Tuesday, December 29, 2009

SFF in South Africa

Since I'm the only SFF reviewer from South Africa and in South Africa, I thought that it was way past time to post this 'article' / 'essay' (or whatever it turns out to be) and get all of you outside SA an inside-seat to the state of SFF here. :-)

So, where to start? I guess the best place would be my introduction to SFF.

Comics. Argue if you want, but I'm pretty sure it'll be the same for many of you out there. My parents got me started with Wendy, Casper, Spooky, and later, Archie. This is what started me reading, and you can be damn sure I'm always grateful for that. :-) Pretty soon I graduated to the comics and characters that we all know - Superman, Batman, etc and the first comic I remember reading from DC was an issue of Flash, in the post-Invasion days, where Wally West was homeless and buggered. (This is probably why Wally West, and The Flash, is my favourite DC character - yes, way above Batman, even).

You see, comics opened up such a massive world for my imagination to play in that I was completely hooked, and by the time I was in my first year of High School, I had a collection in excess of 1000 different comics. By then I had already started reading actual books (we're not that backward here!), but I still see comics as my first taste of SFF, and I collect what I can today, too. :-)

I also read plenty of books, too, but these were along the lines of Enid Blyton's The Famous Five and Franklin W. Dixon's The Hardy Boys stories. The first adult book I read was Stephen King's Pet Sematary, and I was nine years old (blame my dad for leaving his books lying around!). After King, I never touched another book meant for my age-group. :-)

The first Fantasy book I ever read was David Eddings' Pawn of Prophecy, and that led to me reading every Fantasy book in our school library in less than a year (granted, that's not such a big claim, since there weren't that many books to begin with, but still, the hunger started there). The first SF book I ever read? Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And what an introduction those books were! Eddings (may his name always burn brightly) showed me magic, evil, battles; Clarke showed me the gorgeous beauty of space and the true meaning of the word 'extra terrestrial' (sorry, Spielberg), and from then on, I devoured everything I could get my hands on. Sometimes I would focus on SF for an entire year, and then Fantasy - I marveled at Clarke and Lee's Rama Cycle, was completely blown away by The Reality Dysfunction, and holy hell, when I discovered Robert Jordan... Let's just say that Fantasy really became fantastic!

But the question that I'm going to try and answer here is this: is the rest of South Africa the same?

As the first part of my answer, here's a shocker for you - a fact that will go a long way to explaining just why I'm the only reviewer in South Africa:

A book needs to sell between 2000 and 5000 copies to be a national BESTSELLER. I can see you doing a double-take, but that's the average. To put it even more in perspective, there are about 60000 to 70000 active readers in South Africa, and those numbers are split between every kind of book you can imagine.

What sells well here? Cookery books, Misery Memoirs, biographies, business books, and fiction along the lines of Wilbur Smith, Danielle Steel, etc.

Now, when I started working as a bookseller in 2001, I immediately felt at home in the SF section; 'S' for Science Fiction, and 'F' for Fantasy. Don't worry, I shook my head, too. Talk about not caring about the distinctions, right?

Anyway, one of the first things I noticed was that readers of SFF here were and are starved for material to read, and this problem has two parts;

The first, and, I suppose, most important, part of the problem, is how long we have to wait for books. You see, because we're such a small market here, our publishers / distributors have to acquire rights to get the books into the market. What this means for us is that we have to wait an average of 3 months from the date of publication for the books to hit our shelves. With the huge international publications such as the Harry Potter novels and The Lost Symbol that period is null and void, but with everything else the 3-month rule applies. (Sometimes we strike it lucky - case in point, Peter V Brett's The Painted Man; the publisher's here sent me a copy in late July 2008, and my review of it was the review that got me started in the blogosphere.)

The second aspect of the problem is that there isn't much book knowledge among book sellers here. I'm not saying that the majority of us are complete dunces, but book sellers here think they know a lot and don't actually know as much as they think they know. The knowledge we do have must, necessarily, be focused on the books that make the most money in our market, and none of those books include anything from SFF (once again, JK Rowling would be the exception to the rule). I'm an aberration, of course. :D

A smaller, though no less important, part of the problem is that every bookseller or manager has their own opinion on what will sell and where it should be sectioned. A good example of this would be Cormack McCarthy's The Road; I took it out of Fiction (mainstream, non-genre if you like) and put it in Science Fiction & Fantasy (we're lucky enough to have the section named as such in the our shop). What happened? 3 copies sold in a week, whereas in Fiction, 3 copies didn't sell in a month. Now it's a mainstay of my section (yes, I'm in charge of SFF in our store) and when I tell people that the book they're looking at is by the same author of No Country for Old Men, they seem a bit shocked. You see, there are just some books that don't sell in sections where they should normally go, so experimentation is needed in our market.

