real player unless you have big bucks.

The Centre for the Book will be part of the National Library stand and from what I gather it won’t be hosting small publishers at its stand, like we did last year. So are small publishers out in the cold or what?

Any suggestions?

The next chapter will follow shortly. Don’t hold your breath though, usually the publisher in question is staggering around with way too much on her plate, attempting to herd cats.

 

Recent comments:

  • Maire
    Maire
    August 8th, 2014 @10:31 #
     
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    The first chapter in a fascinating story. Thanks, Colleen for a glimpse back to those early days!

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    August 12th, 2014 @09:20 #
     
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    Thanks Maire:)

    What struck me was how Bookslive or Book.co.za in those days (2007/2008) was like Facebook is for many writers today. In the early days of blogging here there was lots of interaction, debate, feedback from people like you, Maire, and Richard (de Nooy), Louis, Phillippa (Yaa de Villiers), Rustum, and even Ben - used to get involved too in those days, as well as lots of others as time went on. Sadly it seems Facebook and Twitter have taken over that space.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    August 12th, 2014 @12:03 #
     
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    Yep, hard to compete with the likes of Facebook - but Books LIVE itself is still going strong, thanks in no small part to you, Colleen.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 12th, 2014 @16:40 #
     
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    It was an amazing space that Book.co.za opened up in the late noughties. Not an exaggeration to say that it changed my life. It made the switch from being an academic to an almost full-time books person not only possible, but the best fun of my life. It also gave me the most wonderful circle of friends. Including you, Colleen!

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    August 13th, 2014 @09:01 #
     
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    Mine too Helen! I think that Book.co.za is one of the reasons that Modjaji still exists. In those days, the encouragement and cheering on from other members really kept me going. I actually feel more lonely and more going it alone, weirdly, since the advent of FB and the loss of Bookslive as a primary place for hanging out and chatting with bookish folk. Too many threads and pages and too much to keep up with and not all of it interesting or relevant to me.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 13th, 2014 @10:08 #
     
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    I'm battling with Facebook at the moment - the barrage and scope of it (not to mention its corporate hunger and unaccountable privacy policies). Book.co.za was a lovely, supportive, fun and focussed place to drop in to talk South African books. But when I understood that some readers saw the regular participants as a smug clique, the idea appalled me and I withdrew to Facebook, where at least people could choose whether they wanted to read my whitterings or not and I wasn't inadvertently annoying anyone. Plenty of those cyberfriends I made on book.co.za are real sit-down-and-eat friends now, which is the best sort, I think!

    It's still nice to remember those heady days where online was an idea-lab rather than a branding exercise.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    August 13th, 2014 @12:19 #
     
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    If anyone has ideas for reviving the "book chat" element of our site - even if it's salon-style (that is, limited to the most active users, which put some off) - I'd be happy to pursue! But also happy to concede that Facebook has won the comments war.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    August 13th, 2014 @12:32 #
     
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    I agree with Louis, re the barrage of FB. And I also found the idea of clique-ishness tricky. And even experienced it myself, in the sense that I had to gird my loins sometimes to enter the book.co.za fray, as it were. But it was very much due to battling with my own issues. You know things like - inadequacy, not able to express complex thoughts quickly enough. And the horror when nobody commented on your comment or on your blog.

    But this is definitely a new period of social media and book.co.za was one of the first. So kudos to you Ben, for being a forerunner, cutting edge and so on. I have no idea how to resurrect the chat, apart from actually doing it, like we are now.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 13th, 2014 @13:23 #
     
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    It looks like the Good Book Appreciation Society on Facebook is doing a good job of replicating that free-exchange feel while also being more inclusive and less cliquish. Publishers and writers are reined in and a wider set of people seem confident to express themselves, so that's a good model. If you need to replicate that here at all (if, for instance, you want a sole African focus), perhaps something like that, where anyone can opt in and join the club and there are certain ground rules that everyone's aware of to reign in the egos. (You do lose a bit of fun when the egos are totally silent, though, and everyone's being polite. It used to get dirty here!)

    Then again, you might want to leave all the technicalities and admin to Facebook and not bother duplicating it. Or perhaps people will like a more local, accountable network.

    ?

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    August 13th, 2014 @17:08 #
     
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    GBAS is one of the hottest things going, book-wise - I'm an inveterate lurker on the page. It's still "Facebook", though, if you get what I mean. Will look into what other options there might be for refactoring our chat.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    August 13th, 2014 @18:06 #
     
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    The thing I find a bit hard about GBAS is that the moderator (who shall remain nameless :) is VERY strict about publishers and writers saying anything about books they are involved in. I do see the reason for this. But it is a tough rule. I like/d the way Bookslive/Book.co.za you could do a combo of blogging, commenting, critique, arguing, promoting your work or the work of others, riffing and raving, and it all was OK and worked. But you had to be a bit brave to break in/ join in.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    August 13th, 2014 @18:10 #
     
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    Oh and talking of changing tack, riffing, raving and promo - this very blog was reposted in a slightly jigged form on Publishing Perspectives! Also from FB - the Publishing Africa Group. An open group and Dennis Abrams who posted my article onto PP, is also a member there. And I've gotten some Frankfurt leads & appointments from this blog being reblogged on PP. http://publishingperspectives.com/2014/08/the-trials-of-a-small-south-african-publisher/

