As a new small publisher, Modjaji Books, I have found the internet invaluable in meeting some of the difficulties and challenges that I face. Creating a name for the company, limited resources, unknown authors, new titles, being outside of the mainstream of publishing and the book world are a few of the challenges.
Ben Williams of Book SA has kindly let me host a micro-site for Modjaji Books within the Book SA site. As a fledgling publisher I aim to make small resources stretch as far as they will go. I know In the future I plan to develop a Modjaji Books website as well, where I can list my books, sell them even, but for now, which has been almost two years, http://modjaji.bookslive.co.za is a good place to be. The blog is an excellent forum to post reviews, news, questions, and information. Because of the blog I have received wonderful letters from possible new authors and people in Book development in other African countries.
I have used the internet to maximise Modjaji’s presence online and to multiply the effect of any PR that my books have received. For example, any time there is a review or an honour for one of my books such as Tracey Farren’s Whiplash being shortlisted for the Sunday Times Award and getting a White Ribbon Award from the Women Demand Dignity advocacy group or Megan Hall winning the Ingrid Jonker prize for Fourth Child – I blog about it on Book SA, and then I put the link to the blog onto my Facebook profile and I paste it to the Modjaji Books group on Facebook. I also Twitter about things I want to publicise like events at the Cape Town Book Fair.
The other bloggers on Book SA act as a kind of support group, most of them are writers. I am a writer and publisher. I see that most publishers don’t blog on Book SA themselves, they use Book SA for PR. Louis Greenberg (who was at Exclusive Books when I wrote the article) is also an author, who blogs on Book SA – he kindly sent me the Exclusive’s Homebru call for submissions for 2009. I found out about them last year, but somehow slipped off the mailing list. I was delighted to be able to submit Whiplash for consideration, it was ‘long-listed’, which means that all the Exclusive Books managers will be looking at Whiplash as a serious contender for Homebru. Sadly it wasn’t selected, but a great many more managers will be aware of Whiplash.
Although I’ve been fairly successful in generating awareness of my authors and their books, I don’t have the resources to market directly to booksellers to the extent that I might like. I did use Bookmark to advertise Whiplash towards the end of last year and I use a distributor. But unfortunately for Modjaji Books my distributor sells over 200 other books, so their reps don’t focus on my books in the way that I would like them to. Direct communication with bookstore staff and managers is a key challenge and one that I haven’t been able to overcome yet. I hear that managers are overwhelmed with emails, so that is not necessarily a good route to go. I wish I could get bookstore managers to visit the Book SA site regularly. The internet doesn’t solve the problem of meeting managers personally and developing a relationship. If anyone has ideas about how to meet this challenge I would love to hear about them.
The internet is also useful for doing research, finding out about trends, authors, issues, making valuable connections with people, sending out information about calls for submissions. Once every couple of weeks I search for reviews of Modjaji’s books for example, I recently came across the African Writing Online review of Megan Hall’s Fourth Child.
Facebook is a useful place to publicise reviews, news, new books, prizes, events. Modjaji Books has a Facebook group of 259 at last count and it continues to grow. I post all my blog entries onto my Facebook group. In January this year I used Facebook, BookSA and direct emailing to advertise the Modjaji Subscription Offer. In this way I have been able to build up a modest cash reserve to offset some of the production costs of my books in advance. The discounts which one has to pay to one’s distributor and to bookshops, and VAT on production costs even when one isn’t VAT registered make the margins very narrow for a small publisher. So doing some direct selling is hugely helpful as here the margins are much higher.
As a new small publisher I have had to think creatively how to make my books visible and to be patient. For example, I published Megan Hall’s book in October 2007, she wanted the book out before she had her baby, due towards the end of November. I knew she wouldn’t be up for major PR, but it was good to launch the book and Modjaji Books. In August 2008 she won the Ingrid Jonker prize for Fourth Child and after that the PR was intense, and then she got invited to Poetry Africa in Durban when her baby girl was almost one. Megan has also now been invited to be on the Poetry International website.
So in summary, I use the internet to build networks, to pass on useful information, to share information and ideas and to ask for favours where necessary. Essentially I see it as a two way street – an opportunity to build up awareness amongst the book buying public and amongst the industry about Modjaji titles and authors, but also a wonderful opportunity to pool resources and to learn, connect and work with others.