Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Problem with Local Publishers in Botswana

I was recently at a workshop and had breakfast one morning with one of Botswana’s musicians. He said that when he tours Botswana, his producer pays for it. He’s promoting himself so more CDs are sold which is good for both the producer and the musician. I sat there thinking how far the situation is between local writers and their publishers and local musicians and their producers.

Book publishers in Botswana work like this:
They wait for the Ministry of Education to put out a tender for the books they need. The publishers then run around trying to get writers to write those books. They submit the books to the government. The government chooses a tiny, minuscule, fraction of them and then the local publishers print up the books, take them to the schools and get a cheque. That’s how it’s done and always has been. This is what they know. They’re educational publishers and the government pays their bills.

This does absolutely nothing to improve the situation of literature in this country. It does little to promote writing and writers. It does nothing to develop writers. It does nothing to improve the status of reading in the country. Local publishers do not care about any of that. It’s not their concern. This applies to both the international big guys who have set up a storefront and the local publishers who claim they are here for the long term. If tomorrow the government stops buying books, I can assure you there will be no more publishers in Botswana. None. They know nothing else but selling books to government and they have no interest in learning something new. Perhaps I’m being harsh; for sure I am firmly biting the hand that feeds me, but it’s time we look at this situation face on and stop pretending it is something that it is not.

Let’s imagine a world where a publisher wants to sell books to the people- how does that work?

First- they call for submissions. Then writers write books- all sorts of books. Books for little children, books for adults. Stories from our past and our present, stories from the future. Immediately the possibilities for writers and what they can do expands and the books available to readers expands too.

Now the publishers look at the submissions from the writers and choose the best, the ones they think they can sell. They would set up a marketing plan for the books. How could they sell the books? Which media would they choose to publicise their authors? Where in Botswana could the authors go to talk and read from their books, to sell their books like the musicians sell their CDs?

And what about the internet? They would organise the books be sold online. They would have the book selling as an ebook on the company’s website and the author’s blog or website so they can easily sell internationally. Botswana publishers would make books one of Botswana’s export commodities. And soon writing would be a career people with talent could choose. Botswana might start to be known as a place of writers just like Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

But that won’t happen. Publishers have little interest and zero incentive. It would require teaching an old dog a new trick and that old dog likes its old tricks very, very much.

So if you’ve written a book that has very little chance of being chosen as a schoolbook, you’d be cutting your throat by handing it over to a local publisher. No matter what they tell you, there will be no marketing. They will have made you sign a contract that gives them world rights when they fail to even sell it in our tiny country, so you will not be able to give it to another publisher. For all intents and purposes that book is dead. All your work, all your creative energy -gone. So if you’re serious about making money from your books outside of the school market, give the local publishers a miss.
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This was my November 5th column in our newspaper The Voice. After the column came out I had numerous conversations with other writers about it. What we need badly in Botswana if our literature is to grow at all is a trade publishers run by someone who reads and loves literature. It would be the best thing for writers in this country.

5 comments:

Sue Guiney said...

Very interesting, and tempting to think this is the way it works over here, but alas this is the phrase which gives it away, when you say publishers "choose the best, the ones they think they can sell." Here, the big publishers don't equate best with what sells, nor do they necessarily care about "best". Thankfully, the indies do - but you'll never make a living from them because their sales can't reach enough people. It's the conumdrum we all face.

Jim Carroll said...

This is a good conversation to have regarding publishing, but I think you are talking about the need, ultimately, for the Botswana government to make a shift in educational development policies. The question is whether it is time for that shift.

When I lived in Botswana (1991-99) the Ministry of Education had only just completed the construction of enough junior secondary schools so that they could offer universal junior secondary school education. At that point, though, there weren't enough teachers to staff the schools, so many of the teachers had no training in education (Peace Corps volunteers usually only had their two month crash course training) and many had no education beyond senior secondary. There was a great amount of literacy in the population, but most people were simply struggling to feed the family. The government, at that point, rightly needed to prioritize its expenditures for educational materials - although, from my perspective as an English teacher, they seemed to have put a lot of money into it at the time.

You have to ask yourself if there is a critical mass of readers with disposable income who are willing to part with their money in order to buy books. Clearly that is the case for some music, but books may be a different case. Until there is a sizable population who are willing to spend their "extra" money on books, the primary client for local publishers will continue to be the Ministry of Education.

The other thing to think about is how the economy of music publishing has changed over the past ten years. Music technologies have developed to the point where it is possible to produce and distribute multiple projects of very high quality recorded music with a capital investment of $1000 or more. A producer who buys a few thousand dollars of equipment can then record, mix, master, and distribute an artist's work for, literally, less than $50 (not counting the producer's fees, fees for other musicians, and fees for the use of any additional equipment). The key here is that technology has made it such that musicians and producers are no longer dependent on the older model of a record company. Record companies used to exist for the distribution and marketing of music because of the massive expenses involved in hiring time in a recording studio, pressing LPs and CDs, shipping them to record stores, and marketing them to consumers. This infrastructure is no longer needed by 99 percent of working musicians and composers because there are now reliable and cheap ways to produce, distribute, and market music via the internet and through the local sale of small runs of CDs.

The producer that your musician friend is talking about probably pays for promotional tours because it doesn't cost him much: some phone calls, newspaper ads, gas money or bus fare, food, and a few other things; the musician does the leg work and gets to play some gigs and sell some CDs. Many people these days call themselves producers, but it doesn't mean the same thing as it used to. A producer these days can simply be a guy with a laptop-based recording setup and a cellphone working out of his bedroom. With this kind of a model, all she or he needs is a bit of business sense and a real passion for music.

At this point, music "publishing" is not the same thing it was even ten years ago. Until a similar revolution happens with book publishing - and that revolution may or may not be spurred on by technology - the Ministry of Education will continue to be the primary consumer of books in Botswana.

Jim Carroll said...
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Lauri said...

Sue- I'm sad to hear nothing is better in UK. I'm in the process of trying to organise an ebook to be sold from my blog. I'm not sure how it will work but we'll see. Maybe technology can save us.

Jim- I don't agree completely with you. I think books can be produced at a low enough price that publishers could make a profit. I currently write romance for Sapphire and those books are sold at about R40, which is managable for many Batswana. It is about finding the correct model and actually marketing the book. The wealth distribution has changed a lot since the 90s.

Also- I was one of those Peace Corps voulnteers in the 80s- I was a trained science teacher with experience.

Vikash Kumar said...
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