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.
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.