The Breadth and Beauty of African Literature: A Dialogue with SarahBelle Selig

THE BREADTH AND BEAUTY OF AFRICAN LITERATURE

A DIALOGUE WITH SARAHBELLE SELIG

SarahBelle Selig is a publicist and South African office head for Catalyst Press, an indie publisher of African authors. She has a Master’s in Public Diplomacy from the University of Southern California and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town, where she currently resides.

BY KRIS VAN DER BIJL

This conversation took place in Cape Town, South Africa, via email.

Kris: Let’s start with the basics. What is #ReadingAfrica Week, and what led to its creation?

SarahBelle: The #ReadingAfrica campaign is actually the brainchild of my Catalyst Press colleague Ashawnta Jackson and our publisher Jessica Powers, back in 2017. The goal was to resist the flattening of African literature to just one identity—“African”—and instead demonstrate the breadth and beauty of the literature coming out of the continent and writers in the diaspora. There’s such an array of styles, genres, cultures, and languages here, and we wanted to celebrate that. And since so much of the African publishing space is spearheaded by small, incredibly hardworking indie presses, we wanted to do something to shout them out and highlight the amazing work they are doing to get African voices out to the world.

The campaign is now in its seventh year, and it has grown tremendously. It has been great to see the participation expand and diversify every year—with participants hailing from Asia to South America. What started as a small social media campaign and a hashtag now includes multiple virtual events, industry roundtables, book lists, blogs, daily challenges, campaign ambassadors and more.

And of course, we still keep that #ReadingAfrica hashtag as active as possible across our socials. I definitely recommend checking it out and getting involved. We’ve got such a great line-up of virtual events, roundtables, Q&As and more in the program for this year and we cannot wait to see who all joins in. Mark your calendars for 3-9 December!

Kris: It’s incredible that it has reached such a wide audience and has continued to run for seven years. I suppose a lot of it has to do with drawing from the wide range of literature coming out of the continent who are then able to connect through the internet. I find it interesting that you draw attention to the hard work of indie publishers like Catalyst. I can picture a collection of parts coming together to tackle a world dominated by the global giants of the publishing world. It’s great to see initiatives like #ReadingAfrica as they show the potential of Africa’s wide reach. 

What kinds of challenges might these indie publishers face in the global book market?

The goal was to resist the flattening of African literature to just one identity—“African”—and instead demonstrate the breadth and beauty of the literature coming out of the continent and writers in the diaspora.

SarahBelle: Well, as you mentioned, there are the global giants monopolizing the market, which of course makes it difficult to reach readers. But for most indie publishers I know, the real obstacle on a day-to-day basis is capital flow. Everything in the publishing process requires money up front—author advances, ever-increasing printing and shipping costs, marketing, events, book tours, awards submissions, the list goes on. That does not even count staff time towards editorial, design, and publicity, or distribution and warehouse fees, which go up every year. And if you want to do any paid advertising, the fees are astronomical because there will always be large publishers with deep pockets who are willing to pay them. So that is another problem: discoverability. Most indie publishers rely completely on organic, unpaid marketing because that is what they can afford—and when bigger publishing houses with bigger budgets are able to buy paid advertising, submit for hundreds of awards, take their authors on tours across the country… that’s just an immediate disadvantage. Indie publishing can be grueling and risky, and that is why you will only see the most dedicated, passionate, and hardworking people at the helm. That’s another reason we wanted to build #ReadingAfrica Week: to celebrate these small but mighty presses, but also to give them an opportunity to promote their books and expose their authors to new audiences. 

Then there is reader interest. Local work is obviously locally relevant; for example, the books we’re publishing from South African authors are typically relevant to South African readers. But there is the difficult task of convincing readers in North America, or Europe, for example, to read something international. African publishers will particularly struggle with this because African literature is really just now starting to get the attention on the international market that it deserves. But there’s still a long way to go, and most readers’ horizons are still pretty limited (which isn’t necessarily their fault—it’s just what they’re exposed to online, in bookstores, and in their circles). Yet another reason for #ReadingAfrica Week!

Kris: I wonder if more online systems help with exposing African literature to the world! A giant we cannot ignore in the world of global publishing is Amazon. They claim to provide authors with the opportunity for their books to reach global audiences, but a glance at their recommended page almost always promotes books aligned with North America or Europe. Do you think that the online market is a feasible entry point for indie publishers that want to promote African literature? 

SarahBelle:  I’ll start by saying I am not an expert in this space, but I do think it is a bit of a mixed bag. Yes, the online market is definitely a space for discoverability, and can help smaller publishers secure readership around the world. Especially since the pandemic, so many people have shifted from brick-and-mortar shopping to online, and it is critical to have your books up on those platforms so that when someone hears about your book (from a friend, from social media, from an ad, wherever), they can access it quickly. Conversion rates rely so heavily on quick and easy access. People are busy, I get it! And Amazon is convenient. 

