"Book Publishing in Zimbabwe: An Interview with Irene Staunton"
Mosi Oa Tunya Literary Review had the recent pleasure of chatting with Irene Staunton, a true pioneer and trendsetter in publishing both fiction and nonfiction in Zimbabwe. Irene began her work in publishing in the 70s in London. Since returning to Zimbabwe in the 80s, she co-established Baobab Books, and later co-founded Weaver Press Zimbabwe.
TM: Tendai Machingaidze IS: Irene Staunton
TM: What inspired you to start Weaver Press Zimbabwe? What challenges did you face opening a publishing company in Zimbabwe in 1998? What successes have you had over the years?
IS: My husband, Murray McCartney, and I began Weaver Press in 1998. He had been made redundant from CUSO, a Canadian development agency and was doing consultancy work; and I had left Baobab Books where I had been working since it was founded in 1988. I am not sure that we were ‘inspired’ to begin the press; we looked at our skills set, thought we might prefer to be self-employed, and publishing seemed a sensible possibility. We began, moreover, where Baobab had more or less left off – publishing good Zimbabwean fiction, as well as developing a non-fiction list with an emphasis on history, politics, the environment, gender and law.
There are many myths around the publishing industry, one of which is that it is a money-spinner. I think this may have resulted from the fact that this was true for textbook publishers in the eighties and early nineties. During that period there was a lot of optimism, a lot of donor support, and 44 per cent of the government’s budget went to education (today it is only 6 per cent). Although the bulk of this money went to salaries and administration, a small proportion – ‘the book grant’ – was intended for schools to purchase books. As you will recall, it was also a period of school expansion, so the publishing industry flourished, and all the textbook publishers – Longman, College Press, Zimbabwe Publishing House, Academic Books – also occasionally invested in fiction. During this dynamic period, there was also a wonderful international book fair attended by publishers from all over Africa, Europe, the UK, the US and the Caribbean. Our best writers were celebrated at home and often gained an international reputation.
By 1998, things had begun to change, but none of us knew by quite how much. Had we known how the economy was going to decline, or how fast inflation would gallop away in the mid-2000s, perhaps there would have been no Weaver Press. As it is, we’re still here in 2021, and perhaps that’s an achievement. And we have published books that have meant a lot to us, and hopefully, over the years, to others.
TM: Please comment on the state of book publishing in Zimbabwe today. What challenges do Weaver Press Zimbabwe and other publishing companies in Africa face today? What is the way forward?
IS: While I am sure that some of the challenges faced by African publishers have similarities, I can't really comment on the state of publishing in Africa as a whole: it is such a vast and diverse continent.
In comparison to the first two post-independence decades, publishing, the idea of publishing, and the book chain (publisher, bookseller, reader) has undergone a sea-change, not only in Zimbabwe, but throughout the world. Part of this is due to technological development with computerisation, print on demand, and the internet, all of which have had a direct effect on what and how people read and publish.
In addition, I think it is arguable that the reading culture in Zimbabwe has never received the development and encouragement that was perhaps needed if it was to develop and flourish. Most libraries, for example, have barely received a book purchasing grant for decades. They are used as homework centres, rather than as places to go and choose books to read for pleasure. (Yet some of our best writers often remark on how they loved and used their local library when they were children growing up in the seventies and early eighties.) Few schools have a free-reading period; few schools (other than the private schools) have libraries that are not locked in the headmaster’s office. Books that are selected for prescribed reading are not very often ones that students can relate to with pleasure and understanding. Of course, I appreciate the value of challenging students to read certain seminal texts, but this should perhaps be balanced by fiction that stirs them to want to turn the next page. Moreover, when exams are so central to furthering one’s education and future, ‘reading fiction’ as one A-level student told us, ‘is a waste of time’. And lastly, of course, when only a minority in the country have well-paying jobs, books are a luxury that few can afford, or even want to afford: access to Youtube, WhatsApp, etc. are perceived as more engaging, require less effort and cost nothing at all.
Marketing today also plays a hugely important role in selling books, and this is true all over the world. Publishers invest heavily in this and authors have to work hard on book tours, at festivals and other literary events to help promote and sell their books. Many of Zimbabwe’s best authors are now published first in South Africa or the West. This is partly because there is a much bigger market, much better marketing, and therefore the publishers can offer much bigger and better advances.
Would Weaver have done better if it had been able to afford more marketing and promotion? Possibly, but this is another discussion.
Another factor that has affected the book industry in Zimbabwe over the last two decades is self-publishing, which is now so easy. Personally, I am an advocate. If someone believes that the book they have written is good and worth publishing, why not? Today, with print on demand, they need to print only ten copies at a time, and if the development costs are small, many young writers can afford to invest in their own work.
Finally photocopying has become rampant in Zimbabwe. Most people do not see this as a crime but as a human right driven by economic necessity, and I can understand that, but it is driving publishers up the wall. Publishers need a market in order to be able to invest in new titles, and when the market disappears, publishing does too.
TM: Weaver Press Zimbabwe has been notable for its unwavering support of Zimbabwean authors over the years. Why is local publishing of indigenous voices so important to you?
IS: I think I have said this so often that it is in danger of becoming something of a personal cliché: for me, good fiction is a form of truth-telling, it allows the writer and the reader to explore the complexities and ambiguities of the world, its suffering and its joys. Thus I think Zimbabwean fiction over the last forty years has woven an intricate tapestry made up of its multiple histories which together form a larger truth. Fiction is an art which provides us all with different ways of seeing, knowing and exploring, and of discovering ourselves while being taken to worlds – be they emotional, psychological, historic or geographic – that we might not otherwise visit. It also provides a platform where issues can be debated and discussed, a forum where we may know ourselves better. And, at least in my opinion, good fiction offers us a way to become a more understanding, more caring and part of a more compassionate society.
TM: What advice would you give to aspiring African authors seeking to get their work published on the African continent?
IS: First, read. Read as widely and deeply as you can. You cannot know how good or not your own novel might be if you have never read more than half a dozen novels in your life. Good writing is ruthlessly honest. In other words, it is not sentimental, evasive, didactic or pontificating. It tells a story from the point of view of the character(s), not from the point of view of the author. So, to be a good writer, you must be able to step beyond your own ego, and into the life and feelings of someone quite other in, and this requires empathy, imagination, and the stillness of quiet concentration.
Books have been written for more than two thousand years. Ask yourself what you are saying in your book that has not been said before? How are you providing a different, fresh viewpoint?
And, in conclusion, don’t think of publishers as printers who will freely cover all the publishing costs in order to make you successful. Think rather of them as partners in an often challenging and risky enterprise, and remember that every publisher has an identity. Who they are depends on what they publish. Look at their list, read some of the titles. If you are writing a detective novel, find out who is publishing detective novels.
Moreover, as I said above, publishers must sell books in order to publish new work. The back list should support the front list. But when very few people buy books, publishing itself is endangered.
Find out more about Weaver Press Zimbabwe at https://weaverpresszimbabwe.com/