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    August 13th, 2014 @20:17 #
     
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    One thing about FB, GBAS and Twitter in terms of chatting is that you get notified if there is a comment in a thread you've commented in - I think now that there is that kind of feedback available, book chat has lost out because it doesn't alert you to the fact that there is a comment in a thread, you actually have to return and see if anyone has commented. And maybe people are too busy commenting elsewhere to keep checking back, so they don't go back as immediately as they do on FB etc, they only respond when they happen to be around that space again and the lag becomes a factor, the conversation gets stale before it gets started. In the old days of Book Chat, it was the only chat going (I don't think I was even on FB in those days), so if it lagged that was okay.
    And, for exactly the reason Colleen points out, book chat has got a great flexibility and potential that something like GBAS can't have because it has it's own thing going on (I think it's excellent that GBAS doesn't allow punting of one's own novels, it makes it personal, rather than commercial, it makes it more of a genuine word-of-mouth kind of forum for talking about good books).

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    August 14th, 2014 @10:13 #
     
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    Oh, I am enjoying reading this thread. I have nothing more intelligent to add, I'm afraid. So it goes. ;)

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    August 14th, 2014 @10:56 #
     
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    Tiah, it's a taste of what BOOK Chat used to be like, before FB's advent. A good piling in :)

    I personally like the strict moderation at GBAS - it keeps the conversation very much on-topic, that is, about what the members like and dislike about books. There are some amazing convos there.

    I also appreciate the points about flexibility/mix, however. As I said, will investigate!

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    August 14th, 2014 @13:11 #
     
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    I think following up on Alex's suggestion of notifications re a thread you engage in, or want to keep updated on might be a good start?

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    August 14th, 2014 @13:43 #
     
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    I can see myself trying, Colleen! (And I can see myself coming face to face with Mark Zuckerberg, and him saying, "If you could invent Facebook, you would have invented Facebook." ;)

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    August 14th, 2014 @15:38 #
     
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    Well, this may sound corny, but you know how in magazines they have a prize for 'letter of the month', maybe there could be a prize for comment of the month. Something like a book and a case of wine to drink it with...or a book and a weekend away to read it on...and for bookslive members maybe some kind of extra promotion on their most recent work (something like that) And then a really cool an annual award for best commentators, member and non-member awards!

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    August 14th, 2014 @17:58 #
     
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    Good idea, Alex. Jen Malec?

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 14th, 2014 @22:18 #
     
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    I also like Alex's idea. And am laughing at imaginary convo between Ben and Mark Z. You would have done it better, Benster.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    August 15th, 2014 @09:16 #
     
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    I third Alex's idea

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    August 15th, 2014 @14:53 #
     
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    So Alex's comment is August's winner? ;)

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    August 15th, 2014 @16:15 #
     
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    Ha ha, quite :)

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  • Maire
    Maire
    August 16th, 2014 @11:32 #
     
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    So cross with myself - just refreshed this page ... and lost a very long comment. Back in a moment, when I've written it in Word.

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  • Maire
    Maire
    August 16th, 2014 @12:12 #
     
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    I 98th Alex’s suggestion – definitely the winner of the August prize.

    I really like the idea of a note in my inbox telling me that there’s a new comment in a thread like this one. So if there’s any way of doing that Ben, I’m sure there’d be quicker responses to threads. I try to limit my Facebook time but it’s sometimes difficult when there’s something going on and I want to reply to many people. And of course, I need my daily Scrabble dose. I’d be so happy to be reminded to head over here though, and would be here in a flash if I knew that an ongoing chat/debate had new comments.

    Perhaps you could link to this sort of chat on the BOOK SA page Ben? (But if you did, would comments be posted there rather than here? Also, do people of very little brain, like me, realise that BOOK SA on Facebook =BOOKS LIVE here?) Perhaps there could also be links to these chats on GBAS, Read Any Good Books Lately and even Goodreads?

    Either way, in the spirit of Colleen’s wonderful first chapter of a blast from the past, I remember when I was working for Colleen at the Centre for the book. It was when she was still sharing an office with Mark Espin, so that would have been 2005/2006 (Ben?). I answered a call from this guy who was about to launch this great idea for promoting books written by South African writers. Off we went to his launch, which was very impressive and tech-savvy (with really great wine). He had a big screen set up and walked us though how the site worked, how it could grow, what the benefits would be for SA writers. You’ve done so much for SA writers, Ben and it’s been amazing to see what BOOK SA has grown into in less than 10 years! (So take many, many bows!)

    And now, another burning issue. What’s Alex’s prize going to be?

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  • Jennifer
    Jennifer
    August 18th, 2014 @12:15 #
     
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    I think the comment of the month thing is a great idea. And the prize could be – wait for it – a book!

    Watch this space ...

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  • jaredwent82
    jaredwent82
    September 7th, 2014 @07:58 #
     
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    I have never really read anything like this,I always read crime dramas so for me its a refreshing read

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