30 Inspiring Drum Women | ‘I’m doing this for my daughter’ – Blackbird Books founder Thabiso Mahlape

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After having built Blackbird Books from the ground up these past seven years, right now Thabiso Mahlape says she is capacitating her entire team to learn to work without her.
After having built Blackbird Books from the ground up these past seven years, right now Thabiso Mahlape says she is capacitating her entire team to learn to work without her.

As the founder of SA’s only black-owned mainstream publishing house, she has had many successes and many learning opportunities. She has been lauded for the former and been judged harshly for the latter. 

So when Drum gets in touch with Thabiso Mahlape to discuss her accomplishments as one of the 30 Inspiring Drum Women, she very matter-of-factly, in her signature straightforward way of talking, says the greatest feat as far as her publishing house, Blackbird Books, is concerned is that it is still going strong.

“That we are still up is the greatest achievement. Despite the many challenges we face, we are able – even when we cannot pay creditors on time sometimes –  we are able to still pay salaries.

“It’s a really, really, really tough industry.” 

And the past two years have been brutal.

When people talk about 2021 CE, very few will say, “That was my favourite year!”

It was the second year of lockdown since Covid-19 had reached our shores. There was still so much uncertainty – about regulation, about the stages of lockdowns. And we feared for our lives, the lives of our loved ones and our livelihoods.

For many of us optimists, the year after not-so-Twenty Plenty (remember that?) was supposed to be about re-building, about progression, but experts were warning about another wave of coronavirus infections. If 2020 had been the twilight zone, this was our darkest midnight. We were bumbling about in ink-black darkness, not knowing whether each next step taken would land on firm grounding or lead to freefall into a cliff.

In 2020 and 2021, the Blackbird Books founder would be the first person to tell you she had plenty of plenty in the pipeline: setting up a new distribution channel for independent publishers; leaving the publisher under which her business had been an imprint; and overall nice things.

You’ll remember that 2020, the year of lockdown, was when I left the publisher, she says.

So in April of 2020 was when she was venturing out as the 100% owner of Blackbird Books.

Didn’t you wish you could turn back and undo the plans you’d made to set out on your own – or at least postpone them till after the Covid-19 uncertainty? Drum asks the publisher.

No, is her short answer. “I never thought like that.” Things had gotten unpleasant in the relationship and she needed to set out on her own as an independent mainstream publisher.

“I felt I needed to show them that I can do this,” she states, sharing about some of the unpleasantness that transpired. “It’s rather petty of me to want to prove them wrong,” she adds with a laugh. 

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And she’s proven it to herself that she can accomplish great feats by herself. She’s also learned the importance of being adaptable and agile as a business. For instance, the overhead costs like rent for office space was one thing she could remove from her budget when the lockdown started. Then came March 2021, a raging pandemic, pregnancy and more hard lockdowns.

She’s been in business for just seven years but she’s already published more than 30 titles under Blackbirds, including It’s Me, Marah, an autobiography by entertainment industry doyenne Marah Louw; Stand Against Bland by award-winning marketer Sylvester Chauke who is widely respected for his work at Nando’s and credited for helping shape the the fast-food franchise’s tongue-in-cheek brand voice; and Siren by the late and great Kuli Roberts.

Thabiso is proud of having played a major role in getting these prominent figures’ books out. But there are other books and authors for whom she wants to be remembered. New writers and authors people have not heard of before are her passion and it’s for this reason that it was so heartbreaking to have to let go of her dream of running a distribution company.

“It started in April of 2021. I was pregnant by the end of April, and my brain doesn’t work when I’m pregnant. And it was a lot of systems that I had not anticipated,” the 38-year-old tells Drum.

“So that, coupled with the fact that we were really struggling to penetrate retail, put us in a really bad position, and I just thought, ‘You know what? No one can say you never tried. When I came out of my pregnancy, I had two things that were urgent. Blackbird Books was needing attention, and the distribution was needing attention. I felt like I needed to choose which one to save.”

It’s far from over for Thabiso yet, though. Setting up this distribution company is still something she hopes to do again when the time is right.

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She’s survived the most challenges years of a small business’s growth and she’s proud to have saved people’s jobs where she could and being able to pay salaries each month – these are the sort of problems that keep a business-owner up at night.

And many a night did she toss and turn, but the person for whom she is building this legacy, she says, is her daughter.

“At first it used to be the authors who had hope and trust in us who kept me motivated. But now it’s really my children.

“Lesedi is eight years old now and when she goes to a book launch, or she’s at a bookstore, she’ll introduce herself to the bookstore manager. And she’ll say, ‘Hi, my name is Lesedi. My mom is the owner of Blackbird Books.'

“So how dare I take that away from her now?”

This month, Thabiso celebrates seven years of Blackbird Books. 

It’s been a turbulent seven years, but seven years she’d do again with no regrets if she had to as she is living the dream of that child Thabiso who fell in love with books as a kid. To this day, few things give her more joy than seeing people share their #BlackbirdBooksStack on social media. 

“It’s like, when you sell books, when you sell 2 000 copies of a book and see how big a country we are, and knowing that one day there’s a possibility of getting through to all those people." That possibility gives her such a thrill, she says.

“Books are the one form of art that really have posterity. So you can sell one copy of Sweet Medicine (by Panashe Chigumadzi) in 2021, but then in 2022 sell 3 000.”

That hope is what keeps her motivated, and she is driven also by support from readers as she honours that commitment she made as a publisher to put out there as many new stories and new voices as possible “because if we leave it up to the current establishment, only the people with social currency are going to get published – and we can’t have that”.

If you had to give Thabiso Mahlape from seven years ago advice on how she’d grow between August 2015, when she launched Blackbird Books, to now, what would you tell her?

“The imposter syndrome I used to have is gone,” is her answer.

“I see less and less of it. I used to have such imposter syndrome and I think this is also because the first few books I published were so big. They were big and bigger than me and bigger than my little few years in publishing. 

“And after each book I’d have an existential crisis, like, ‘I’m going to be found out’; ‘I was just lucky’; ‘It wasn’t my doing’; ‘It wasn’t my eye that spotted these stories’; ‘It wasn’t my hand that moulded these stories.’

“But now I believe in myself a lot more. I know for certain that it was me; that it is me. I am able to look around at the publishing industry now and say without a doubt that I know for sure that I influenced that one, I influenced that one, and that one is because I am.”

This is not being braggadocious. It’s simply part of the self-knowledge that comes with time and years of experience. 

All Gomorrahs are the same by Thenjiwe Mswane has been longlisted for a Sunday Times fiction prize. To buy this book and other works by new (fiction and non-fiction) literary voices in SA published by Blackbird Books, go to blackbirdbooks.africa.

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