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, and last week we talked to Menzi Thango from Bhiyoza Publishers for his Words on the Times.
Today, we caught up with Irene Staunton, who established Weaver Press, an independent publisher based in Harare, Zimbabwe, with her husband, Murray McCartney, established Weaver Press after she left Baobab Books (which she co-founded in 1988). They have continued to develop a fiction list working with many Zimbabwean writers, and give voice to both established and young writers in their many collections of short stories. They also have a strong non-fiction list with an exclusive focus on Zimbabwe.
AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your work and the ways that the pandemic has affected your plans?
Irene Staunton: Weaver Press is a very small, independent publisher in Zimbabwe. The focus of our list for the last 22 years has been fiction by Zimbabwean writers, and non-fiction with an emphasis on history, politics, gender, law and the environment. We are motivated by the idea that fiction is an invaluable form of truth-telling allowing for many points of view and shades of perspective. We are also very aware of how often research is done in the country, but published outside, and we have endeavoured to make some of this material available in Zimbabwe. We should also perhaps say that we are now just two people and that our office is in our backyard. In other words, we keep our overheads as low as possible.
The eighties and nineties, i.e. the two decades following Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, were a heyday for publishers in the country. There were four major textbook publishers, several independent publishers, and many good booksellers. Donor funding flowed in support of textbook development and distribution into schools following the expansion of the education system. The Zimbabwe Book Publishers Association also hosted a wonderful annual book fair: the pride of the industry and of the nation.
Weaver Press was formed in 1998. Little did we know that this was just at the beginning of a long downward spiral as political developments seriously affected the economy of the country. Today there are two major textbook publishers, one distributor, and a few small independent publishers. Few booksellers boast shops; most only buy books to order. The majority of the working population survive in the informal economy and the tax base has shrunk so textbooks must now be bought by parents, not the schools; education grants for book purchase are no more. Photocopying is rife, most people are unaware that it is a crime, and it is usually driven by necessity.
To some extent, therefore, Weaver has remained outside the juggernaut that has ridden over the industry because we have never published textbooks, the industry’s beating heart, and over the years we have continued to publish a few novels a year, some history and memoir, and many collections of short stories. The latter, we hope, offer younger or less experienced writers opportunities to publish together with those who have a more established reputation.
In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
Irene Staunton: Covid-19 and the quarantine have hardly affected us at all. We are only two and we work from home. Moreover, sales over the last twenty years have diminished every year. In the 80s and 90s, a literature text prescribed for the Zimbabwe Junior Certificate would sell approximately 240,000 copies in the first two years of its life on the syllabus. Four years ago, we had a novel selected for ZJC. We expected it to be a lifeline, selling maybe 20,000 copies a year.
However, in four years, we have sold no more than 1,500 copies. The primary reason is photocopying; in the poorer rural schools, perhaps there will be one photocopied text in the classroom held by the teacher, who will read the novel to the class. That schools have been closed since March makes very little difference to book sales in an economy where money is so tight that if you can afford to do without the books you do.
The same applies to all our seventeen (+) universities. We noted a few years ago that the majority of our books were on prescribed reading lists in several departments in nearly all the universities, but to our certain knowledge, in 22 years, we have only once had an order from a university library. We assume our titles are photocopied, pirated, or sold on and on from year to year, student to student.
In addition, and in terms of literature, fewer and fewer students are opting to take the subject. Preference is given to subjects that might offer economic opportunities – business studies, accounting, IT, etc. Friends who teach literature tell comic stories of their students complaining that they ‘have to read a whole book.’ And, in addition, nearly all the answers can be found in one way or another on the internet.
Moreover, while the Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council’s selection of titles for prescription has always been largely transparent and fair, with teachers making the selection at a workshop which is open to all, the process can now be undermined by anxiety. “Will this story offend?” “Does this novel give voice to a situation better forgotten?” Etc. So the school market for our titles has narrowed. However, as Iris Murdoch once put it so well, “Art is the telling of truth and the only available method for the telling of certain truths”; this is one principle by which we select the books we publish.
Zimbabwe also boasts writers with an international reputation, Petina Gappah, No-Violet Bulawayo and Tsitsi Dangarembga among them. The difference is that in the two decades after independence, local publishers were able to sell the rights of locally published authors – Bones by Chenjerai Hove, for example, was sold in many different editions, and these arrangements made cultural and economic sense.
