Why go Digital?


I could write a book about trying, in vain, to get my books published.

According to a recent online report on BusinessTech, “local authors are lucky if they sell more than 1 000 copies of a novel”.

This, it says, is according to an analysis done by the Good Book Appreciation Society, a “secret” book club on Facebook with almost 6 000 members.

The report, dated 23 August 2016, continues:

“Using the help of some publishing insiders, and Nielsen Bookscan, the society found that there were 10.5 million books sold in South Africa in 2015."

“Breaking the data down further it found that 80% of that figure came from non-fiction sales – text books, sports books, self-help, memoirs, cook books, religious books, kids’ books, Zapiro’s Xmas special, etc."

“Adult fiction only makes up 2.5 million of the 10.5 million (20%), and only a fraction of those sales come from SA fiction, the society said. Sales mostly go to the likes of international authors including JK Rowling, Lee Childs, John Grisham and Gillian Flynn."

“South African-based fiction sold 525 000 copies in 2015, and 450 000 of those were Afrikaans novels, meaning that only 75 000 English novels left the shelves.”

The report quotes the Appreciation Society as adding: “And this is where we get to the sad part of the story. Your average SA novelist writing in English only sells 600 to 1 000 copies of a novel in their lifetime. This in a country with a population of more than 55 million people.”

And here I assume they are referring to those lucky few established authors whom publishers have gambled on taking under their wing. The myriad aspiring writers who remain outside the cosy cloisters of the publishing establishment are like potentially sweet grapes left to rot on the vine.

It is clear that unless you already have good contacts or a high profile – for instance, I am currently reading Tony Leon’s autobiography On the Contrary, published by Jonathan Ball – it is unlikely any of the publishing houses will be interested in you or your work.

It’s all about economies of scale. I know, because having hit many a publisher’s brick wall, I finally opted to self-publish my autobiography, Apartheid’s Child, Freedom’s Son, in 2003. And the sums are simple. Go to a printing company and they’ll tell you that, as a rough guide, each page will cost you say R1. If your book is about 350 pages long, that’s R350. But in my case half of the pages contained colour images (photos, drawings, etc). So maybe those pages would cost R1.50 each. Now the book is costing about R500. And that’s before we include the cost of the cover and having it collated and bound. Add perhaps another R50 per book.

But of course the digital printing firm will give you a quote whereby 10 books would cost you say R500 each, but if you opt to run off 50 books they’ll bring it down to maybe R400 per unit. But who has R20 000-plus to gamble on such a project – especially when the hard work of marketing, selling and distribution has not yet even been considered?

Because if a book is costing you over R500 apiece, then it is only fair and just that a book shop will add, say, another 30%, maybe more, as its share of the spoils. You, as a writer, end up with virtually nothing, or more likely having lost money.

In a word, the cost is prohibitive. It is little more than a cripplingly expensive vanity project.

But the digital era has opened up entirely new opportunities of selling books in a cost-effective way.

I have produced a book, Port Elizabeth – A Visual History, which comprises nearly 1 000 pages, most of them with pictures. Had I tried to turn that into an actual book it would have cost more than R1 000 apiece, given that there would be no economies of scale unless I was heavily sponsored.

But, as Dr Phil would say, here’s the thing: I have been able to fit the entire book on a single CD. Likewise the above-mentioned autobiography, where every colour image remains in colour because I am not having to print it out using expensive colour ink and paper.

However, there is still a snag.

While copies of Port Elizabeth – A Visual History are selling slowly but steadily through Fogarty’s, the logistics of getting the product safely to people not in Port Elizabeth means it is unlikely many will be sold outside the metro.

The solution? Ladies and gentlemen, introducing: The Online Download.

These books are both PDFs and so compatible with most computers. And now, thanks to Stephen Walker of Walker Digital in PE, I have been able to make them available on this website to potential buyers around the globe – at a fraction of the cost even of the CD, let alone of a physical book.

I still prefer reading an actual book. But I do know that increasingly people are happy to use any of the modern electronic devices on which such a book could be read, including desktop and laptop computers, tablets, e-readers and large-screen smartphones.

No matter the medium of your choice, I'm sure you will enjoy these books.