Shafinaaz Hassim, Janet van Eeden
| Independent Publishers: How do they survive?
For some years I’ve wondered how on earth publishers survive in this less than literary country. Perhaps the one or two bestsellers like Spud can make up for the years of publishing books which won’t necessarily do as well. Then I began to think about independent publishers. How on earth do they manage to make ends meet when they have no back-up or a large stable of books to carry them through the tough times? I put these questions to Shafinaaz Hassim, the proprietor of Wordfire Publications.
Shafinaaz, can you tell us a bit about your publishing house? What did you set out to achieve when you started publishing and how long have you been going?
I stumbled upon the world of publishing quite by chance when the manuscript for my Masters thesis was shortlisted for a writer’s prize for non-fiction in 2006 and subsequently published by a small press that took care of the production process, but left marketing and distribution to the author. I’m not certain that I envisaged a foray into the world of fiction when my non-fiction work Daughters are Diamonds: Honour, Shame and Seclusion- A South African Perspective was “born” in 2007. The thesis documents narratives of women in traditional Indian Muslim homes and looks at the disparities in autonomy and decision-making “allowed” to these women living in democratic South Africa. It also looks at primary texts that inform cultural behaviour, and especially the expectation on women, defining patriarchal readings of, for example, the Quran and social laws that predetermine what women might see as religious obligation. Since then my work has developed into a cross-cultural contemporary feminism course that I teach at intervals at various universities, like UKZN and Wits, and a once-off series at Humboldt in Berlin, which provided further fascinating data to add to the mix.
I began writing up fictional pieces on a blog that I’d kept as an online journal since 2005 - http://memoirs4kimya.blogspot.com - and the themes for this writing were inspired by the women that I was encountering along the research process and beyond. And my first publication as WordFire Press was Memoirs For Kimya (2009), named after the blog, launching both the book and the publishing company at the first Jozi Book Fair that year.
How viable is it to be an Independent Publisher? Large publishers have a huge stock of books to cushion them if one or two of their titles fail, but you don’t. Can you survive financially just by small-scale publishing on its own?
In many ways, WordFire Publications is in its infancy, and yet the potential it has to grow in this new world of print and electronic reads is the real capital. It’s certainly not a money-spinner, but then that’s not what indie publishing is about, if you’re clear on having control over your publishing process and reaching your niche readership. WordFire books are industry standard, and while books are distributed to both book chains and independent bookstores, we’re taking time to put books into the hands of readers who wouldn’t have the opportunity to walk into popular bookstores, by selling books in non-traditional ways. Books are also priced as economically as possible, the most expensive being those sold at the larger book chain stores in order to maintain the chunky mark-ups that they require. Indie stores have been fabulous about keeping prices to a minimum so as to reach a greater readership. I have become passionate about keeping book prices low so that they can be more affordable to people wanting to read but not wanting to have to choose between a tank of fuel and two or three books.
How many books have you published over the years you’ve been going? Which ones were your most successful? Could you tell us the numbers of copies sold, and so on, of your most successful publication?
Daughters are Diamonds was published in 2007 and to date has sold over 4 000 copies and continues to sell through WordFire distributors in South Africa, the UAE and India, and online on Amazon as print and e-book. And from June 2011 it is also distributed selectively as an e-book on Smashwords. Memoirs for Kimya (hardcover) is available through the same channels in print and e-book edition on Amazons UK, US and DE (German) sites. I took WordFire to the Jaipur Literary Festival in Jan 2010 and met with an Indian agent who was looking for a collection of short stories linking India and South Africa (with the Soccer World Cup I think that the interest in South Africa had reached a new peak) and I began to source stories through my networks. When the stories didn’t fit the Indian agent’s mandate I began to compile what is now WordFire’s new baby, Belly Of Fire: an anthology of hope, forgiveness, redemption and reawakening, to be launched next month. A total of 15 authors are featured in this new publication, some activists and analysts who are now published in fiction for the very first time. The themes expressed in Belly of Fire look at abuse, genital mutilation, displacement, war and a range of issues that continue to face both women and men in the contemporary global context.
Next on the cards is my novel The Silence of a Hundred Tongues, about domestic violence, edited by Louis Greenberg. I am also looking at some of Belly of Fire’s contributors wanting to publish extended collections of their own. But my focus is on the quality of the individual work rather than mass output of “books” to trade.
What are the attractions of small independent publishers? What can you offer in terms of marketing and so on that larger publishing houses can’t?
Being the driving force behind WordFire Press allows me the opportunity to design my marketing approach in a way that is able to reach readers both in traditional and in non-conventional ways, through workshops and other means. The focus on each book is individual and marketing packages tailored to fit, with the same distribution networks available. I think that this is the plus that small publishing houses can lay claim to that big publishers can’t. While readerships were far more brand conscious in the past, I believe that good quality, industry-standard books with engaging content and that are affordable appeal more to the contemporary reader.
If a larger publishing house offered to buy you out – if those things actually happen! - do you think you would take up their offer? If not, why not?
I come from a corporate family and as with any business venture, the capacity to partner with other stakeholders always exists. However, at this stage WordFire Press is able to break new ground and have a free mandate to test the new ideas in publishing that big publishing houses may not accommodate within a more finite mandate for output. In this way a partnership or merger of sorts would debilitate WordFire’s capacity to make independent decisions. I’m not willing to compromise that. The only thing that a partnership with a big publishing house can offer is funding and distribution. Small publishers are able to source those in various spaces. This new era of publishing with the advent of the e-book, the networks of the internet and book fairs place the small publisher on a par with larger counterparts on the global platform. And the potential to establish partnerships with other indie publishers adds to the growth potential.
What plans do you have for the future of your publishing house? Is there any particular style of book you’d like to continue publishing instead of others?
I’ve outlined some of these in the discussion above, and as for particular style, I think that informative manuals that make professional opinion accessible to lay persons is something that I definitely want to continue publishing. Quality poetry is well received, and the contemporary short story will feature in many future publications.
Could you describe to the readers of LitNet the process you go through once you have decided to publish a manuscript? I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of publishing a book yourself. How do you do it?
A manuscript is evaluated for publication, and then it’s sent to the editor. Editor returns with edits and once those are reworked it’s sent to a proofreader. In the meantime the book cover is custom designed and then the edited manuscript typeset. Print-ready files are then approved and sent to the printer, where the books are printed, boxed and delivered back to us.
Do you think e-books will take revenue from publishers large and small? Do you see yourself continuing to publish hardcopy books in the light of the e-book phenomenon?
The fabulous concept of the e-book is that it makes books accessible to a larger number of readers and also that it might appeal to readers who may not have previously picked up a hard copy, ie the new media generation. In light of this new trend it is best to publish both print and e-book editions in order to access the different readerships that will continue to engage print editions as well as those who will prefer the electronic version and perhaps that the one will inform the other in terms of marketing, ie a reader who enjoys the e-book may very well want to buy the hardcover version and vice versa.
Do you get financial aid from any of the arts councils at all? Do you put up your own money to get a book out? How can you tell if a book has a good chance of selling?
WordFire Press is self-funded and books are sold on the basis of content of universal theme and application.
Anything else you’d like to add about independent publishers that you think we should know about?
Independent publishers once faced the logistical challenge of reaching readers, and now with the internet, an even greater reach for readers is at your fingertips. Also, with a new brand and the right know-how, independents have the risk-taking potential and entrepreneurship potential that a big brand might be wary of. This is the power of the new age of publishing. The e-book revolution adds to it in ways we have yet to truly realise, especially in South Africa!
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