Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Department of Arts and Culture is No More

As of 1 April 2014, the Department of Arts and Culture no longer exists. According to the Public Relations Officer (PRO) in the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture, Mr Kristian Mmusi, the Ministry has been re-organised to improve efficiency and “to improve delivery of services, particularly to the outlying areas of the country”. But have no fear, according to the PRO, “The Ministry will continue to run programmes such as the President’s Day Competitions, Constituency Art Competitions, Exhibitions and the Arts and Culture Grant”. The only one on that list that makes any difference to writers is the arts and culture grant. And how will these proposals be dealt with now? 

“Arts project proposals will be dealt with appropriately by the Financial Requests Assessment Committee and the Grants Assessment Committees in line with MYSC priorities for development of the arts. Specific offices have been assigned to look after this function just like other functions of the Ministry mandate.”
And to top off the entire exercise with a pretty rotten cherry, the PRO added- “In any case MYSC programmes mostly centre around the young person and therefore staff should be able to deal with issues.” I’m an artist, a professional writer, but I’m 50, so how do I fit in? In their world there is nothing like an artist over 30, right? We’re invisible, not important. 

Right there, actually, is where the government’s approach to the arts goes wrong. The fact that the arts are thrown in with the youth and sports shows that the government believes arts to be a hobby, something to keep the youth busy until they move on to more serious things. They give lip service to the fact that the arts can diversify the economy, but they don’t mean it. They have no policy to implement that. They pour money into the President’s Day Competitions -but are they making any real impact? Do the winners move forward? Do they develop and become sustainable? Are they professionalising? What actually is the point of the Competitions except to throw a bit of money around? You see the groups on President’s Day, they compete, they win, they get their money, and go back home until the next year. 

I find nothing wrong with people doing art as a hobby, that’s fine, but I don’t think the government should aim their policies toward that objective. If the government believes the arts are meant to be a hobby, as their recent actions suggest, then be honest about that. Say it. Don’t talk about the arts diversifying the economy when everyone can see that it is only lip service and that their actions say something else. 

The Department of Arts and Culture was not perfect, but at least it was a step in the correct direction. The PRO says that the former structure in the Ministry was hierarchical and top heavy, he says there was duplication of efforts. I can’t comment on that. I’ll accept that was true, but couldn’t that problem have been addressed without scrapping the Department of Arts and Culture completely? 

And though he says that the new Programme Officers will have enough knowledge to cover the issues that will arrive from sports, the youth, and the arts sector, I find that hard to accept. Even when the officers were only responsible for the arts, the field was just too wide. They needed to know the intricacies of the publishing industry, the writing world, the music industry, the world of dance and painting and sculpture and acting… only to mention a few. That was more than enough, and as I’ve said in the past in this column, I had hoped that the move would be toward having more specialised arts officers: experts in each of the disciplines. People who knew what was happening with writers in Botswana, in Southern Africa, and the world, so as to help our writers find their way to professionalism and actually earning a living through their art. Now, as far as I’m concerned, that hope is gone, never to be seen again. We have taken a huge step backwards in my opinion. 

In my perfect world, Arts and Culture would have its own ministry headed by a person who truly cared and understood the arts and knew that the arts are the practical expression of culture, the place where culture is stored. They would understand that artists need training, and schools, and programmes need to be set up in our institutions. They need professional advice. They need to get grants to travel to residencies and festivals to see how others do things. If our arts were truly supported and developed, it would bring people to our country, it would sell our country outside its border. It would feed our souls and our economy at the same time. 

But it’s not supported. It’s all just a Wizard of Oz type scenario, pull back the curtain, and despite our wishes, there’s nothing there. 

(This appeared in my column It's All Write for 23 May 2014 in The Voice Newspaper) 

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Truth About Amazon

I self-published three ebooks at Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) on the 28th May, 2012. The three books are from my Kate Gomolemo Detective Series: Anything for Money, Murder for Profit, and Claws of a Killer. There is a lot of hype around the money people are earning with their books on Amazon. I think it’s time to get some honesty out there so that people enter with their eyes wide open.

First, there are some issues that work against writers from Botswana (actually all African countries) publishing at KDP.

1. Amazon will keep 30% of all of your royalties for United States tax.
2. No matter what price you set your book at, Amazon will add $2 to it. The reason apparently is that it costs more for them to do business in Botswana.
3. Even if you have chosen the 70% royalty option, this only applies when the customer buying your book is living in a country on Amazon’s list. Botswana is not on the Amazon list, no African country is. Therefore, even if you chose to get 70% royalties and you set your price in the prescribed price range ($2.99-$9.99) you will only get 35% royalties on books bought by readers in Botswana, and any country not on the Amazon list and that is most countries.
4. Amazon pays writers in Botswana with foreign cheques, which is a huge hassle.

Here is my experience so far.
1. I have sold 817 copies of Murder for Profit, 690 copies of Anything for Money and 760 copies of Claws of a Killer.
2. Because a lot of those books were sold during promotional periods during the first few months when I attempted to do some marketing, they were sold at no charge. You can set you price at zero to try and get people to download and read in the hope of generating some hype.
3. All the books were priced at $2.99 so I could get the 70% royalty rate but still keep the price low enough to encourage people to buy. Amazon sold them at $4.99 which included their arbitrary $2 charge on each book. So Amazon got the $2 plus their share of the royalties, this is not negotiable.
4. If my ebook was sold in a country where the 70% royalty was working, I made $2.07 on each book sold at $2.99. That’s quite a good royalty actually. This didn’t happen often though.
5. The total money my three books have earned at Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing is $81.16 (USD), 10.24 British Pounds, and 13.62 Euros. I have received nothing. Before any money is released, you must reach a certain threshold. The threshold is $100 (USD) and 100 British Pounds or Euros.
6. I was quite keen to do marketing for the first few weeks, but since then I’ve done nothing. So I guess my bad sales are partly to due to that.
7. I think it might be a good idea to sell series like I did in this case. I found in a month if only three books were sold, it was usually one of each title. This led me to believe that one person bought all three ebooks. This may be wrong, but it happened so often I think it might be the case.

From my experience, it seems difficult to make money with KDP especially if you are publishing from Botswana. Yes, perhaps you could make money selling your books this way, but you’d need to really understand book marketing and devote a good amount of time to it.

I think it may be better to put your ebooks at multiple platforms; meaning put them at Amazon, but also put them at Smashwords, Apple Store, and Barnes and Noble for example. Some of these other places offer better deals and in any case, KDP is only for the Kindle readers, so if you only put your ebooks there you’re missing out on other types of e-readers

I do believe self-publishing ebooks can work for people with the will and the right set of skills and, of course, a good book. But, like most everything, it is not an easy way to publish your book, as some people may have made it seem. Yes, putting the book up is not that difficult, but that is only the beginning of the job.

(This first appeared at my column in The Voice newspaper, It's All Write, here)