There is the old publishing joke, “How do you make a small fortune from publishing?” “You start with a large one.” But what if you had no fortune to start with? Just a small pension and an ability to compartmentalize and the crazy unbridled optimism of someone who learns from her mistakes, usually, and who nevertheless in spite of more setbacks than she can begin to count is still irrepressibly optimistic. I keep thinking it is getting better. And it is. But is it really?
Money has been at the heart of my work as a publisher. Not enough money. Not ever. But somehow I’m still here eleven years later. Nothing is certain. Nothing is guaranteed, even for those who have financial reserves, which I don’t. However, coming clean about the money side of how I’ve operated as a small independent publisher feels important, even if it feels more awkward than talking about some sexual fetish or predilection I might have.
I’ve come to realise why most small, independent, literary publishers in the world are attached to larger institutions or are non-profits or have other jobs, and do their publishing as a small part of what they do. For some inexplicable reason when I started Modjaji I decided to try and make it work as a business.
I often feel weighed down by the financial debt that publishing has brought with it, I feel weighed down by the guilt of all those I owe money to. The anxiety is an ever-present, unwelcome companion that I have learnt to live with. The worrying about money is a bit like bobbing on a lilo. The day-to-day survival mode makes it difficult to dive deep and to think of larger, more long lasting solutions and strategies. I live day-to-day, hand to mouth. And yet I manage. Money flows in. Money flows out.
At times I do feel ashamed of how I have no money. My credit card is almost always maxed out. I owe writers royalties. I’ve been lucky enough to get to the Frankfurt Book Fair every year since 2011, with funding. And yet I’ve been to Frankfurt with almost no money. Thankfully there are lots of drinks parties with snacks, often there has been a breakfast thrown in with the accommodation funding from the Department of Trade and Industry.
Every month as I pay the bond on my house and my daughter’s school fees it feels like a triumph, an achievement. But then I have to do it again the next month and the one after that. But I try not to dwell on it. Each month is a series of hurdles of bills to pay. Most days my bank account is debited. Bond, bank charges, interest, credit card payments, medical aid, house insurance, car insurance, life insurance. Telkom, Vodacom and then Afrihost for the website and ADSL and data, Google each month and once a year Dropbox. Often I’m surprised and dismayed when money I thought was there is no longer. My money ride is a lurching, jarring ride. At times I long for a smoother, less frightening one.
Publishing is a cost-intensive business. I have to pay manuscript readers, editors, proofreaders, book designers, cover artists, illustrators, printers (theirs are the biggest bills), PR costs, couriers (a big part of publishing is getting books delivered), launch costs.
Over the years I have developed additional income streams for Modjaji. There are rights sales, permissions, direct sales to authors, pop-up book sales. I’ve given seminars on publishing. I’ve read manuscripts and I’ve advised individuals about their publishing projects for a fee, I see this work as writing and publishing therapy. I create Special Offers on Facebook. Small subsidies have come from some writers who work at universities and who can access money from their research accounts to make a subvention payment towards their books. I’ve received a small amount of funding from a couple of funding agencies in South Africa, but never from the National Arts Council. I have now given up applying to them. In addition I have sold shares in the company to friends who also believe in the value of publishing southern African women writers.
Modjaji has also had some extraordinarily generous donations from kind benefactors for particular titles and once a big-hearted writer donated an airfare to Frankfurt in a year when the DTI funding didn’t come through. I’ve tried crowd funding for one book – the beautiful A to Z of Amazing South African Women, published last year and successfully raised R100,000. It might sound a like a lot of but producing a full colour litho-printed book is costly.
Generous friends and family and some writers have loaned Modjaji money interest-free. Some service providers have donated their work. All of these things have kept Modjaji Books afloat. I have learnt how to accept generosity from others and I’ve learnt humility and gratitude.
I’ve also made some tough decisions – for example I decided that Modjaji wouldn’t pay poets royalties. They get a generous discount on books that they can sell and are encouraged to sell books themselves at readings and to their own networks. But any money that Modjaji makes from poetry goes into the Poetry Fund to make it possible to publish other poets. It is not easy to break even publishing poetry.
Independent publishing without a large fortune is a nerve wracking, anxiety filled enterprise. It’s not for the fainthearted. But the non-financial rewards are immeasurable. More about that next time.
Colleen Higgs is a publisher, a publishing activist and a writer. Modjaji Books, the publishing company she started is now eleven years old, and is an award-winning, internationally recognised small, independent feminist press. She compiles an African Catalogue of Small Publishers every two or three years, she is currently working on making the catalogue available as an online database to increase the visibility of small and independent publishers in Africa. She has had two collections of poems published and a collection of short stories,Looking for Trouble (2012). She lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with her teenage daughter