Now, my section pulls in more money than any other section in the shop, and this is directly sure to Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga books being sectioned there - I'm pretty damn excited to see how my section will hold up once sales start dropping off, but thankfully, it wont be happening any time soon. Why did I section Meyer in SFF? Well, it just didn't fit anywhere else. Plus, why pass up the opportunity to show off the non-vampire stuff? Browsing in my section opens up universes. :-)

But there are still books that don't sell. :-(

Gemmell, for instance, has dropped off quite a bit - but James Barclay is rising to the occasion. Steven Erikson is consistently a good seller, and so is Robert Jordan, as is Trudi Canavan and (brace yourselves) Terry Goodkind. (Hey, no matter what Terry says, I will put his books in SFF!) On the SF side of things, well, that's a bit of a struggle, unfortunately. :-( Sales for SF are slow and sporadic. Why? Blame Peter Jackson, I s'pose, but I think this goes deeper.

So see, we South Africans are a strange people. Our history makes us farmers, predominantly; that's the foundation we come from. And farmers don't have time to read. Centuries and decades down the line, you've got people who read at school, because they have to. You see, it's just not an important part of life here, it isn't encouraged. Sad, but true. The situation is changing, thanks to the likes of Rowling and Meyer (not so much Peter Jackson - I still get customers saying that they tried to read The Lord of the Rings but didn't like it because Tolkien left out scenes that were in the movies); more people are reading here, teenagers, yes, but they are reading. This leads to sales across the board, but still not as much as I would like to see.

I've been blogging now for a year and four months, and I've run a couple of giveaways which have completely failed. Either readers here are inherently distrustful of anything free, or they just weren't interested. I also consistently get more visits from the USA and UK than SA, even though everyone I know is on Facebook, so it's not a problem of internet access. As long as I can read, though, I'll be blogging and reviewing, and I've now got a reputation among SA publishers that I need to uphold, anyway. :-)

These are the reasons why the SFF market in SA is so small, and the only thing we can hope for is that (and this is a fact, not me being egotistical) more book sellers like me get into the book trade. We also need the publishers to take a more active role in bringing more SFF into SA, but that depends on sales. And above all, as book sellers, we need to make damn sure that all of our customers keep coming back. More sales means that we can experiment with them, take chances, and get them to read outside their comfort zone.

The small SFF market leaves us with another problem, though; loads and loads of people writing SFF, but no-one getting published. :-(

So, there we go. We've got an uphill climb, all the time, but damn it, it's an incredible climb with spectacular views! :-)



Mark said...

Nice post mate. It's quite funny in that I got started with Archie, Hotstuff, Victor and the likes before graduating to 2000AD.

It sounds like it's still a bit of a hike, but any progress is good progress :)

Mike said...

We do have quite a bit in common, Dave. I also started with Harvey Comics (Casper, Wendy, Hot Stuff, etc.), but Batman was my hero. (I think it's because he was a superhero with no super powers. I could never be Superman, but I thought I could become Batman.)

I can't tell you what my first SFF book was, although I remember being drawn mainly to fantasy books and sci-fi TV as a child. I also worked a lot of years in bookstores -- Christian bookstores, but the fiction situation there isn't much different from the general SFF market in South Africa you describe -- and I shopped so much in the mainstream stores that I had friends in most of them. Many of our customers liked me because I tried to keep up with more than just the Christian market. Anyway, most of the good Christian SFF authors end up going to mainstream publishers because most Christian readers tend toward things like inspirational romance. (Of course, romance is huge in almost any market, isn't it?) But at least we have the markets here for them to go to; that sounds like a problem in South Africa.

It seems to me that SFF themes are working their way into most types of fiction now, whether that be books, TV, or movies. This cross-pollination ought to help the regular South African SFF writer, don't you think? The Meyer books (which I admit I haven't read, but they sound like paranormal romances without the erotica - I assume that's because of the teen readers) would be a good example of that crossover. Don't you think this bodes well for South African SFF?

buddyt said...

Interesting post Dave.

