Making Rain by Colleen Higgs
From the current issue of Wordsetc, “Women & Words”. Watch for a new issue coming soon!
Writer: Colleen Higgs
Modjaji Books is a love child, a rain queen, an opportunity, a passport, a small yet significant space. For years I’ve longed to be my own boss, to choose to do what pleases me. As a mother I longed to work more flexibly. I ran the Community Publishing Project at the Centre for the Book for seven years. I learnt a great deal about publishing from encouraging over thirty writers to publish their own work. I saw many opportunities to do all kinds of things that are beneath the radar of mainstream publishers, because the bottom-line may not be your only motivation for publishing a particular book. I also saw that there were ways of counting on networking, friendship circles, good will and inspiration to work differently.
I liked the idea of being a rain-maker for women writers. I grew up in Lesotho, and as a child my Sesotho name was Pulani, daughter of the rain. When the name Modjaji came to me as the name for my publishing company, it felt right, I liked the idea of having graduated from “daughter of the rain” to “rain queen”, or at least to being the hand maiden or lady-in-waiting to the Rain Queen. Modjaji is an entity separate to me, someone/something I work for, serve even. She is imperious, demanding and has very strong ideas. Yet she is a fabulous boss, and thrilling to work for.
Currently, one of her convictions is that she wants only to publish the writing of women. She is interested in lived experience, the body, desire, grief, improvising, healing; she loves medicinal stories. She is fascinated by childhood, mothering, sexuality of all types, skin. She wants to know more about sleep, dreams, stitching together a handmade life. She wants to read about having babies, losing babies, longing for children, but not being able to have them. Intimacy, relationships, marriage and everyday ordinary life fascinate her. The failure of relationships, divorce, insanity, ageing, bodies, how we feel about our bodies. Sisters. Fathers. Lovers. Mothers. Friendship. Juggling work and motherhood. Breast-feeding, sleep, food and eating, nurturing, creativity. All of this she wants to know more about.
Whiplash, by Tracey Farren, came to Modjaji when I was not quite ready for it, but I read it with a pounding heart and goosebumps. I couldn’t believe this book had come our way. I have seldom read a South African book that I have loved so much, been so moved by. The voice, the tone that Farren uses is spot-on. She tells a terrible story with enormous heart and conviction. Whiplash speaks to us from the trenches of sex work, and it offers us hope and the possibility of change. In its first month of publication it has been selected as Book of the Month for the Women24.com Book Club. I am not sure if this will translate into sales, but for me it is a good omen.
I have a lot to learn. I love the thrill of publishing, of making a book out of a manuscript. There is a thrill in all the decisions you have to take when making a book. Choosing the font, who will do the typesetting, the cover, the kind of paper, the thickness of the cover, the editing. For me – first I have to see the book, be captured by it, imagine it. Then publishing becomes a work of transformation, turning the manuscript into a particular book. Publishing involves team-work, motivation, conflict resolution, marketing, and the creativity of getting it all to work together. It is a way of making dreams come true.
From the start, Modjaji has had enormous goodwill and enthusiasm showered on her. We have received lots of help and encouragement. Of course in publishing there are also many difficulties. There are so many places where things can go wrong. I could write several pages about the challenges. In short: binding, paper, thread-sewing, perfect binding, centring the text, trimming, timing, distribution, convincing booksellers, publicity, reaching readers, cash flow.
There is an element of gambling in publishing, you have to decide on the print run. Which is another way of saying – how much money shall I put on this particular horse? New technologies such as digital printing allow one to make different choices and test the market. I love litho printing. If you print too few copies – you have to reprint, and the whole project becomes more expensive. Print too many – you’ve wasted money and your garage, office or bedroom are full of boxes of books that sit and sit.
It’s demanding if one person performs all or most of the roles involved in publishing. Freelancers can do some of the work, but they need to be managed. I have been commissioning manuscripts and dealing with possible authors, managing production, managing marketing, dealing with current authors, answering numerous queries, writing articles and press releases, book-selling – at the Cape Town Book Fair, event management in organising launches, talks, readings and arranging exhibits at book fairs and festivals; entering books for prizes, blogging, and maintaining a Facebook group.
From the outside, it may seem glamorous to be a publisher but there are lots of things I’ve found myself doing that are far from glamorous – shlepping boxes to and from my car, carrying boxes of wine, crates of glasses to launches. My front hall, my car boot, my office are piled with boxes. Sometimes I feel like a smous – trying to sell snake oil, but not. I juggle authors, designers, cover artist, distributor, book stores. I have to think about how to get the author involved in marketing to increase sales – organise talks, readings, launches. I deal with journalists, media people, PR experts. Every time I go into a book shop or open a newspaper or magazine, I’m doing market research.
I have started small, and already there are over forty manuscripts in the slush pile. I get this panicky feeling watching the flood of unsolicited manuscripts arrive in my post box, on my desk – how will I manage them all? I have four more books I have committed to publishing and beyond that I need to make decisions. I want to proceed from feeling, intuition, what interests me, works for me. I also want to work with writers who interest me. The beauty of a small press is that all of this is possible. I see myself and Modjaji Books as activist publishing, which doesn’t necessarily need a huge market, Modjaji’s titles can be exploratory.
I want to find new and interesting voices, works that experiment with form, that venture into dangerous terrain, subjects that may not seem publishable by bigger, more market-driven publishers. Modjaji wants counter the prevailing position of “books as commodities, reading as consumption”. Publishing is an arena that directly contributes to the shaping of culture, changing minds, offering new ways of being in the world. It is not just a business, although it can be.
For now Modjaji will publish short stories, memoir, novels, plays, poetry, creative non-fiction. She may soon publish chapter books for older children. Later on if it becomes viable picture-book publishing may be possible.
I think it is important for each book to be beautiful as an object. The cover art and lettering of the first three Modjaji books was by Hannah Morris, a talented artist and illustrator. Each book has its own distinctive look and feel. I want to spend a bit more effort (money) than is sometimes common on editing. As a writer myself, I want the writers who are published by Modjaji to participate in the experience as important partners, and to find the whole enterprise enriching and rewarding in all sorts of ways.
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