Publishing 100 years ago

I was undecided whether to post this here or with my publishing hat on, but in the end decided here was more appropriate because of the historical links.

Back in 1922, Solomon Plaatje tried to get his novel Mhudi published in the USA. Plaatje was a black South African but before assumptions are made and conclusions drawn, it’s worth considering the wider context. In the 1920s according to Brian Willan, Plaatje’s biographer, there was an interest in the USA for black literature and Plaatje was a published author in the UK with Native Life in South Africa and various pamphlets to his name. He was a well-known newspaper writer and editor too and his work had the support of academics at University College London (UCL) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Despite his resume, Plaatje’s book was rejected by the big players of the day but a small publisher offered to print his book – which he praised, predicting 20,000 sales for the grand total of $1,500 which worked out at $5 per book.

It was these figures that jumped out at me – the figures quoted haven’t changed much in 100 years. Authors I speak to today have often been told a publisher will publish if the author contributes or pays for the print. The lowest figure given to me has been £1,500 and this is from both small, big and academic publishers.

The other striking aspect on book selling which Plaatje brought home was the unpredictability of sales. He travelled widely – in the UK, USA and South Africa promoting his work and selling his books. In 1920 he recorded that, in the USA, he got $40-50 from sales whereas in 1922 he could hardly get $8 or $10. His books did not feature in bookshops (since 2010, only 1% of all books published are likely to make it into a bookshop) despite there being reviews in recognised newspapers of the day such as the South African.

Again, this resonates with book selling today. Publishers generally do very little marketing of books expecting the author to do most of it, preferring to focus their energies on books they expect to make a return within three months of being released. There are numerous outlets now (social media) for letting people know about new books which technically means reaching more readers however, some time ago I read that only 7% of social media gets seen in a day. An article published at the beginning of December 2020 suggests that the average user receives 1,500 posts a day of which only 300 are shown in their feed (those deemed most relevant). This prompts the question then: is the ‘reach’ any different then from Plaatje’s time?

It has also been suggested that today that the book buying world consists of authors and publishers – few outside of the book producing world buy books. There may be something in this, but it’s hard to say. Reading habits have changed over the years and there are more books entering into the world every year whilst the second-hand book market ensures older books continue to circulate almost in perpetuity. Another random read recently noted that what is really important when it comes to books is not the number sold but the number read. Much is seen today about tsundoku or the art of buying books and never reading them as I wrote about recently. Can one make the assumption that, with fewer books in circulation and relatively more expensive 100 years ago, people read more of what they bought? I’m not sure we’ll know.

Today there is a huge industry in self-publishing but I don’t think this is much different to Plaatje’s day. Numerous books I encounter regarding the First World War in Africa are noted to be for private circulation or privately published, confirming there was no major market for the book but the author felt it needed to be made more widely available. The difference today is that technology has levelled the playing field when it comes to self-publishing. Most of Plaatje’s travels and book promotion tours were to raise funds to get new books published where the publisher asked the author to make a financial contribution. This effectively puts his books into the ‘self-published’ category. I wonder how Plaatje’s writings would have fared had he had access to the technology we have.

Mhudi was eventually published in 1930, ten years after it was written, by Lovedale University – Plaatje having to make no financial contribution. Since his death, and the reprint of the book in 1978 (with a foreword by Tim Couzens) more copies of the book have been sold than during his lifetime – and not for the reasons Plaatje initially set out to write the book but despite this, by all accounts, once again according to Willan, Plaatje’s aim has been realised.

Who would have thought that a biography on the first published black South African author would have provided such an insight into the world of publishing? Willan’s biography is definitely worth a read – it opened many windows onto a man whose name has generally been confined to Native Life in South Africa and his reporting of the Boer siege of Mafeking in the 1899-1902 war.