South Africa Makes An Impact Through Digital Publishing
By Dana Swenson
Worldreader would like to give a warm welcome to a new set of independent publishing houses from South Africa who are breaking the mold and diving into the world of digital publishing. Obstacles such as a lack of financial sustainability and low literacy levels throughout South Africa have made it impossible for their books to reach a large audience but now that the digital era is upon us, they can finally make a big impact.
Big Bug Books
Paula Raubenheimer, owner of Big Bug Books, tells us what drove her into the world of publishing: “It was only when my own children started bringing back their first readers that the challenge started taking shape. The questions kept popping up in my head: Why are my children reading about show-jumping in front of the Queen or the Circus at Piccadilly Square when they could be reading about their own country and its rich and diverse people and geography? Surely there is a more exciting way to reel kids into a story and at the same time give them a message or life skill.” Paula set off on an intense mission to research how children learn to read and how to publish books; two worlds she had no clue about. The hard work paid off and eight years later she has published 36 books and teacher guides for elementary phase learners in both English and Afrikaans. However, a big piece of the puzzle was still missing, “My dream was to translate the books into other indigenous languages. This became a reality when Worldreader approached me for the rights to translate the material into 11 sub-Saharan languages.” Taking her books to this next level will impact thousands more children and bring us so much closer to eradicating illiteracy.
Allan Horwitz’s passion for publishing is directly linked to the socio-political situation in South Africa. “The transition from a closed, authoritarian society to a pluralistic and democratic one offers artists an opportunity to explore the truths of our inner and social lives with a freedom that has not existed before,” says Allan. He co-founded Botsotso in 1994 as a means for poets, writers and visual artists to curate exhibitions and organize events and festivals. Allan admits it hasn’t been easy, “The fact that we generally work in art forms that are not mainstream (mainly poetry, short fiction and photography) has made financial independence impossible. Also, the literacy situation is not ideal in South Africa. Only 30% of children aged ten are reading at the international peer satisfactory level. By going digital Allan hopes he can make a bigger impact, “Who can ignore the opportunities thrown open to expose one’s work to a global readership! An amazing step forward in global communication. Worldreader contacted us and given their record and approach to things and their network in Africa, we were more than happy to join hands.”
New Africa Books
Dusanka Stojakovic’s love for beautifully illustrated children’s books is just as strong now as it was when she was a child. “A love of reading starts on the lap of a parent – a privilege not known to many children in this country. Many don’t have parents, printed books are expensive and there are very few books with black African characters,” says Dusanka. With over 30 years of publishing experience under her belt, she is now the General Manager of New Africa Books which focuses on books for children and young adults in all 11 official languages, as well as biographies of key South African figures. When asked why she has decided to go digital, Dusanka says it comes down to cost and distribution, “Bookshops in this country tend to be in urban areas, and access to books is limited to the well-heeled. The South African Department of Basic Education does not fund the purchase of children’s books for schools and most schools don’t have libraries. However, the distribution of mobile phones is extremely high.” Going digital equals greater impact. Dusanka’s overall assessment of being a niche independent publishing house is positive, “It is much easier to be flexible, nimble, innovative, daring and agile. The cons? I can’t think of any.”
When Di Bush from Storytime Africa met her husband, she discovered a treasure trove of unpublished story rhymes. “John’s stories are a wonderful vehicle for teaching children to love reading. Because the books are written in rhyme, they have a lovely musical quality and are easy for children to learn off by heart.” The Bush’s admit being a small publisher is challenging but they do see a silver lining. “The advantages are you can publish anything you feel will appeal to your market and you don’t have to depend on other people’s opinions. John has found this to be true when he has done talks at schools where stories that publishers have rejected have been absolutely adored by the children.” The Bush’s decision to go digital is two-fold. Printing books is too costly for small publishers and secondly, most children have access to some form of technology, whether it be at home or in their schools. Di sums it up best when she says, “It is our passion that every child has the opportunity to learn to read. It is a basic human right!”