But it is a love-hate relationship. While we love that it gives readers everywhere access to our books, you will find most indie publishers shake their fists at Amazon because they discount books so substantially and take such a big percentage of the profit, meaning very little money actually makes it back to us. There are great alternatives that are popping up, places like Bookshop.org and Indiebound.org. We do our best to send customers to them because they are much more supportive of the “little guys” (indie publishers and indie bookstores)—and we take home a bit more profit because they do not take such a massive cut. One note on this, though: a lot of these retailers, Amazon included, do not ship to many African countries, or they do but at huge cost to the customer. That’s an accessibility issue that I hope will be solved. Thankfully, ebooks and audiobooks are widely available, so I’d stress to any indie publisher to make sure you’re taking advantage of those formats. 

Places like social media as well, the “Booktok” and “Bookstagram” worlds… sometimes indie presses hit the jackpot when one of their titles goes viral. That’s rare, but it’s still exciting to see, and we are engaging that space a lot more these days. Then, of course, there are fantastic literary news sites that can direct readers straight to your book’s webpage. We’re very lucky to have built personal relationships with a lot of great literary sites out there—both general book news and Africa-centric book news sites like Africa in Dialogue—and having their support has been a big game changer for us.

It is just a really saturated market, and everyone’s competing for eyes. So, when we have the support of places like Africa in Dialogue, Brittle Paper, LitHub, Africa in Words, World Kid Lit (I could go on)—those relationships make a difference. And they have demonstrated their commitment to indie presses time and time again. That is another stellar group we love to shout out during #ReadingAfrica Week!

Kris: Indie publishers have this image of giving authors an opportunity to publish books that mainstream publishers might be hesitant to. Would you say that this is a fair stereotype? I am just thinking of the basic economics behind it. There seems to be less overall risk if the print run is small, but it also seems more feasible to follow what traditionally publishes best. 

SarahBelle: This is a great question! Yes, in an ideal world, I would definitely say that indie publishers take more risk in what they publish. I worked for a very short amount of time at a major house in the States and I remember that one of the biggest determiners of whether we took on a new author was the P&L (profit and loss) sheet. How many Twitter followers do they have? What are the sales numbers of their previous books? How much can we reasonably expect this book to make? Yes, we have some version of that conversation internally as well as an indie press—do we think this book will sell, is there a market for it, what are similar titles out there and how are they performing. But there is no question that we publish what we are passionate about. We are not looking at authors’ social media pages, or how well their last book sold, or crunching numbers about exactly how many copies we need to break even. If we believe in a book, we will go for it, even if it’s a bit riskier or we have never published anything like it.

Most indie presses operate in a niche market—our niche, for example, is African literature. (It’s nonsensical that African literature is considered “niche”, but in the North American market at the moment, it is.) So our markets are smaller to begin with, which is limiting, but it does mean we have quite a dedicated community, and as long as we are publishing something related to that niche, even if it is a bit riskier, we can trust that a fair amount of our community will go for it.

As for print runs, though indie print runs are small by major publisher standards, we do have to think of it respectively: big houses have big pockets, and small presses typically do not. And we are disproportionately affected by poor sales if we get it wrong. In a big publishing house, if a book tanks, yes, it is a bummer for all involved, but they have so many other books absolutely skyrocketing on the market that they do not have to panic. Whereas, with a small press, if we put money, time, and other resources into a book and it really does not sell, it might prevent us from signing on a new title down the line, or it could limit the resources we can dedicate to our current list. I think you do have to learn to live with that risk if you are going to run an indie press. But the reward is worth it—you can offer something to readers that they cannot find anywhere else on the market!

Printing is also changing—many publishers have shifted from big print runs to print on demand, which helps with capital flow and can mitigate some risk—but that is a whole other story and there’s cons to that as well. And from what I have seen so far, that shift has not significantly impacted acquisitions trends. 

Kris: Would you be able to name some of your favorite indie presses?

SarahBelle: This is going to be such an incomplete list, so to my dear publishing friends and colleagues—forgive me! But to name a few publishers on the African continent doing big things: in South Africa, there’s Modjaji Books, Karavan Press, Jacana, Impepho Press, New Africa Books.

Book Dash is an amazing organization publishing free children’s books in South Africa. We’re very lucky to publish Short Story Day Africa’s pan-African anthologies globally.

In Nigeria, Cassava Republic; in Cameroon, Bakwa Books. Some of my personal favorites from outside of Africa… in the USA: C. Spike Trotman at Iron Circus Comics is a trailblazer. Akashic Books has a great list. I love what Transit Books is doing—their cover art is just *chefs kiss*. In Canada, House of Anansi and Coach House Books are fantastic. In the UK, And Other Stories and Lantana Publishing. I could go on all day!

Kris Van der Bijl

Kris Van der Bijl is currently reading for a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. His interests lie in African Literature in English. He writes short stories, poetry, book reviews and interviews. His writings have been published in the likes of Brittle Paper, LitNet, Lucky Jefferson and JA Magazine. He hopes to one day be called up-and-coming. 

KRIS VAN DER BIJL

INTERVIEWER FOR FICTION

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