First black woman pub­lisher in South Africa

‘We aren’t even cov­er­ing half of black nar­ra­tives and what they stand for’

The Star Early Edition - - NEWS - MPILETSO MOTUMI @mane_mpi

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.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.