First black woman publisher in South Africa
‘We aren’t even covering half of black narratives and what they stand for’
THABISO Mahlape ended up in publishing by accident. She always wanted to be a writer because of all the reading she did when she was young, but she ended up studying to become an engineer.
“It was a spectacular fail,” said the 33-year-old who now owns and runs a custom publishing boutique, Evera Publishing.
She finished school at 16. Eskom was taking girl children who were good at maths and science to university, so she went for the “nice deal”.
“I was getting a stipend that my parents wouldn’t have been able to give me at that time and I was good at those subjects so I went for it.”
Just six months into the programme she knew it was not for her. She lost the bursary because she couldn’t manage the grades required.
Her father wanted to make sure she finished what she had started. Mahlape then registered at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in the hope of doing journalism but her father wanted her to continue studying engineering.
“So I left Polokwane, went to Pretoria to pretend I was registering for the course but instead I had lunch with friends and told my dad the course was full.”
She ended up doing an electrical engineering course for three years but 18 months into her studies she was depressed.
“It was egotistical. I started it so I should be able to do this thing but I just wasn’t able to.”
At the end of her third year she got her uncle to talk to her father about changing courses.
At 21, Mahlape thought she would be a career woman and “stinking rich”.
“My self-esteem took a huge knock and there was no space for me to study journalism so I was offered publishing as an alternative.”
Mahlape fell in love with the course. After finishing it, she sat at home for two years.
“Everyone in this industry was very old and very white and because of how small it is, no one wants to retire.”
Eventually in 2010 she got an internship from Mapseta and got placed at Jacana Media.
She started out in the marketing department but knew that wasn’t for her.
“I always had a warped sense of what publishing was – I thought it was that Carrie Bradshaw life and that I’d have that kind of life from The Devil Wears Prada,” laughed Mahlape.
“So they tried me in the publishing side and after the second book I published while being supervised – McIntosh Polela’s My Father My Monster – did so well and that for me, in an industry that was very white, showed that there was an alternative to what was being published.
“From then on the books I started publishing under Jacana, were in that focus. Then I was offered a chance to have an imprint where I could curate my own list.”
That’s how BlackBird Books started, making her the first black woman in the country to have a publishing imprint.
Mahlape said publishing works in one of two ways. Either someone submits something written or is in the process that can be taken on for publishing or the publisher has an idea of a book and commissions someone to write it.
“An example of this is Malebo Sephodi’s Miss Behave. When a book hasn’t been written you have to develop it, work on the outline, write it and go back and forth editing and proofing covers and the marketing plans that follow.”
It was also a lot of word of mouth and finding gems in submission piles. Lebo Mashile referred Panashe Chigumadzi to Mahlape for the publishing of her successful book Sweet Medicine.
“It’s a strenuous process and you have to be able to work with people who are well versed as sometimes you can both lose interest.”
The criteria for people who want to submit under BlackBird is to make sure the body of work is for a black target market.
“Authors have to be people of colour. And the books have to centre around that target market. Whoever else shows interest or is attracted to the books, that also adds to the more books are bought.”
Mahlape said the publishing industry was not big in the black community as many people didn’t know that they can study such a course.
“I didn’t know until I got into it that something like this existed and that it was open for me to do as a career. We also need the market to do better.
“If we were selling a lot more books we could employ more people. What we need is a lot more representation of black people within the industry.”
She said it was a bit of a Catch 22 situation because a lot more black people were needed in the industry to write the books.
“Right now we aren’t even covering half of what black narratives are and what they can stand for in this country so we aren’t reaching everyone.
“The more people participating in the sphere, the more books can come out but we need far more people to buy books so that the industry can accommodate more people. So it’s still a little tricky.”
Mahlape said the market was shifting but was not breaking enough ground yet.
“There is a shift, it’s slow – snail’s pace – but it is happening. There just isn’t a reading culture, it’s not enough and where there is no reading culture, there is no book buying culture.”
She said that if people could sacrifice a weekend of going out for drinks with buying a book, they would see that books aren’t that expensive.
“We understand there are levels of poverty in this country and there are people who can’t afford books but those aren’t the ones we are targeting for the books.
“We need people who are in an economic bandwidth that can buy books to start buying books. If we could print 30 000 books because of how often people bought books, do you know how cheap a book would be? When books are cheaper they are more accessible.”
While at Jacana Media, Mahlape honed her skills as publisher with several highly acclaimed bestsellers including the award-winning Endings & Beginnings by Redi Tlhabi and Malaika wa Azania’s Memoirs of a Born Free. Other titles published include Bonnie Henna’s Eyebags & Dimples and Zoleka Mandela’s When Hope Whispers.
She also recently published media personality Bonang Matheba’s book, From A to B.
“I’m hoping we get to a point where people are reading so much it becomes a natural thing to buy books.”
She said because of the South African landscape a lot of books were politically inclined and many people shied away from that to read for escapism.
“Hopefully, we can have our own Harry Potter and have writers who make a living off writing without having to have a day job.”
When Mahlape isn’t busy reading through submissions, she spends a lot of time being consumed by working mom guilt.
“I have a three-year-old and trying to balance my social life, work life and hosting work events can be a lot. I’ve had to stop hosting my Ladybits evenings.”
‘Where there is no reading culture, there is no book buying culture’
MAKING A MARK: Publisher and founder of BlackBird Books, Thabiso Mahlape, believes that self-publishing offers a different perspective to the industry.
PICTURE: BHEKIKHAYA MABASO