|Image courtesy of Izak de Vries|
Last week I attended Lapa Uitgewers’ Skryfindaba, held in a gorgeous thatched lapa in the Pretoria botanical gardens.
Thanks to the heavy traffic from Johannesburg, and me getting lost in the botanical gardens (at least I got a scenic tour of the gardens!) I missed most of the first talk of the day, a presentation by three of Lapa’s editors giving an overview of South African fiction over the last fourteen years.
What I did hear of this talk was very interesting, though, and I also discovered something I really should have known (since it’s on their website!): that Lapa stands for Lees Afrikaans, Praat Afrikaans, and that the publishing house is owned by the ATKV (Afrikaans Taal en Kultuur Vereniging). Which explains why they only publish Afrikaans books! Their editors aren’t just passionate about books – as all editors are – but they are also devoted to growing readers, not just as markets to sell to, but in order to promote language and reading. How awesome is that?
The next speaker, editor Joanita Fourie, gave practical writing tips and advice for improving writing, including everything from creating believable characters to grammar to showing vs telling. I was amazed at how much she managed to pack into just half an hour!
|Image courtesy of Didi Potgieter|
After a short tea break, it was the turn of Izak de Vries, Lapa’s marketing guru. For me, this was the most fascinating talk of the day, and I wish I could have recorded it (or at least that I’d taken better notes!). Izak shared data and statistics on South African book sales, and revealed some interesting facts, including how the market share is split between internationally published and locally published books. Izak also looked at new forms of media, at the new digital world we live in, at South African publishing trends, and how publishing house budgets are shrinking. According to Izak, readers are getting younger, and the “Afrikaans market is younger than everyone thinks”.
It was also interesting to note that while everything appears to be ‘doom and gloom’ in the South African book market, Lapa has managed to actually grow its profits!
Izak ended his talk emphasizing that authors need to be actively involved in marketing themselves, especially digitally, and that writers can no longer sit back and leave this up to publishers – which dove-tailed perfectly into my talk.
|Romy Sommer, courtesy of Izak de Vries|
My presentation was on Building a Brand, including using social media. This was a greatly compacted version of a recent webinar I taught, and I still have no idea how I managed to fit everything into my 45 minute time slot (I probably ran way over!) They kindly let me speak in English, since my Afrikaans isn’t quite up to managing marketing and publishing terminology (and I would have taken twice as long if I’d had to mentally translate everything before opening my mouth!). The audience was encouraging and supportive, and I hope they got good value out of the talk.
We ate a delicious lunch in the pretty, treed garden, before heading back indoors for crime writer Madelein Rust’s talk on ‘Tydgees in inhoud van boeke’ – i.e. ensuring that our books reflect the zeitgeist of their times, whether we write historical, contemporary or futuristic. Her talk included psychology, literary examples, and ended with a fun exercise that got everyone writing – and laughing!
The last session of the day was a panel discussion with Izak, a couple of Lapa’s editors, and author Sophia Kapp. This lively debate got everyone involved, and I was impressed at how open and forward-thinking the conversation was, and how the authors weren't afraid to ask really hard questions. The main topics discussed included diversity in our books, the erotica market, and how to develop new markets.
A few of my favourite quotes from this discussion included (please excuse that I’ve translated them into English – any mistakes are all my own):
- Izak de Vries: You won’t get new readers in if you don’t write for new readers.”
- Sophia Kapp: “There is a concept that a book written by a white writer is written only for a white audience” – which led to a interesting discussion on cultural appropriation.
- Izak de Vries: “We are all immigrants in this new digital world.”
- Sophia Kapp: “Don’t get sucked into thinking the stereotypes in your head are the way everyone is.”
- Cecilia Britz: “Erotica is very misunderstood. It is often lumped together, but actually covers a very wide spectrum.”
- Following on from this, Izak said “There is a very big market for [erotic romance] but it must be done well.”
|Didi Potgieter and Romy Sommer|
After the panel discussion, we headed outdoors for a glass of wine and the opportunity to network with other authors. The writers present reflected a mix of genres but with a heavy emphasis on romance. For me, this was the best part of the day, meeting and getting to know other writers. As always when I meet with other romance writers, I felt uplifted and proud to be among them. These are savvy, intelligent professional women, willing to learn and share, and always friendly and welcoming. Even if I didn’t love romance novels, I’d probably just write in this genre to be surrounded by writers like these!
The day ended with an event to celebrate the career of Lapa’s retiring editorial director Cecilia Britz. First up was a short talk by Olinka Nell, chief buyer at Exclusive Books, who explained how the retail chain works and also how their market demographics are changing.
|Cecilia Britz, courtesy of Izak de Vries|
Lapa editor Charlene Hougaard then introduced Cecilia Britz. This talk, and the chance I had to chat with Cecilia afterwards, inspired me more than anything else on this entire day. As I shared on social media afterwards, when I grow up, I want to be Cecilia. She is a tour-de-force, a woman whose passion and determination and vocal support of the romance genre has left a huge imprint on South African publishing. She has worked hard to overcome the stereotyping of the genre, and I believe it is thanks to her drive that Lapa is as successful as it is. This is a publishing house that has embraced Romance, not as its guilty secret, but as a reason for pride.
I’ll admit that I tend to think of South African publishers as stuck in the dark ages, but Lapa Uitgewers impressed me with how forward-thinking they are, how committed they are to books and storytelling, and best of all, with their willingness to raise eyebrows and push boundaries. This event, and the people I met, gave me hope for the future of South African publishing.