The publishing industry has always included an element of chance that we all accept and live with. From the question of which manuscript gets published – through editing, proofreading, designing, printing, distribution and promotion – to finally book selling and buying, few things are predictable. We are part of a creative industry, sustained mostly by the sweat and blood of artists. There are few creative people in this for the money. If you are a writer, from your usual royalties, you might be able to buy yourself a packet of cigarettes on the black market right now. Hardly anyone can live off writing alone. We all hustle and keep other jobs to sustain our love for the written word.
But now, like many other sectors of the economy, we are all facing The Great Unknown, way beyond the usual Russian roulette that is writing and publishing. Books can still be written and prepared for printing, but they cannot be printed, distributed, sold and bought in bookshops right now. Unless they are ebooks, of course. But there is a reason why ebooks have not replaced the book in our lives, and I still can’t bring myself to consider ebooks seriously. I have not become a publisher to bring ebooks into this world. I am old-fashioned and stubborn that way. I have always been in love with the book as a physical object. Karavan Press has only one title available as an ebook and only because I promised the author that I would brave e-publishing for her. I did and we produced a great e-version of a beautiful real book, but I cannot imagine it without the real thing being in the world. What consequences the lockdown will have for publishing is extremely difficult to predict, like everything else right now, and I think we are all apprehensive. We are all busy reinventing the world. Or just sitting still and waiting. Karavan Press is probably the smallest fish in the local publishing pond; we only started bringing out books in July last year. For us, this is not only uncharted territory, this is “here be dragons”.
Jacana Media tweeted the following today: “ARE BOOKS ESSENTIAL? In our small book publishing industry in SA, we believe they are. But can we ask President Cyril Ramaphosa to reconsider the government’s stance that books are non-essential?”
It is important to open up this conversation. I was asked for comment and wrote the following:
“In general, I agree. Books are essential in ways that a tweet can’t articulate, but relaxing the lockdown for one form of creativity would not be fair to others. Also, I don’t want readers or booksellers risking lives, their own and others’. There must be other avenues of support.”
“As a reader, I am trying to support the book industry by pre-ordering and paying for books for after the lockdown and reading and reviewing the ones I already have at home. I’m not an ebook reader, so this is my way of sustaining the booksellers/publishers for now.”
“As a writer, luckily I still have some paid work. And, as always, I am mostly writing for the love of it. I have seen in the past that I can survive nearly anything as long as words are not taken away from me. I write because I don’t know how else to be.”
“As a publisher, I don’t know whether Karavan Press will survive the cash-flow situation in the next few weeks. We are infants in the business, but I will do whatever I can to keep our dreams alive. I am confident that together with our authors & readers we will pull through.”
How? I don’t know. But I think of the amazing people I work with at Karavan Press – writers, designers, editors, proofreaders, distributors, booksellers, festival organisers, interviewers, reviewers and, of course, readers – I picture their faces, real, individual faces, and I know that I believe in this literary ecosystem and I believe it is worth saving, sustaining and supporting. To do it financially, cash-flow will be essential, especially for the smaller and independent fish in the pond that are already swimming against impossible currents.
I think that it is important not to break the chain that links the writer to the reader, that is why as a reader I am pre-ordering books and paying for them now. I am happy to wait for them to be printed and delivered to the bookshops for me to pick up after the lockdown. Luckily, books don’t go off. My gut-feeling is that if the booksellers manage to survive, the rest of the system will pull through with them. Where the government could step in, apart from the general relief measures that are being introduced right now? Not sure. All I can think of are ideas I have seen elsewhere in the world. Acknowledge that writers are vital contributor to the well-being of society and pay them properly for their work. Offer extensive, well-monitored grant schemes for authors, editors, proofreaders, designers. Support literary festivals. Reconsider VAT for books. Make sure that every library in the country can buy books on a regular basis that is curated for their readers’ wishes and needs. None of this is easy – it hasn’t been before either.
I think what is most important right now is that as individuals and collectively we understand our own expectations and responsibilities and communicate with the relevant parties about solutions to problems that arise as we all stumble along. I have been in touch with Karavan Press authors – published and in the process of being published by Karavan Press – in the beginning of the lockdown and together we will attempt to get to the other side of this scary, unprecedented time. I have asked for patience and kindness. Their responses made me believe that we will make it. Together.