Words: the new cool

Sol Plaatje appears on the cover of the
launch edition of Wordsetc, the first of the
“iconic writers” to feature on the
magazine’s cover.

Phakama Mbonambi, publisher of
Wordsetc. “I’ve always loved reading
books and quality magazines,” he says.

By Lusanda Ngcaweni

The last few years have seen remarkable new interest in local South African literature. The Time of the Writer, Franschhoek Literary Festival and Cape Town Book Fair have become not-to-be-missed affairs, boutique bookstores are popping up all over, and everyone seems to belong to a book club. A significant part of this trend is the appearance of new South African literary magazines, with Wordsetc and boeke Insig both launched in December 2007.

“I’ve always loved reading books and quality magazines,” says Phakama Mbonambi, publisher of Wordsetc. “For me, presentation is just as important as content. It doesn’t matter if you are well-known author, if your writing style is not inspired, I won’t be captivated, regardless of what you have to say. I’m a partisan of a beautiful sentence.

“Even at varsity I’d take the little pocket money I had to buy GQ, not because of its fabulous fashion – which I couldn’t and still can’t afford – but because I discovered gems of well written stories between those glossy pages. And of course the models were also great to look at,” he says.

“As a journalism student, I scrutinised these publications, and picked up a lot about the various ways of packaging stories; the wonderful intros and depth of research; the use of language; the design and photography. I later discovered The New Yorker and was blown away by the varied nature of the articles, and the amount of space dedicated to them. The New Yorker pretty much wrote about any subject and did it beautifully. Since then I’ve fantasised about having something similar locally.”

Quarterly literary publication

And thus the seed of Wordsetc – the title means “words, etcetera” – was planted. Fast forward a few years and in December 2007, the launch issue hit the shelves. Mbonambi as editor and publisher, and his two friends Zamani Xolo (creative director) and Barney Luthuli (financial manager) are the force behind this quarterly literary publication.

Publishing is a risky business. Multiply that by a thousand, add to that a couple more hundred, and that’s how much more risky self- or independent publishing is. The number of magazine titles that have fallen by the wayside in the last year alone could probably save a rainforest or two. But Mbonambi won’t let me rain on his shine, he is determined to make this work.

“The magazine market may be saturated but I believe Wordsetc stands a huge chance of survival because it is groundbreaking,” he says. “By focusing on literature it appeals to the intellect. We are talking to a niche audience that can afford to buy this title, with or without an economic slump.

“Subscriptions are crucial to ensuring that the title thrives. Because of its nature, Wordsetc appeals beyond affluent and literary-minded individuals. It has potential to be distributed on a subscription basis to institutions of higher learning, public libraries, companies and government departments. If these distribution channels could be adequately explored, the survival chances improve markedly.”

Literary giants and new writings

The willingness to deal with the problems that come with publishing a literary journal is linked to Mbonambi’s passion for the subject matter. “South Africa has a rich literary tradition,” he says. “We’ve produced a number of literary giants such as Sol Plaatje, Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, Es’kia Mphahlele, Zakes Mda and many others. Wordsetc pays homage to these writers through profiles, features and essays.”

Sol Plaatje appears on the cover of the launch edition, the first of the “iconic writers” that will be a feature of the magazine’s cover. “Sol Plaatje was an accomplished and colourful writer and politician who was way ahead of his time.” says Mbonambi. “We wanted to honour him and tell his story to a generation of South Africans who do not know it, and of course to highlight his literary side. In the second edition we’re leading with Es’kia Mphahlele, the godfather of South African literature.”

While acknowledging the past and highlighting the greats, Mbonambi is determined to explore new literary territory. “The idea is also to record new writings in South Africa and explore themes that are applicable to our age. While the past cannot be dismissed or willed away, I felt that some themes had been done to death in South African literature. Just because a writer is black, for example, his story doesn’t have be set in a squatter camp.”

Many of the magazine’s contributors are authors and they will be happy to hear that “the idea is to provide them with a platform to dazzle. Readers get to sample their prose and thoughts, know their wishes, desires, frustrations, hopes, ideals and so on. After being titillated, the idea is to go out and buy their works.”

Mbonambi has to get people to buy the magazine first and this is expecially difficult in a country where there is not a great reading culture.

“Unfortunately, the market is tiny, which is why Wordsetc is so niched. Wordsetc readers appreciate a home-grown product with substance; something they can proudly show off anywhere in the world and proudly display on their coffee tables,” says Mbonambi. “In order for the reading market to grow, libraries have to be supplied with new, quality books so that those who can’t afford to buy books can also enjoy the pleasures of reading.”

Advertising and distribution challenges

Naturally a bold venture like this produces challenges, the major one being attracting advertisers and although this is the case with any new title, Mbonambi is frustrated with the “myopia” of some media planners. “They keep asking for ABC figures, completely disregarding the environment in which a client’s ad will be placed,” he says.

“What is particularly heart-breaking is the number of book publishers who are reluctant to support a literary journal, yet they claim to be concerned about the poor reading culture in this country. You’d think they’d be quick to embrace a title that promotes South African literature. Thankfully, some publishers can see Wordsetc’s potential and have supported us. I’m very grateful for that.”

Distribution is another obstacle that new publishers have to negotiate. “It took a long time to get into Exclusive Books and the top 20 CNA stores; I could only get in there after I got a distributor. A positive is that I got a chance to cultivate relationship with many independent bookstores nationally,” says Mbonambi. “These shops help fill the distribution gaps where Exclusives and CNA are not available, though personally distributing to these bookstores has been costly.”

Mbonambi has had to learn quickly along the way: “The fee for using a distributor is exorbitant. They take half of the cover price plus R1.30 per all copies handled. Which points to one thing – never rely on the cover price. Rather push for advertising revenue and bulk sales. Another distribution pain is going to a major bookstore and finding your copies buried underneath other titles.”

With any funding but their own “yet to materialise”, there is little money for marketing. “We’re relying on word-of-mouth, bookstore promos and media interviews for now,” says Mbonambi.

Fortunately there has been a positive response from people in the industry. “Authors are excited to have a literary platform for their work, while some visionary publishers recognise its potential as a vehicle for promoting books. Readers are equally impressed. They appreciate the fact that something different has come on to magazine shelves. We’ve had a lot of compliments about the content, photography and design.”

About boeke Insig

Boeke Insig is an Afrikaans literary magazine-cum-book club published by New Media Publishing and Media 24. This quarterly, which launched at the end 2007, has Ruda Landman (former Carte Blanche leading lady), hosting a “book table” over breakfast or lunch where she interviews authors featured on that issue’s cover. Subscribers receive discounts to these book tables, and get book vouchers and discounts on some books. boeke Insig managing editor, Jomarie Dick, says the reader response has been very encouraging and that subscriptions are growing steadily.

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