Local literati light up London

2010-04-17 09:51

Bookworms and literary lovers from across the globe are set to converge on the world’s publishing capital for the yearly London Book Fair (LBF). Among the myriad authors, agents, book sellers and publishers destined for the English capital is a sizable contingent of South Africa’s finest literary lights, including Andre Brink, Zakes Mda, Antjie Krog, and Mandla Langa.

The LBF is the world’s leading literary marketplace. Last year more than 23?000 publishing professionals attended. It’s the place where ­little-known books get snapped up for movie rights, where agents sniff out new talent, where distribution deals drive book sales across borders and language barriers.

And since the inception of the Market Focus programme in 2004, the LBF has broadened its scope to draw attention to the potential book trade links with other countries.

In 2006 it was Mexico, in 2008 it was the Arab World, last year it was India, and now its South Africa’s turn to bask in the limelight.

But business, not preening, is the aim of the game, says Siphiwo Mahala, deputy director of books and publishing in the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC).

“One of the most impressive aspects of the LBF is that it’s focused on trade and copyright negotiations. It’s not only about buying books, but about establishing business links, negotiating international distribution, translation and adaptation rights,” says Mahala, who is also the author of the acclaimed novel When A Man Cries.

More than 50 authors, playwrights, poets, activists, academics, publishers and literary enthusiasts comprise the delegation sponsored by DAC, the British Council, and the Media, Advertising, Publishing, Printing, Packaging Sector Training Authority (MAPPP Seta).

The LBF’s decision to make SA the focus is rooted partly in the ­desire to piggyback on the global ­attention generated by the World Cup, says Mahala. But more importantly, he says, it’s in recognition of the country’s burgeoning publishing industry and the remarkable success of the Cape Town book fair, which in the space of just five years has become one of the most widely recognised book events in the world.

“There are many writers in South Africa with the potential to make an impact in the world. Until the early 90s many of our writers were in exile and their works were banned in the township. At the time, Gordimer, Coetzee and Brink were the best known,” says Mahala.

“The LBF is the perfect opportunity for us to introduce as many new writers and emerging publishers to an international market.”

But despite a R4?billion turnover in the local book industry, books still battle for an audience locally.

“A bestseller is any book that sells more than 5?000 copies. In a population of 40?million, that’s just bizarre.

“Of what you find in our popular book stores 80% is foreign. South African exports compare very little to what it imports. So its time we opened ourselves to international markets,” says ­Mahala.

On top of the business of books, authors such as John van de Ruit, Niq Mhlongu, Sindiwe Magona, Thando Mqgolozana, Zoe Wicomb, Kopano Matlwa and Lesego Rampolokeng will debate topics such as the effect of the World Cup on reading, writing and politics, how writing in English is informed by a writer’s indigenous language, and why South Africa is seen as distinct from the rest of Africa.

Five university publishers – Wits University, UKZN, Unisa, UCT and HSRC Presses – will share a joint stand. Academics and authors such as Njabulo Ndebele, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Jonny Steinberg, Mark Gevisser and Bheki Peterson, among others, will take part in a series of seminars at Oxford University and London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

A collaborative performance ­poetry troupe, comprising 10 British and South African poets, will take their work to the streets of ­London, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle.

The key to squeezing the best out of the LBF for the industry newbies, says Mahala, is not to hide your light under a bushel.

“You have to make yourself as visible as possible, engage in as many discussions. I’d be delighted if at least one author comes back and says: ‘My book is being considered for film adaptation.’”

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