I think there are a few points that need to be made.

Firstly there is a Science Fiction and Fantasy club in South Africa, which has been going since 1969 and does its best to spread the word on the genre through meetings, newsletter and competions for original short stories.

Secondly, part of the problem with the numbers of readers here is that the vast majority of people do not have English as there first language.
If you have investigated some of the local african writers, you will find a vast amount of African myths, very different from what one could call "Mainstream Fantasy" but very interesting.

Then we have the price of books in this country compared to the living standards of the average readers. Books here, even paperbacks, are expensive due to short runs, VAT etc.

I think there is a growth in SFF reading and if you speak to some of the local online stores such as Kalahari, Loot, Take 2, they might be able to confirm this for you.
You will also find that buying SFF from them, even when sourced from the USA or the UK is always very much cheaper than at any of the bricks-and-mortar stores. They also have most books available long before the South African publishers.

Lastly the past few years have seen an incredible increase in independent stores sourcing books from the UK and other places, of book returns or whatever you call it. These are usually sold in there own stores only or through temporary stalls set up in shopping malls. From my experience a lot of SFF (and all other genres)is sold out very quickly there and at very reduced prices.


Dave-Brendon de Burgh said...

Thanks for all the comments! :-)

Mark - yep, uphill indeed but still enjoying it. :-)

Mike - You see, the problem doesn't lie with people not writing, it lies with publishers not taking a chance on the writer and the book. :-( In our market, a South African SFF book just cannot compete against the latest cookery book or omnibus of Afrikaans romance. :-( And since we're so insulated here, what with info regarding agents, how to approach publishers, etc no-one knows how to go about shopping their manuscripts around. For example, Natasha Mostert was eventually distributed by Random House here in SA, but only because the book was first published in the UK (where Natasha now lives). :-(


I've approached the SFFSA and asked if they would like to send me info that I can put on the blog, but have heard nothing since. Whether that's because nothing is happening at the moment or they decided my blog wouldn't be a good marketing vehicle, I don't know, but I'm still hoping to hear from them :-)

I totally agree with you about the growing online market, but the thing is,it doesn't help the book shops. I try to keep tabs on what's available online when compared to what's available in-store, and the differences are so massive that we book sellers end up looking like idiots. Customers generally use online retailers more because the info is more up to date and they don't have to wait 3 months for the books they want, all of which destroys sales for us and gives customers the idea that, for a book shop, we have no idea what we're doing. The rights issues are really a problem here, with some titles not even reaching SA. :-(

Independant stores are basically only in Cape Town here, and no-one will travel to Cape Town just to browse for books to read. I have no doubt that they source books from the UK (the UK being the cheapest), but that doesn't help readers countrywide here. :-(

When it comes to second-hand shops, well... Because we get our books from the UK (except for Ingrams orders), we have to wait for stock. For example, a customer will have almost no difficulty getting McCaffrey's backlist in a second-hand shop, but will struggle to find the books in a book shop. You see, there's only so much that we can order, and those orders need to be justified by sales and/or need. I was lucky enough to have been able to get my section stocked with a very wide range, but there are still books that don't sell at all, and if they don't sell, we return them to the publisher. That basically means second hand shops are able to keep there stock on the shelves longer - we don't have that luxury. Added to the fact, the longer a book is on the shelf, the more it gets destroyed... :-(

Mike said...

Dave, you said "Because we get our books from the UK (except for Ingrams orders), we have to wait for stock." How long is the delay when you order from Ingram vs. the UK?

Dave-Brendon de Burgh said...

Sometimes, when we're really lucky, it takes about two weeks for Ingrams. That means very happy customers for us. :-) And we usually use Ingrams for books that we can't readily source from suppliers here, but I've been using it quite a bit to order the books I haven't wanted to wait for. We do, of course, have around 3 - 5 days to wait when we order from suppliers here when they have stock, but the rub comes in with the 3-month delay; basically we place our orders when the books are officially published, and get them three months later. For example, Star Wars Deathtroopers is arriving sometime next month, and we received David Anthony Durham's The Other Lands earlier this month.

We can, of course, use Ingrams regularly, but that might just push the wrong buttons with our suppliers, so it's a bit of a stuff up.

Mike said...

"We can, of course, use Ingrams regularly, but that might just push the wrong buttons with our suppliers, so it's a bit of a stuff up." Hmmmm... I can see where that would be a problem.

