Thursday, September 09, 2010

Making A Living As A Writer In South Africa

The story of the late Lewis Nkosi, and how only earned R140 in royalties for his latest book Mandela's Ego left me rather sad, and very frightened, because I'm also a South African writer and unless something changes in our industry and/I do things differently, I could also face the same fate he did. I think I also find the whole story frightening because no one seems surprised by the news that he earned so little on the book.

 "The South African market is very small", we shrug.
 "In SA one writes for love not money...the market is very small," a READ SA member said.
"Out of a nation of 48million, how do we buy only 200 books of someone like Nkosi's work?" asks Don Makatile in an article published on Sowetan.

In my experience? Very easily, actually.

It's the reason we started READ SA, because we felt that we need to build a nation of readers and South Africans need to be encouraged to buy and read locally produced books. It also brings up my old soap-box: that South Africans writers need to be more proactive about promoting their books directly to potential buyers. We need to find them, talk to them, find out what they want and make it easy for them to buy our books.

Yes, I know that publishers are generally in charge of that tedious promotion business. But as a book buyer, I'm constantly online reading blogs by my favourite authors, reading samples of their works. In one genre, there's a captive audience that can't wait for December for a sequel of a novel by this particular author. And nope, practically speaking, this author is not famous. Nor is she celebrated. She's just out there, building a readership base one reader at a time...

And I want to do that. Having published two books with mainstream publishers ( The Doll That Grew; Boitshoko) which each earned me a bit under R5 000 ( they were secondary reading in the education system at the time), I have had to come to a sobering realisation that as a writer I have to take an active part in promoting my work. (Here are some regrets I expressed some years when I realised I had no idea  an anthology I contributed to was being promoted or not)

I also realise that I have to take charge of my writing career; try to find publishing options that can help me earn a living while I pursue the more difficult goal of publishing commercially successful books. For the moment, writing content for clients has been the most effective ways to pay bills and get my name out there. But I also want to have a different experience. I want to write and publish books that sell.

What do you think?

What would it take for the South African publishing market to evolve so that writers are able to earn decent money for their works? Is this something that can happen in our lifetimes? And what do we, as readers, writers, bloggers, publishers, booksellers etc need to do to play a role in making this change happen?


tiah said...

My thoughts I put on my blog linking back to you. I hope this post gets the conversation it deserves.

po said...

I have always been taught that you should not try to publish books for money but because you love writing. Always keep the day job, that is the motto even here in the UK where people have money to burn.

There is such a glut of writers and a much smaller demand by readers. And South Africa is such a place of extremes, with a group of highly educated writer types and a huge group of poorly educated people.

I think it will always be difficult to make good money out of writing. Rather aim for a few people appreciating your book than money.

po said...

I guess if we want to earn money we need to write what people want to pay for, gotta come up with the next Harry Potter! Or maybe Moxyland.

Damaria Senne said...

@po-I also grew up being told to write for love of it, and I do love what I do. But I also think that sometimes we need to consider that loving something shouldn't preclude gaining material benefits from it. For example, recently teachers and nurses were on strike in SA asking for higher pay. As you know, I don't agree with the way they handled their situation. But I also don't think they should force themselves to accept the low wages because teaching is a vocation, a noble career or whatever.
And as a writer, you know it's very hard to pull some creative thoughts together to write after a long, stressful day at work.
As for writing the next Harry Potter or Moxyland. God, I wish! Wouldn't it be lovely? You can say you knew me when, LOL!
But mostly? I'll settle for finding creative ways to pay my middle-class bills through my writing and still have some energy to write stories that haunt my soul. It's not an easy choice, nor is success guaranteed, but I think some writers should try. Just to push the envelope a little more.
Tiah also had something to say about it in this post

Tamara said...

Such a sad story! The only books that make money in SA are sports or cookery books. And Spud. That series did well too.

Damaria Senne said...

Ja. Spud did well. I guess it's the exception that makes the rule

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