Johannesburg - It is one of the enduring sadnesses in South Africa that few writers can make a living from writing – either fiction or non-fiction – unless their books get picked up internationally. South Africa’s best-selling writers in either format can be listed on each hand – and there are more successful writers of non-fiction than fiction.
The only difference is the Afrikaans market which has an almost baked in loyalty and support system guaranteeing a sustainable income. Deon Meyer straddles both worlds but then, he’s one of a kind. He’s a colossus in the Afrikaans fiction market, his books are translated into English and sold here and overseas. He’s even made it into film.
Mike Nicol is an incredible writer, who has published several series of best-sellers, but he had to start a writer’s academy running master classes, which, in turn, helps produce the next generation of writers, to create a sustainable career out of writing.
The fact of the matter is that in South Africa, selling 3 000 copies is regarded by publishers as a best-seller. At 20% of the net selling price as your royalty, paid in tranches over 18 months, you’ll be lucky if you make as much as the national minimum wage.
But, sometimes, writers shoot the lights out. When Jake White’s Springboks won the World Cup in 2007, his ghosted memoir In Black & White had to go into reprint several times before Christmas. The last time local publishers had seen anything like it was when Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom – 13 years before.
The next great moment came when Jacques Pauw published The President’s Keepers in 2017. It helped create a new genre for local publishers. You could fill bookshelves with the books that detail just how this country has plummeted since Long Walk to Freedom was first published, from Killing Kebble to explaining the demise of Eskom when we thought Stage 2 load shedding was an infraction on our human rights.
Sometimes, the subjects themselves do the greatest marketing, like when ANC Youth League members were specially bussed into Sandton’s Exclusive Books to disrupt the launch of Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State and burn the book.
But given how hard it is for the writers to take the personal risks they do and get into print, it’s incredibly galling to discover that their work is being pirated as fast as it is being published. It came to a head with viral PDFs of Pauw’s The President’s Keepers. This week, it was the turn of Andre de Ruyter and his memoir of his three years as Eskom CEO.
As celebrated author Darrel Bristow Bovey noted on Twitter: “It strikes me that the only times South Africans are so interested in a book that they share stolen pirated copies of it, the book is always about corruption and thievery – presumably something of which those South Africans disapprove.”
It is the bitterest, most quintessential South African irony. It has to stop. Delete the WhatsApp if you got it.
Buy the book instead. It’s the right thing to do.