AiW note: To celebrate the past thirty years of independent distributing and bookselling at African Books Collective (ABC), we are running a series highlighting the wonderful work of those who make up ABC. We will be talking to some of the publishers from the collective, gathering their Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A series that invites collective reflections on the way the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our work and our communities.
ABC is an African owned, worldwide marketing and distribution outlet selling books from Africa. ABC’s wide-ranging catalogues promote big and small academic presses, children’s books publishers, NGO and writers’ organisations, and literary presses. They also run the website readafricanbooks.com which profiles the work of African publishers and books. We started the series with a Q&A and Words on the Times with ABC CEO, Justin Cox.
Today, we talk with Nick Mulgrew, founder and director of uHlanga Press. uHlanga is a poetry press based in Durban, South Africa, committed to publishing new, experimental and classic works of southern African poetry. Founded in 2014 as an annual magazine of poetry from KwaZulu-Natal, uHlanga now focuses on publishing single-author collections and some edited anthologies and chapbooks. Mulgrew was born in Durban in 1990. As well working on uHlanga, he is the author of four books, the latest of which, A Hibiscus Coast, is forthcoming in 2021. Currently he lives in Edinburgh and is a PhD candidate at the University of Dundee.
AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your work and the ways that the pandemic has affected your plans? And in what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
Nick Mulgrew: uHlanga really isn’t anyone’s idea of an easy side project. I publish poetry in South Africa while not living in South Africa. Poetry doesn’t sell very much. Books in South Africa don’t sell very much. Publishers who are out of touch with what’s happening on the ground don’t make books that sell very much. But I suppose that was always the point, to have a publishing project that could grow and adapt alongside me. I’ve been living in Scotland, where I’m working toward a PhD, since 2019. Personally I’m grateful that I managed to move here before the pandemic hit, and that I haven’t been kept in too much limbo. I’m fortunate, too, that my plan to run uHlanga remotely has worked out: I would have had to run it remotely anyway, thanks to Covid.
uHlanga is a one-person operation that publishes anything from four to eight books a year, all of them poetry. I do the commissioning, most of the editing, the design, administration, accounting, rights management, typesetting, website, social media, newsletters, and so on and so forth. I sometimes hire editors who are more specialised or better suited to specific manuscripts than I am, and sometimes I have help with design work. Distribution and subbing to the book trade are outsourced. Other than that, it’s on me. This arrangement has remained the same during the pandemic, thankfully – despite a few hiccups, we’re still printing and selling books.
What the pandemic is destroying is our culture of literary events. These events – book launches, festivals and poetry readings – are, in my opinion, the thing that is keeping South African literature alive and relevant. South African literature – with the exception of our non-fiction sector – is in a world of trouble with regard to sales. A thousand copies is a success for a novel; three hundred for a book of poems. Why bother continuing? The answer is events. Digital launches and readings are fine. They have their place, especially for people with accessibility needs, or people without physical access to bookshops and so on. But there is something deeply important about people holding space together, and having actual, unmediated conversations with each other. These events are also what spurs a significant amount of our sales.
Because of this – and other things, like bookshops initially not being deemed essential during SA lockdown, as well as our printers having to shut down because of a Covid outbreak – we’ve had to push out our publishing schedule. I’m already quite relaxed and spontaneous when it comes to acquiring manuscripts and publishing books, so the temptation has been to ask my writers for their permission to push back their new releases until we can have events and readings again. This simply isn’t an option anymore, though, so we’ve resumed. So far three of our books have come out during lockdown conditions – Malibongwe: Poems from the Struggle by ANC Women, Rumblin’ by Sihle Ntuli, and An Illuminated Darkness by Jacques Coetzee – with a fourth – Jesus Thesis and Other Critical Fabulations by Kopano Moroga – out soon. (We were also the midwife to Catullus: Selected Lyric Poems, translated by Richard Whitaker and Douglas Reid Skinner, published by Crane River).
We haven’t done very many digital launches, but we’re finally stepping up to it. One of the great challenges that remains, of course, is selling books during or after digital launches. So many books are sold at events on the premise that you can have them signed right there and then by the writer, or because the writer has convinced you that you’ll like their book. If there are less bums on seats, and less of a sense of spontaneity or holding space with each other, sales will still be greatly affected.
What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
There hasn’t been much, to be honest. It’s been awful. Almost every day has been a struggle, and the struggle is made worse by the fact that I know everyone else is struggling too. There hasn’t been a great amount of levelheaded, public honesty about how difficult this has been: we’re always looking for the positive angle, or the deft and lucid summation of the medical-political omnishambles we’ve been living through. I think it’s enough to say that it’s been horrible, it is continuing to be horrible, and that I cannot wait for it to be over. People have been and haven’t been supportive; what lifts the heart one day doesn’t work the next.
I can’t be too curmudgeonly, though. uHlanga’s writers, suppliers and distributors have responded so wonderfully and bravely to the challenges we’ve been facing and will be facing for some time to come. But I think we’re all just doing the best we can. There’s really nothing else to it.
How can our blog communities support you?
The best thing people can do for writers and publishers and booksellers is the same, simple thing as always – to read. Buy books, join libraries, form book clubs, post reviews, share on your social media – help create a culture in which it is normal not just to read but to be seen reading, and to encourage others to read. In a time when we can’t physically hold space with each other, that private act of reading becomes so much more important.
The only reason that I publish books is so that people can read them. Everything else is a spin-off. And what’s miraculous is that, even in a time of crisis, our ability to write, publish, and read books remains exactly the same. Perhaps, in the end, the pandemic experience will help us rediscover the things that should be at the centre of our publishing practice.
To find out more about uHlanga, read ABC’s ‘Publisher Profile’ with Nick Mulgrew.
Make sure to check in each Friday for our Words on the Times with other ABC-distributed publishers!