The reason I ask: Do you know if any of the SFF authors have considered starting their own publishing house? POD publishing has come a long way, and Ingram owns Lightning Source, which would give them an outlet to the whole planet. I have a couple of books I did that way. Granted, you have to do your own editing, digital layout, digital covers, and promotion, but it's pretty inexpensive to get the books in print and you don't have to warehouse them. In US dollars, it costs around $75 to set the book up for printing, $30 for a proof copy, and $12 or $14 a year (I forget which) to keep the book in print. Plus, since Ingram would be the printer, it shouldn't cause any conflicts with other suppliers.

It's nice to have a big publisher behind you, but if the big guys won't even consider them, perhaps they could do it themselves. If the books sold well, it might even encourage the big guys to make an offer; that's happened quite frequently here in the US. At the very least, it would give the writers more options.

Dave-Brendon de Burgh said...

A writer I know has been looking at starting up a publishing house of her own, mostly as a vehicle for getting the 5 books she's written (high-concept stuff, sort of like a cross between Dan Brown, Michael Crichton and Matthew Reilly) onto shelves, but it's still a ways off from happening, though I'd be pretty chuffed to see it happen. :-) The costs involved here in SA are really steep, though, for such an undertaking - an author by the name of David Jooste (not David, by fellow reviewer), ,self-published his first book, fantasy with an SA flavour, got it into book shops, appeared on TV, etc and three months or so later, the book was in bargain bins everywhere; he probably needed to sell the book for around R140 - R150 to make a decent profit, but bargain bins destroyed that, and I really hope that he's exploring overseas avenues because the initial print-run cost him around R10000! :-(

Another choice for authors here, if self-published, is exploring the options with Exclusive Books (the biggest chain-store here), but it's also an expensive option - you need to have the money to pay distributors to warehouse your book, need to market your own book, and you also have to approach each store individually as the store managers are the ones who order the stock (so each store caters specifically to its own market)... It's a system that works well if you have the capital available, but many authors just starting out here end up falling to the wayside due to shoddy printing (the book falls apart after 1 read) or shoddy edits (since there's really no-one you can approach to edit your work, especially if its SFF). :-(

Non-fiction does exceedingly well here, but self-published fiction really suffers. :-(

Mike said...

That's the beauty of POD, Dave. Tell your friend to go to:


and browse through the site. I don't know how much you know about POD, but it stands for "print on demand." Simply put, it's like using a high-tech photocopier that prints entire books. You can order print runs if you want -- I ordered a run of 50 copies of one book, just to have some for promotion -- but basically it works like this:

You setup your book with Lightning Source, and that makes it available to anybody who orders through Ingram, as well Amazon, AmazonUK, and BN.com. Somebody orders the book and Ingram runs off a single copy and ships it out. If the book becomes popular, Ingram figures out how many they need to meet demand and makes sure they keep that many in-stock, ready to ship. They handle all the printing, shipping, and billing; you get a monthly statement showing how much you made, and you get a payout 3 months later. And the books look just like any book from a big publisher.

There are other POD outfits that do complete book packages and stuff, and they cost more; my only experience is with Lightning Source, which is cheaper than most of them because they don't do the book design and editing. I went with them because I knew they work with a lot of the big publishers doing academic books and stuff, and I've been really pleased with them.

And don't forget there are other options. My golf book, "Ruthless Putting," is done as a paperback through Lightning Source, an ebook for Amazon's Kindle reader and through Mobipocket (these two ebooks have no production costs at all), and a PDF ebook that I market myself at ruthlessputting.com (which costs me only for the webpage -- $6.95 US per month at GoDaddy.com -- and a delivery/billing system that costs me $5 US each month).

If your friend is interested in any of those, I'd be glad to tell him (or her) what I go through when using the process -- stuff like book design and figuring out pricing. Maybe it will give them some other options. Just drop me a line; you know how to get in touch with me.

Dave-Brendon de Burgh said...

Excellent, thank you Mike. :-) It sounds promising, that's for sure, and I'll definitely pass on the info for you. If she wants more info then I'll put her in touch with you. :-)

I hope you're going to have a wonderful night, Mike! We're off to a party with friends later, will be sleeping over so there's no driving-drunk. :-) I wish you an absolutely kickass end to 2009 and a massive start to 2010 - may we all be EPIC! :-)

Mike said...

Thanks, Dave -- and a very Happy New Year to you, too!