No longer just a hobby

2007-11-23 00:00

ON a wall in her office in Pine Street, Nelly Melis has mounted the covers of the books she’s had a hand in publishing over the past six or so years. It makes for a colourful backdrop and an impressive register of achievement.

As publishing manager of Cluster Publications — non-profit publishers of books on contextual theology — profiling the work of the organisation is something that Melis takes seriously. Among her goals for the future, she lists getting the work of the niche publishing house even more widely known and increasing its financial viability.

Founded in 1991 by the Pietermaritzburg Cluster of Theological Institutions comprising St Joseph’s Theological Institute, the School of Theology at the University of Natal and the Evangelical Seminary of Southern Africa (Essa), Melis says Cluster Publications was started “as a sort of hobby” by theologians who were concerned that too little theological material with particular relevance to South Africa was being published. “They also felt that imported books were too expensive for the local market.”

In the beginning, all the work of the publishing house was done by volunteers, with university lecturers doing the typesetting. Today, with two permanent staff members, Cluster Publications is firmly entrenched on the national publishing scene.

Forming an integral part of the beautifully restored Essa campus in Pine Street, Cluster publications receives manuscripts from all corners of South Africa and beyond. Although print runs are relatively small — between 500 and 1 000 per run — Cluster produces between eight to 10 books a year and now pays for all the services rendered to it. “Not a lot,” says Melis, “but it’s something.”

Melis says there’s also a lot of overseas interest in the books produced. “This week, I had an order from China. We also get requests from Japan and libraries in the United States.” An interactive website will be launched shortly, which will enable potential buyers to buy books over the Internet.

Many of the submissions received by Cluster are doctoral theses, which often need some reworking before they can be published as books. Melis says plans are in the pipeline to offer workshops to academic authors interested in adapting their theses for publication.

Melis is also keen to see the publishing house take a more proactive approach by commissioning more works from authors.

Next year will see the launch of the first book in a series of commissioned works. “We’ve asked Ron Nicolson to write a piece on the church and same-sex marriage,” says Melis. The second in the series will be about the church and climate change, by Ernst Conradie.

“We try to play a prophetic role,” says Melis of the idea behind the commissions. “We aim to produce high-quality works that have direct relevance to the Christian faith in South Africa. We want to contribute to current debates — that was the thinking behind Cluster Publications when it started, and we try to follow that line today.”

Deciding what to publish and what to reject is always tricky, says Melis, but the final decision — made by an editorial board with advice from expert readers — is always guided by Cluster’s focus on contextual theology and relevance to the Christian faith and its challenges. The board is made up of staff from the three Cluster institutions and is chaired by Gerald West of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Melis says the book that surprised most in its popularity was the 2004 practical handbook entitled The Church in an HIV+ World, edited by Daniela Gennrich in association with Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa). The book has so far enjoyed three print runs. “It seemed to come at just the right time.”

Another popular work was Michael Nuttall’s memoir about Archbishop Desmond Tutu called Number Two to Tutu, as was Ubuntu by Augustine Shutte, published in 2001, and last year’s book by Klaus Nurnberger, The Living Dead and The Living God. Some of the books, such as Christian Spirituality in South Africa edited by Celia Kourie and Louise Kretzchmar, are prescribed as textbooks by the University of South Africa, which helps to keep them in print.

Biographies on figures who have played a significant role in the church, such as Tutu, Archbishop Denis Hurley and church leader Joseph Wing, have also been well received.

Melis says a worthy manuscript is never rejected because of financial considerations.

“We try to make a plan,” she says. “Often, our more successful publications will end up subsidising those that don’t sell widely, but deserve to be published, or are likely to have a mainly academic audience.”

According to Melis, most editors or authors will make a contribution to the cost of publishing and this helps to lower the cost of the final product. “None of our authors is in the business of writing to make money,” she says. “They are mainly concerned with sharing issues about which they feel strongly.”

An innovative approach to financing was adopted in Memories, the coffee-table book about Hurley that was recently published. It was edited by Paddy Kearney. “This kind of book format was new to us,” says Melis. “We asked people to subscribe to the book before it was published and this allowed us to gauge its likely success and the size of the print run.”

The process has meant more administrative work, but the method proved effective enough to be repeated in the production of Evelyn Cresswell’s forthcoming book called Keeping the Hours, a book which looks at Cresswell’s involvement with the Society of the Precious Blood in Masite, Lesotho during apartheid.

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