The Trials of a Small South African Publisher

In News by Dennis Abrams

Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books discusses the challenges of running a independent women’s press that publishes the work of southern African women writers.

By Colleen Higgs

I was asked on Twitter today where the publishing company I founded, Modjaji, got her name. I knew I’d written about it somewhere, so quickly tweeted a response and then went in search of the place I’d written the whole story down. Well it seems I haven’t done that. But I had written many a blog post in the early days when I only had one or two or three books. Now I scarcely have time to “eat, breathe or pray” but am still working away. Would I do it all again? Yes. Do I still see things the same way as I did then? No.

Colleen Higgs

Colleen Higgs

Here is Chapter One of “A true history of the trials and endeavours of a small publisher.” I may never write Chapter Two.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, a woman decided to start her own publishing company. She wondered what to call it.

“One day as I was driving home in the traffic, the name Modjaji popped into my heart and didn’t leave. I knew that this had to be the name of the imprint. It also made a lot of sense to me, because as a child growing up in Lesotho, my Sotho name was Pulani, daughter of the rain. The theme of rain, rain queen, tears, fertility, growth, new life, rain-maker – all of this seems to be associated with Modjaji. The name came to me after I had already decided to publish Megan’s book and Azila Reisenberger’s book Life in Translation.

Since then Modjaji has taken on a life of her own, I feel her presence with me all the time, tugging at my arm, breathing down my neck, and it is slightly disturbing. She seems to want to fly before she can walk. Like my own daughter Kate, she is determined and in a hurry, impatient, and she has very clear ideas of where she is going and what she wants, and I find myself listening breathlessly and feeling both thrilled and daunted.”

At the beginning of the life of Modjaji Books the publisher was a little starry-eyed, to put it mildy:

“Modjaji Books is gestating her second child. Life in Translation by Azila Talit Reisenberger is almost due to go to the printer and I feel a bit like I’m eight month’s pregnant. Making the book and getting it to this stage makes me think about how publishing is also a work of translation. Translating from imagination to real, realising a book from a sheaf of poems, a novel from a word document that needs work, a pile of pages, some random thoughts and jottings and dreams.

Publishing is a work of miracles and wonder. In an ordinary way, the way that being a mother, a midwife, an airline pilot is working small miracles or big ones that we have just gotten used to. Publishing is a collaborative translation. For me it offers a rush like no other. Giving a local habitation and a name to aery nothings… “

She went about her business in a most unorthodox fashion and what’s more she told the world about it as she did it too!

“Life in Translation went to the printer, quite a relief, that last bit is sort of exhausting and you have to keep on being meticulous even though you would love to stop. Work as a small publisher never stops.

Even things that used to be just for fun are now work. Like browsing in a bookstore. As you will see. The line between life and work is totally blurred.

The other thing is — I don’t see Megan Hall’s Fourth Child in any of the Cape Town book stores that I have been to in the past couple of weeks. So all you readers who care about small/independent publishing/ poetry/ or who don’t mind being a pain in the ass (am I allowed to use words like that on the blog – Ben?) — do me and Megan and small publishing in SA a favour and ask for it, even if you have got a copy and if you don’t – go into your local bookstore and order a copy. Blue Weaver is Modjaji’s distributor, but it seems to me they need a bit of help?

Oh and if there is anyone who would like to review Fourth Child for any particular publication, let me know and I will send you a copy. No chancers please…

And BTW – there is an interesting looking new literary magazine out – have you seen a copy? I got mine at the new Waterfront Wordsworths this evening – the magazine is called Wordsetc. They have a special on subscriptions. Check it out. I heard about it because I am on the Boekehuis mailing list, even though I don’t live in Joburg. It always seems that they have wonderful bookish events on there.

One more unrelated thing – well not entirely unrelated. Richard I bought your book to read on holiday. Your blog posts have intrigued me, so I read up on the book and it looks interesting. I will let you know how I find it, if you like.”

These early blog posts give a charming sense of how the publisher got on with things.

“Creda delivered the books today, almost a week before the launch. I am thrilled with the book and thrilled that I won’t be greying unnecessarily or grinding my teeth as I panic about whether or not it will be here in time for the launch. I don’t know if large publishers worry about these sorts of things. Maybe there is a designated person to worry – maybe everyone worries. But when you are a small publisher, you are all the people who can worry, except for the writer, and the writer’s nearest and dearest. Although maybe one doesn’t let on to the writers that there is something to worry about.

Azila or Tzili as she is known to those who have the good fortune of knowing her, likes the book, the physical object, so does her family. Another sigh of relief.

It’s strange how there are many books in the one book that we all think we are referring to — there is the book – the concept, the book – manuscript or content, the book – the proofs, the book – the actual, real, physical book and probably many others too? As the publisher – one of the things you try to get right – the real physical book – and then there are always things – if you could have just seen it as a physical book – you might have changed something. But by then it is too late, for this edition at least. So you gotta love the one you are with… as it were. You have to accept that it is a “good enough” book.

The cover looks wonderful – thanks to Hannah Morris – cover artist extraordinaire! Wait till you see it.

The content is excellent, pruned, carefully chosen, polished, shining.
So I have a number of boxes in the front entrance to my home. (Note to myself – need to work on warehousing.) It is wonderfully comforting though to keep passing the boxes and peeking inside. Yes – there they are.”

Does this publisher stay so perky and cheerful?

“How is this for a small publisher’s hoop? You have to be an exhibitor at the Cape Town Book Fair in order to run an event, like the one I want to do for Tracey Farren’s new book – Whiplash – which is the main thing I want to do at the book fair.

I thought Modjaji Books could just be a Trade Visitor for her first Book Fair. No, you have to be an exhibitor, if you want to host an event in a room. So I register for the Small Publishers’ Pavilion – which wasn’t cheap – over R5000. Not available, has been cancelled due to lack of interest.

The best possible option is to do the regular small stand 4m-squared, which costs over R10000.00 – or find someone(s) to share with. Every time I think I have the problem solved, I find that no, not yet, and the deadline is 29th Feb, maybe I should have titled this piece leaping through hoops…

Not easy to get a foot in the door of the CT Book Fair as a real player unless you have big bucks.

The Centre for the Book will be part of the National Library stand and from what I gather it won’t be hosting small publishers at its stand, like we did last year. So are small publishers out in the cold or what?

Any suggestions?”

The next chapter will follow shortly. Don’t hold your breath though, usually the publisher in question is staggering around with way too much on her plate, attempting to herd cats.


Modjaji Books is an independent women’s press that publishes the work of southern African women writers. Fiction – novels and short stories & everything in between. Poetry. Non-fiction. Reference works. Contact Mondjaji Books on Twitter at @modjaji_bks; at Facebook here, and at their website here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.