Monday, November 3, 2008

Stealthed Elephants

Dave Freer posting: I am really good at bad timing. I have a absolute gift for it. There’s a fortune to made there somewhere. Want a sunshiny wedding? Get me to desperately need rain. Want to make sure money out of currency speculation? I can arrange things -Just let me need to pay a bill offshore and the currency will weaken, or get paid and have to bring money in and it will strengthen. The universe in its perverse desire to put me in my place organised the financial crisis (and the immediate tightening of belts) on the day that SLOW TRAIN came out. It’s a sort of gift I suppose, otherwise I’d have to admit what a loser I was. It was purely up to me to cause US Elections and no-one reading the blog too.

This is a 'no politics' zone -- but considering the proximity of US elections and the heated passions it has stirred, I’m going semi-break the rule and talk about what effect politics has on publishing and writing here in South Africa. If you choose to see parallels to your local situation... that’s what I do. Make you think and let you make up your own mind.

South African Publishing was once a real thing, trying to sell books locals wanted to read. It was a small but reasonably successful beastie back in the pre-1960 era, and only peripherally political, publishing local books that interested the available audience (whom, owing to history and politics, were largely from the white middle class) local farming/frontier/historical oddities - naturally (as they had to make a living) designed to appeal to that audience. There were of course occasional books that pushed the boundary - but 99% of volume and 85% of titles fitted the market. It was quite a diverse little market, but if a book was sold it was intended to make money by attracting readers.

Along came apartheid and the politicisation of everything - including publishing. Publishing became as divided as the country. The establishment press made good money off school texts. Hence they could not afford to offend the political masters, and the fiction they brought out by-in-large reflected this. It meant fiction - especially in English (which was more liberal than Afrikaans, the language of the ruling party) - had to please two masters (the public and government) and as the latter was more important, it sold less and less fiction. On the other hand, the ‘struggle’ press got offshore-funding to publish anti-apartheid slanted books, which were frequently banned and they never sold school texts (making them even more reliant those funders and the appropriate books.) The market was very small, but it was not that important to actually sell books.

By the time 1994 rolled in and the end of apartheid arrived with more of a whimper than a crash, the sales of non-texts were in a bad state. Non-fiction glossies and reference still sold but the rest was toast. So was the funding for ‘struggle’ publishing. To survive it was school text books or die. As you can imagine the establishment press lost no time at all trying to ingratiate itself with the new paymaster, to employ people with the right credentials . The struggle press used its ‘cred’ but was often just too inept or small. Fiction (or anything else not intended as a school text - a biography) had to be pleasing to the new political masters. Unfortunately there was just one problem there. We have roughly the same population as the UK... but owing to our historical political legacy few readers - about 55% of those are English speaking middle class... and mostly white. Another 40% are Afrikaans middle class... and mostly white. Not the core constituency of the now ruling political party, whom it was essential to please.
After 14 years of a steadily collapsing education system, the READING section of population has largely just aged, with the two main groups losing a few percent to the new black middle class which has I am glad to say, grown a lot. Sadly their reading hasn’t much, and mostly it is in English. Local publishing is still heavily influenced by the need to show they’re in line with the political powers that be. Local fiction is almost inevitably anti-apartheid themed and rotten with angst and misery about the evil whiteys (the ones who started the equal rights movement and supported it are, like, invisible). There’s usually more political diatribe than story. It goes down really well with its potential local audience, nearly as well as say a German novel sold in Germany in 1955, telling Germans what evil Jew-murdering SOBS they all are, how their way of life is rotten, their culture stinks and how miserable they should all be about this, would have gone down. You can argue about the truth and rightness of the message: but the point is that most of the audience weren’t buying a message. They were buying entertainment. The segment of the audience that bought message _bought_, of course. Praised the books to the skies. Courageous, deep, meaningful, etc etc. And... surprise, surprise: Sales were amazingly crap. 5000 copies was runaway best-seller.

That was the status quo. That was accepted and the way it would stay.

