- Thabiso Mahlape established BlackBird Books in 2015 under Jacana Media before going independent in May of 2020.
- Since its debut five years ago the publisher has released 19 books across various literary categories.
- Its founder hopes to make BlackBird Book's the world's gateway into literature from across the continent.
When Thabiso Mahlape established Blackbird Books in August of 2015, the intention was to give the words and narratives of Black writers a home.
Incubated by South African publishing house Jacana Media, until its independence in May of 2020, BlackBird Books was inspired by South African journalism veteran, Nat Nakasa’s dream to establish a black literary magazine as well as Nina Simone’s 1966 song Blackbird. With the publishing house turning five during August, Arts24 spoke to its founder.
“There were moments where I did not think that we would make it to five,” says Mahlape with regards to parting ways with Jacana Media as a result of differences in ideologies between the two parties. “We had some of our greatest difficulties; the market just wasn’t responding and distribution channels weren’t at all accommodating.”
However since its establishment, BlackBird Books has managed to publish 19 different titles. The type of books fall under a range of categories including long form investigative journalism, autobiographies, novels and self-help texts. Some of the titles are as follows:
- Born to Kwaito by Esinako Ndabeni and Sihle Mthembu
- Broke & Broken by Lucas Ledwaba and Leon Sadiki
- If You Keep Digging by Keletso Mopai
- Piggy Boy’s Blues by Nakhane
- It’s Me, Marah by Marah Tebogo Louw
- Miss Behave by Malebo Sephodi
Apart from being prolific on the production end of things, BlackBird Books has had its share of goods and bads.
In 2019, the publisher’s most prolific year, BlackBird Books launched a four-week writing residency for Black women in addition to going global when they sold the international rights of The Eternal Audience of One by Rémy Ngamije to the New York based publisher Simon and Schuster. And to close of their fifth year, BlackBird Books will be publishing Malaika wa Azania's Corridors of death: The struggle to exist in historically white institutions and Exhale, an anthology of queer erotica by Holaa Africa.
Speaking of the publishing house’s highlights, Mahlape points to having the opportunity to break barriers of entry for unknown black writers:
However its existence hasn’t been without flaws. In 2017 the publisher had to recall Bonang Matheba’s biography, From A to B, from bookstores across the country after the book received backlash for grammatical and factual errors. “We have made mistakes, same mistakes made by other publishers, but ours are almost always near fatal. We as black women are held to a different near impossible standard,” Mahlape adds.
Apart from going independent in the middle of a pandemic and publishing eros, other challenges faced by BlackBird Books for far included low returns and a lack of funding. But even with limited resources Mahlape believes “There is enough space for all of us” with regards to other publishing houses focused on the work of black writers.
For the next five years, Mahlape says the goal is to make BlackBird Books the world’s literary gateway into Africa. “As the world wakes up to Africa as an emerging superpower it is our responsibility to curate what of our stories we want to have represented, and how.”
About Thabiso Mahlape
Before BlackBird Books, Mhlape worked for Jacana Media where she worked at inking a number of book deals with black authors that would go on to be acclaimed bestsellers including:
- Endings & Beginnings by Redi Tlhabi
- My Father My Monster by Mcintosh Polela
- Memoirs of a Born Free by Malaika wa Azania
- Eyebags & Dimples by Bonnie Henna
- When Hope Whispers by Zoleka Mandela