More South African writers are publishing their books online, with many bypassing the rigorous gatekeeping processes used by traditional publishers.
It has also become customary for authors signed to large publishers to have both print versions and digital versions of their work appear on platforms such as Amazon’s Kindle eBooks and Smashwords.
The appeal of online platforms is that independent authors can employ their own cover designers, copy editors and proofreaders. They can also take charge of their marketing.
Author and self-publishing entrepreneur Tiisetso Maloma’s yearning for independence saw him self-publish his first book, Forget The Business Plan: Use This Short Model.
"I just don’t believe in letting a third person decide on my progress," he says, explaining his decision to self-publish.
Forget The Business Plan has sold 500 copies since it was published in 2013, he adds — a quarter of what the average printed book sells in SA.
While self-publishing is sometimes hailed as liberating and exhilarating, it can be an overwhelming and frustrating experience. Most readers purchasing from Amazon and Smashwords are American, and e-books from SA might not make meaningful sales.
Another entrepreneur in self-publishing, Dave Henderson, believes the low sales of books in SA can be attributed to independent authors cutting costs on important publishing processes such as editing and marketing. "The author who self-publishes for the first time will tend to make the mistake of cutting costs on vital steps such as the cover design and the editing. This, combined with the lack of a marketing plan, inevitably leads to the new book making a small splash when it first hits the shelves," he says.
Self-published authors are often publishing their first books and, coupled with SA’s "geographical isolation" to major e-book markets such as Europe and the US, Henderson believes these obstacles can be too big to allow for success.
"Where we are leads to a number of issues that are unique. Particularly, we face the problem that the author community still has not properly embraced the marketing side of being a writer," he adds. Henderson believes that many local fledging writing careers die needlessly in their infancy.
Traditional publisher Via Afrika is throwing its support behind independent writers through its free self-publishing programmes. They offer first-time authors lessons on publishing their e-books on Smashwords. The e-books produced look professional. The authors retain their copyright and the money from book sales. Authors less interested in sales can also choose to offer their e-books free of charge.
Via Afrika’s intervention is probably as a result of a worrying 2016 study which showed "that only 14% of South Africans read regularly" and six out of 10 adults live in households where there isn’t even one book.
Via Afrika believes one way to undo this is to help local authors publish their e-books online and these authors can then promote their books to people in their communities and thus increase literacy levels.
Henderson believes that it is vital that they connect and converse with like-minded people. "I cannot recommend networking enough for the author looking for their tribe," he says. "The indie author community in Johannesburg, for example, is an impressive gathering of talent."
According to research done by PwC, SA electronic consumer sales grew from R2m in 2011 to R19m in 2016.
Maloma says that writers with unpublished manuscripts should "keep on writing and promoting" and not wait for traditional publishers to come, waving contracts.
"Self-publishers cannot cry about bookstores not taking their books. They sell them by all means possible. Numbers do not lie. If your book is in demand, they [bookshops] will take it."
He is buoyed by the results he has seen from authors in his network, especially in the romance and adult genres. That is where the sales are, he adds. Maloma lists controversial author Jackie Phamotse as a former client. She self-published her best-selling Bare, which deals with rape and money-based relationships.
"New adult and romance novels are picking up, to a point where the authors can now make a living from book sales," he adds.