This year sees the new edition of Modjaji Books’ Small Publishers’ Catalogue, which updates the first edition of 2010. Publishing Perspectives have called this one ‘a beauty’, and indeed it is, in concept and design. The print copy is, again, a lovely size, great to hold and look at, and where you can really appreciate the fit between its form and content. It’s also available digitally (see the end of the post for stockists).
Perhaps the definition of a text that does its job well, it’s difficult to say anything about it that isn’t in the publication itself – it’s a hugely useful resource for anyone who cares about the invaluable contribution small publishing and independent publishing makes to literary culture in Africa – all those that Colleen Higgs (compiler, editor and driving force behind the Small Publishers’ Catalogue and South Africa based small publisher Modjaji Books) thanks as she introduces the Catalogue on Modjaji’s blog.
Higgs’ introduction is a succinct statement of the intention of the work, as well as an acknowledgement of its limitations and the potential within them: “The catalogue aims to showcase the variety and extent of small publishing in Africa. It is still too South African focused. But this edition does include many more publishers from a wider range of countries. My wish is that the range and number will keep on growing.”
Certainly the sense of encouragement of networks of small publishers of African writing, and also of those writers and readers of African print from across Africa comes across; the Catalogue‘s celebration of this important but perhaps not so visible work runs right through it.
More than simply a directory, as well as the listings and information about each of its titular publishers, the Small Publishers’ Catalogue offers a range of resources and articles:
- There’s advice for writers: from getting your poetry published – ‘It is not a financially sensible thing to do. So as a poet think about it from the publisher’s point of view for a minute’ (by Higgs – a poet and writer, as well as publisher) – to cautions by Chinelo Onwualu of Nigeria’s Cassava Republic Press about writer-publisher relationships in the super-public domain of the social media age; there is also the popular ‘Dear Lovely Author’ letter, addressed, with love, from Helen Moffett (editor, educator and feminist scholar/activist) – practical and seasoned advice for ‘all the things authors should do if they want to keep their books afloat in the great sea of indifference that greets most South African and indeed African literary fiction’. (Moffett’s ‘letter’ has been reproduced on Books LIVE with the important addition of a ‘PS: If you found this useful, there’s lots more need-to-know stuff in the Small Publishers’ Catalogue — essential resource for all local writers.’)
- A few of the pieces showcase innovative ways round book-related difficulties, such as access, cost, literacy, and engagement, and demonstrate the passion and commitment of those using pioneering methods to encourage a thriving reading culture: Dorothy Dyer discusses Cover2Cover Books and their ‘readalicious’ Harmony High series – its aim to engage reluctant teen readers to discover the joys of reading for pleasure – ‘…each manuscript is tested with teens who comment on the use of slang or cellphone language and who provide general advice (she wouldn’t wear THAT!).’; the work of the FunDza Literacy Trust – its use of serialised fiction on mobile phones (the contemporary equivalent of Dickensian ‘Penny Dreadfuls’), its work to develop young writers, and popularise reading; there is also an article about the drive behind Paperight from its founder and CEO Arthur Atwell, which both highlights the challenges of the ‘book business’ and the successes of changing the model to harness the possibilities of using the ‘humble copy machine’ to print books. (Paperight’s model can turn any place with an internet connection and a printer into a print-on-demand service, and so an affordable book shop.)
- There is also a comprehensive review of literary activity in Accra by Manu Herbstein; a testament to the inspiration of Modjaji being invited to the Frankfurt Book Fair to exhibit through the Fair’s Invitation Programme, where a group of small publishers from Africa, Asia and Latin America are supported to participate (also by Higgs); and an article by Robin Malan, founder of the publishing house Junkets, which publishes new South African plays – another area neglected by mainstream publishers – and the GayJunkets titles.
In what can be a brute, uneven commodity driven market, Modjaji’s Small Publishers’ Catalogue highlights important and vigorous creative work, and the ways that networks of readers, writers and publishers can work together to build relationships and develop support locally and internationally. It also acknowledges that there’s room for plenty more to come.
For more on Modjaji Books see AiW’s Q&A with publisher Colleen Higgs.