Then, a couple of years ago, along came a roman á clef about one of our local private schools. The book was not without its political correctness, and was not exactly a tour de force of writing. It was readable, quite funny and touching in spots. But... it was not centrally themed about the evils of apartheid. Angst was minimal and setting and characters was such that the middle class English speaking white South African (still the largest group of readers in SA) liked and identified with. It sold IIRC 70 000 copies here.

The publishers called the writer a literary phenomenon, etc. etc. I believe it didn’t exactly shatter the international market. The concept that they and local writers need to pander to readers perceptions seems to be a bridge too far... And it appears we're back to buying courageous, deep, meaningful message. Right now we've a new political party starting out, which will (given the history of African Liberation politics) probably take power after a nasty, bitter struggle. The supporters of the current rulers will by then have benefited by patronage, be the middle class and buying books... and their tastes and interests will be considered unclean by publishers trying to assure the new overlords that really, now they're loyal, and hastily employing new cred... Politics is like that, no matter how permanent you may wish it to be.
Despite the desputable sense of humor, I am a very intense guy, with a deep rooted sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, and of course, elephants. I spend a disproportionate amount of my time furious about what I perceive as the wrongs of certain situations (not to mention the elephants). I get really passionate about some of these issues. Obviously that creeps into my writing. But I put an enormous amount of effort into making sure that readers get what they principally bought the book for... which wasn’t message. I don’t believe the proportion of buyers who buy for message is any larger in the US... or Australia, or the UK or Uzbekistan, than it is in South Africa. If you want to sell a lot of books... maybe you have stealth that ‘message’ with a great story.


Hell, maybe if you want a lot of people to READ the message, you’d better stealth it too.

And the elephants.

You want know what a stealthed elephant looks like?

Look around.

5 comments:

Ori Pomerantz said...

Judging by longevity and percentage of the population influenced through history, the Bible is one of the most successful message series out there(1). Part of the reason is it has bloody good stories. The same goes for Homer. Unfortunately, that lesson is completely lost on authors and publishers whose top priority is to please their political lords and masters.

I'd feel bad about South African publishing, but at the risk of sounding apathetic, who cares? If South African publishers won't do the job, there are plenty others who will publish South African authors and sell books to South African readers. At least those who use English.


(1) Not a book. Even if you're Jewish (exclude the New Testament) and heterodox (don't believe the Torah predates everything else), you have to admit there are over 600 years between the earliest easy to date part (Judges) and the latest (Ezra and Nehemia). There is more diversity of language, style, etc. than you'd expect in a single book.

Dave Freer said...

:-) I am not sympathetic either. I merely used it as a pointed example of how ideology is a poor second to story and entertaining the reader - IF your aim is to sell large volumes of books (or even to reach anyone but the previously converted with your ideology). The only down-side is they reduce possible reader numbers, and reading is a habit.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Hi Dave,

And I thought the Australian publishing industry was tough.

Speaking of stealthed elephants, I don't see why you can't write a ripping read which just happens to explore interesting ideas as a subtext. Terry Pratchett does it all the time.

Cheers, R

Dave Freer said...

Publishing is tough. IMO It should be, but not as in 'your book does not preach our ideological line (it doesn't preach against it either)'. About 1 in 10 readers buy for an overt message. And yes, that's what I am saying, ripping story and less-than-obvious subtext are better selling, more effective than books of sermons. Also books have to reflect reality at least in part in a way which is acceptable to the audience. Let's say the bulk of your potential market for a type of book are married church-going women who vote for Party A and are housewives raising children. A book whose heroine despises marriage, is an athiest who constantly heaps scorns on church-goers, says Party A supporters are mindless idiots, and finds her successful career more rewarding than children or home... is going to have to be quite some read to carry them along. There are writers that can do this. But they are 1 in a million, in an industry that only employs thousands.

Ori Pomerantz said...

If they publishers were trying to publish good propaganda, it would have been better. The problem is that they're trying to appeal to political lords and masters, which means their propaganda has to be so obvious professional politicians will understand it.

Not a big deal for English readers, but it must suck for readers and authors who prefer Afrikaans.