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South African Modjaji Books on the Work of Finding Female Voices

Bookwitty By Bookwitty Published on January 23, 2017
This article was updated on September 17, 2017
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Colleen Higgs

Modjaji Books was started in 2007 by Colleen Higgs, it is an independent press that publishes the writings of Southern African women. Higgs was Information Manager at the Centre for the Book for over seven years, where she managed projects such as the award-winning Community Publishing Project and Writer Development, and brought out a series of pamphlets on writing and publishing. We asked Higgs a few questions about Modjaji's editorial line, recent publications, and the challenges of running an independent publishing house.

What is your editorial line? What makes you stand out?

Modjaji Books is a feminist press that publishes books by southern African women writers. We see the unearthing and finding voices and giving them a place is the feminist work, not necessarily that the women’s writing itself has a feminist agenda. For example, we published a collection of personal narratives by Muslim women called Riding the Samoosa Express, personal narratives of marriage and beyond, we felt that the very existence of the book was a way of affirming the lives of these women who live in South Africa, and of making their lives more visible to those who aren’t part of their community. 

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One of the first books I published was a book called Invisible Earthquake by Malika Ndlovu. It is a memoir about her experience of stillbirth. Malika had sent it to a number of publishers, a few had sat on the book for a while and others said an outright no.

Malika documented her experience of stillbirth and the grief process she went through. She turned some of the writing in her notebook into poems and also kept some of the journal entries. I can understand how a commercial publisher would find that difficult to publish. I thought the book was incredibly moving and important – this is an experience that many women go through, if not stillbirth, then miscarriage.

I saw how I could curate her writings by including resources and information into the book. I approached a specialist obstetrician, Sue Fawcus, to put Malika’s experience into context with an overview and statistics on stillbirth and also to offer the point of view of a healthcare provider. Two social workers wrote about their experiences of caring for grieving women who have had stillbirths.

What has been extraordinary about Malika’s book is that it has been taken up in various ways over an extended period of time. About two to three years after the book was published, Lancet launched a series of books about stillbirth and one of the aspects they covered was dealing with grief and the mother’s experience. In 2017 it is still selling.

Every title we have published has a story behind the publication, why it was chosen, what it offers the world in terms of voice and perspective, how it has been received, and how the publication of the book has changed the writer’s life.

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What is the most rewarding aspect of being an independent publisher?

Seeing books that would not have been published make waves, and even to sell rights for these titles, and the way many of the writers I’ve published have gone on to be well known here in South Africa and even to find readers in other countries. Sometimes the author has gone on to have a successful international career, for example Yewande Omotoso, she was short listed for the first edition of the Etisalat Prize for debut authors with her book, Bom Boy. She now has a London agent, and her second book published by Little Brown is doing very well.

What is the most challenging aspect?

The money. Managing cash flow is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It seems as though there is is never enough money. And publishing has some special constraints. We get paid after 90 days of sales into stores. And have 30 days to pay the printers. And many of the other people involved need to get paid long before we see money from sales. The margins are very tight. Before I started publishing I was not aware of any of these things – margins, cash flow, what it really meant. And it has not really got easier. In Modjaji’s 10th year, we now have a book keeper who has just started working with me. 

How do you connect with your readers?

We always have a launch of some kind to celebrate the publication of a book. That is the first contact with readers. Social media is an important way to reach readers. We have a blog, Facebook, Twitter, traditional reviews in newspapers, magazines, Book Fairs, pop up sales. Until last year I had always managed the PR in I have to confess I slightly haphazard way. Last year from March we employed a wonderful, experienced PR person, Helen Holyoake, on a retainer and the result has been a much more sustained, systematic and widespread awareness of our titles.

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How important are book fairs for you?

Very important. I only go to one regularly, the Frankfurt Book Fair. I also participate in the South African Book Fair, which used to be The Cape Town Book Fair. It is a bit erratic and the dates and venues keep changing in the past few years. But Frankfurt is very important. It allows me to feel connected to other publishers who are doing similar work in other countries. It is deeply affirming and supportive to meet with publishing friends. And of course to sell rights.

How important are independent booksellers for your business? Do you see more sales online or through bookshops?

Through bookstores. Independent bookstores are very important, right from the start The Book Lounge, Love Books, Kalk Bay Books saw what we were doing and publishing and, unlike some of the chains, embraced Modjaji Books immediately. There is a natural partnership I guess between independent publishers and independent bookstores.

What books have helped you to stay afloat?

Bom Boy, I’m the Girl Who Was Raped, Whiplash, Tjieng Tjang Tjerries and Other Stories, Love Interrupted. All books contribute to staying afloat, although some books have not broken even, and there was no way to predict that. We also get subventions for some titles and we’ve received a small amount of funding for different books.

If you were to name one book you've published that you expected to be wildly popular but never quite caught, which would it be?

Snake by Tracey Farren. It had great reviews and followed hot on the heels of the very successful first novel, Whiplash. It is still a mystery to me as to why it did not sell better. I want to reissue it this year along with the new edition of Whiplash, which we have renamed Tess, so it ties in with the movie.

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Can you give us an example of an extraordinary cover design that a larger publisher wouldn't have risked? 

Right from the start we commissioned original art works for our titles from up and coming artists and illustrators. I think that the cover of Whiplash which we are now republishing as Tess, by Tracey Farren is an example of a cover that took risks. Other covers you can look at are Witch Girl by Tanvi Bush, Tjieng Tjang Tjerries and Other Stories by Jolyn Phillips. I asked people who are familiar with the scope of Modjaji’s work to respond to the question of our covers.

“For me it all started with Whiplash. The key is that you've consistently commissioned original art, which is what I see far less of among other publishers, who mostly use stock photos and compositions from photography. Commissioning artwork is very risky, because briefing it in is a rare skill, and going with what the artist comes up with can take more guts than people in bigger companies can afford.” – Arthur Attwell

“All together they are an amazing sight. The Bed Book. Shooting Snakes. Running. The Blacks of Cape Town. Bom Boy. Swimming with Cobras ...I think it isn't about the one or the other, but about a new aesthetic, where the cover is taken seriously and hand lettering is a Thing. Most of the covers were done by young women.” – Colleen Crawford Cousins


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