We now live in a very different world. Our best writers can be offered advances that no local publisher could hope to recover in a lifetime. Our writers put Zimbabwe on the map from London and New York, Frankfurt and Sydney. Fortunately, it often happens that they will then make a real effort to ensure that their books do become available locally and at a price that people can afford, and will buy. Fame creates its own market.
In other words, the quarantine has just been one more challenge in an already very challenging situation. And it is the latter to which we have had to adjust over the years. We now publish only three or four titles a year. We made a decision in December 2019 that we would probably have to cease to publish fiction. The market for it has disappeared and the costs of development are too high. Meantime we continue with non-fiction, and seek to find subsidies to support us. We are also now doing a great deal more free-lance work for NGOs and this has given us an entry into work being done with women’s groups in support of gender equality, with the trade unions and with environmental agencies, which we have enjoyed.
What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
We constantly reflect on how lucky we are being in Zimbabwe, which is my home, and we are blessed with many warm-hearted, generous-spirited, resilient and courageous people who have not responded to hardship with apathy or despair, despite feeling it from time to time. Zimbabwe has also been very fortunate in having relatively few Covid-19 cases.
We recently received a real morale boost from two Zimbabweans living abroad who raised money to put books into their former school’s library. Their initiative, the Thandabantu Book Drive (selected titles can be viewed here) was uplifting because they were affirming our foundational belief that good fiction opens minds, explores new ways of seeing, enables people to become part of a larger community and entertains. In a deprived community, often the only book that matters is a textbook, as it will enable you to pass an exam and move forward. These two young people said, “Books offer so much more than swotting” and they found a way to give back.
This year, we also had support from The Feminist Review Trust with a small grant to put a selection of titles related to women and gender into libraries throughout the country. Libraries, both public and academic, have no or very limited budgets for book purchase, so grants of this nature are invaluable and we are always grateful for donors who appreciate the value of providing access to new titles. (Many of our libraries are still full of very carefully preserved books that have been on the shelves since the 1970s and rely almost wholly on donations.)
Recently, we also held a Zoom discussion with Petina Gappah interviewing Valerie Tagwira about her new novel, Trapped. Warm, participatory, and engaging, it has encouraged us to hold such discussions on a monthly basis. Our next will be on 30 October when Isabella Matambanadzo will engage the contributors and the compilers about their short stories in our most recent collection of short stories, Windows into Zimbabwe.
How can our blog communities support you?
While we realise books can be expensive after all the various distribution platforms have taken their margin, the first and most important way that people can support us is by buying books and then discussing their themes, plots and characters, so that the issues raised by the authors come alive. If we are honest, we would say that marketing is our point of greatest weakness. We cannot afford a publicist, don’t have a great deal of time, and neither of us are inclined or has skills in that direction, and beyond a launch and large mailings, books tend to be left to look after themselves.
So bloggers can give us a real boost, and not just us but the authors on our list. The same, of course, is true of non-fiction, but from a slightly different angle. History, as we all know, can be a prey to a nationalist agenda, whether this is in the richest and most powerful countries in the world, or the poorest. We now live in a frightening era where opinion matters more than fact, loyalty to an idea more than its truthfulness. If we want a more open, compassionate, humane and understanding world, we must learn to respect alternative fact-based views and enjoy the challenge of a good debate.
Irene Staunton is a Zimbabwean publisher. She was co-founder of Baobab Books, which specialised in Zimbabwean fiction, history and children books. Baobab published a number of prize-winning novelists including Shimmer Chinodya, Chenjerai Hove, Alexander Kanengoni, Charles Mungoshi and Yvonne Vera as well as several collections of poetry, including one by the performance poet, Chirikure Chirikure.
She has always valued oral histories which reflect the personal experience of a country’s development, often by women and children whose lives remain hidden from view. She first researched, compiled, and edited Mothers of the Revolution, (1990) which recounts the war experiences of thirty rural Zimbabwean women; and Children in our Midst, Voices of Farmworkers Children (2000) and edited We have Something to Say (2002) and Our Broken Dreams: Child Migration in Southern Africa, (2008) for Save the Children (Zimbabwe). She has also worked with Zimbabwe Women Writers on a collection of interviews with women ex-combatants, Women of Resilience (2000), and co-edited, with Chiedza Musengezi, A Tragedy of Lives: Women in Prison in Zimbabwe (2003).
She was the editor of the Zimbabwe page of Poetry International from 2003-17.
Make sure to check in each Friday for our Words on the Times with other ABC-distributed publishers!