Publishing on a Shoestring

Literature | By Njabulo Mbono, Publishing Assistant | 22 November 2014

When I was asked to make a brief contribution about publishing, and bookselling to celebrate Povo’s tenth anniversary, I was excited at the thought of sharing our experiences. However, although publishing in Zimbabwe has been a dynamic and thriving industry, these days one cannot talk of Zimbabwean publishing without a measure of uncertainty about what the future holds in store.

The Period of Crisis
Today, there are three main textbook publishers in the country: College Press, Zimbabwe Publishing House, and Longman Zimbabwe which now trades as CPS Consultus, a distributor rather than a publisher, and several smaller ones such as Quest Publishers, Priority Projects, and Lleemon Publishers. To complete the picture we have Mambo Press, the main indigenous languages publisher, and three small general publishers, Weaver Press, ama’Books, and Baobab Books, which appears defunct in all but name.

The creation of an ‘unconducive’ publishing environment over the years is rooted in the country’s socio-political and economic decline. For the publishing industry and other business sectors alike, inflation has undoubtedly been the greatest concern. At its worst the annual inflation rate soared to over 231 million per cent in July 2008. Imagine paying Z$3 trillion – the equivalent of US $0.50 – for a single trip to work on public transport, or Z$6 trillion for a loaf of bread. Printers wouldn’t hold their prices for more than an hour and had to be paid in advance in US dollars. And, while this was illegal, it was common practise as one could not work in local dollars that devalued every hour. As a result even price control policies were irrelevant and having a price list was a waste of time. That publishers survived this manic period is a reflection of the Zimbabwean spirit.

Nonetheless, the impact on publishers was severe. With the maximum bank withdrawal not enough to buy a loaf of bread, let alone a book, a lot of professionals fled the country in search of the proverbial ‘greener pastures’. The reading and book-buying public, small as it was, was decimated. In order to survive bookshops became more like garages, a one-stop place to refuel with essential or prescribed texts. If a school found the money to order five copies of Chairman of Fools from a bookshop, the bookshop ordered five copies from the publisher. It did not order six, to put one on the shelf for display, or so that teachers could pick it up, read the blurb and the first few pages, and make up their own minds. Bookshops ceased to be places where one could go to browse and find a book of one’s choice to read for pleasure or for information, and their staff generally did not read either, so if you asked for advice, they didn’t know. Bookshops did not hold events such as book-signings or authors’ readings, nor did they promote new or award-winning titles in their window displays, even when they were given free material.

2014, Where do we stand?
The Global Political Agreement (GPA), signed on 15 September 2008, came into effect in 2009. This brought about an element of stability with the introduction of a multiple currency economy, which has seen the US dollar becoming the ‘main’ trade currency.

The GPA also saw attempts by various donors through UNESCO to resuscitate the education system. About US$50 million was made available for the purchase of primary school textbooks.
But after over a year of discussions – dominated by the ‘big 3’ – all of the money went to one publisher, and most of the books were printed outside the country, leaving the local print industry with very little benefit from the funding.

Very few people buy books, and the attitude towards reading has become increasingly reductionist: it is only necessary for passing exams. But the number of unsolicited manuscripts has certainly increased over the years.

While one in a hundred people wants to be published, only one in twenty thousand will buy a book. At Weaver Press, we have a ‘rule’ requesting young authors who bring us their manuscripts for consideration, as they do every week, to buy a book as a sign of their support for other authors, for the value of reading, and for the publishing industry in general. (We have books costing as little as US$5, so one is not talking about a huge investment.) The request is quite often met with resistance, and the all too familiar response, Ah no but books are expensive! But then the question is, who will buy your book? And again comes another familiar response, Ah everyone will buy my book. It will be a best-seller!
Books are not a popular priority. Because of the low value placed upon them, people have a perception that they are expensive and although sometimes they are, this has more to do with priorities. For instance people are prepared to spend $12 for a pizza or $10 for a six-pack of ciders, but not $10 for a book.

Unfortunately, marketing and promotion have very little effect on sales. After Shimmer Chinodya won the NOMA Award – judged by a panel of Afrikan scholars and writers from across the continent – for Strife, we received very nice coverage in the national daily newspaper, The Herald. Shimmer was on television and the radio. We put a sticker on all the books announcing the award. We rang the bookshops and asked them if they wanted to do a special window display. As a result of this activity, and some investment, we sold only one copy of the book. People congratulated Shimmer, they congratulated us, but they did not buy.

Another challenge that continues to drain whatever little life is left in the publishing industry is widespread copyright infringement. Although legislation does exist in the form of the Zimbabwe Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Act and a copyright management organization (Zimcopy), there is no enforcement. Schools and tertiary institutions are the greatest copyright users and worst infringers. Photocopying is not viewed as criminal, but rather as a necessity, which is perhaps a secondary effect of not having bookshops.
The question that perhaps everyone is asking is, how does a small publisher survive in such an environment?

Our experiences have led us to adopt several strategies that focus on our strengths and constantly play to them. Firstly, we have tried to develop a distinctive identity; we cannot be all things to all people. We have therefore stuck to what we are good at.

However, I think it can be argued that serious books are not what people want. We live in hard times, when escapist literature of all kinds is needed – thrillers, adventure stories, romances, and science fiction. But when people are going through hard times, they tend to write about these hard times, and in this way we have a fictional record of a difficult period in our history. On the other hand, we have never received a good Zimbabwean thriller. Perhaps if we did, we would publish it.

As a backdrop to all this, several donors have been sympathetic towards small publishers and acknowledge their efforts, so we occasionally receive funding to put books into schools and libraries, or to subsidise production costs.

In terms of bookselling, we have had to look for alternative means of selling our books. We now work closely with various cultural institutions such as the Book Café, Delta Gallery and the National Art Gallery of Zimbabwe, who are happy to sell our books on consignment. We also use informal markets such as conferences and
craft fairs.

With the advent of the web, the traditional publishing industry has also witnessed some very interesting changes. Almost anyone can now self-publish a book into all sorts of formats. This new development has threatened the traditional publishing industry. ‘Adapt or sink’, is what we have told ourselves. In order to embrace and utilize technology, we have engaged various web platforms to try and sell our books. Although sales are not high, we hope to at least make all our books accessible and affordable on a wide range of platforms.

As to why we want to survive, we feel strongly what we have to offer is both unique and important. Fiction is often a good way of telling untold truths and in this way we provide a vibrant but alternative voice in a society.