How to conduct an author interview or moderate a panel at a book festival

We’ve all seen this particular train-wreck – a badly moderated panel at a book fair, or an author interview that goes pear-shaped. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is the airy assumption that all authors and academics know how to do both. Ahem. NO.

Frankly, the best people by far for performing these surprisingly tricky tasks are professionals, especially journalists with radio/podcast miles under their belts. In other words, people who ask questions and draw people out for a living. When they love books as well, and make themselves available for book launches and literary festivals, we all heave a sigh of relief.

But what about the rest of us mortals who are asked to perform these tasks from time to time? Recently, a lovely and generous friend, herself a published author, had to do her first book launch where she would be doing the author interview, rather than sitting in the hot seat herself. Wanting to put her best foot forward, she wrote to ask advice, and thanks to her, this blog began brewing.

For starters, never assume that because someone’s words sparkle on the page, they’ll be equally entertaining in real life. Some authors are hermits, some freeze or fall apart in front of audiences, some are just plain difficult (fortunately, these are rare). Some of the funniest writers I know are absolutely wooden when asked to speak off the cuff. So never think that your author/s will do the heavy lifting, and all you’ll have to do is sit there and supply the occasional prompt. You have work to do. 

The Golden Rules


You have a little more leeway if it’s a panel on a more general bookish topic, but the rule is that you are there to showcase the author and their book, with the focus on their most recent book (or play, or column, etc).

This means it is a grievous sin to bang on about YOUR books. This is especially the case if you have a full panel (three or more people) and some of them have come a long way to be present. I have never forgiven a moderator who took up more than half the panel time talking about himself and his work when his panel consisted of a Caribbean author who would almost certainly never be in South Africa again, my favourite Ugandan writer, and a much-loved local author who rarely appeared in public. I came to hear THEM, not you, I raged inwardly. Do not induce similar rage in your audience.

Start by introducing yourself briefly, so that the audience knows what makes you qualified to speak. Here you are allowed to say “I’m a Joburg-based author raised in Zambia, I have published four novels – a thriller and three romances – and a travel book, and my latest book, published by X, is XXXXXX.” But that’s it. Now introduce your authors at greater length, all upfront. Speak for at least two minutes on each one, if it’s a panel; a little longer if it’s a single author. Ask them to send you a recent bio ahead of time, but this won’t replace research, which you must still do.

Academics, this is especially for you, and I speak as a recovering academic and battle-scarred veteran of many academic conferences, seminars, and workshops. In your usual environment, you are expected to “perform” your expertise, your knowledge of your topic AND the tools – analytical frameworks, discourses and theories – you use to process and present that knowledge. But this is NOT a graduate seminar, and these are not your students or colleagues. When moderating a book panel, you need to switch to an entirely different mode. Heed the golden rule of the book industry: the most important element in the room is the AUDIENCE, i.e., the readers. What you say needs to be appropriate for and accessible to them. If yours is a contentious or nuanced view, this is a wonderful opportunity to put it across with clarity and conviction rather than burying it in your flair for trendy discourse. But even then, let’s go back to our mantra: THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU. Most of the audience is present because of their interest in the speakers/authors. Get them to make the interesting points and arguments. Take a whirl on Google to see how professionals extract this kind of response from people.

2) Do your homework.

This may seem obvious, but hands up all those who have attended an author interview or book panel where it was clear that the interviewer hadn’t read the book, or had read only the blurb and maybe flipped a few pages. (Okay, you can put your hands down now.) This is unfair to everyone: authors, publishers and organisers alike. Remember the television interviewer who infamously said, “Let’s talk about your book. I haven’t read it, of course, because it’s a very big book.” If you don’t have time to read the book, politely decline to do the interview.

You not only have to read the book/s ahead of time, you need to research the author, and at least take note of their other works. (Ultimate clanger: “So, this is your first novel?” Author: “No. My fifth.”) Google is your friend. See if you can find fun bookish details or interesting biographical details. If there are any audio or visual clips, watch them to get a sense of how your author speaks. I did a book launch with the same lovely person mentioned above, and discovered she’d been a professional violinist. I was a distinctly unprofessional violinist in my youth, but it gave me a great lead-in, asking how being a musician helped her as an author, which segued beautifully into “It teaches you to apply bum to chair for hours at a time. Also: practice, practice, practice.”

3) Understand your role. 

You are not present as a critic. You are there, to be frank, to market books. It is no good being squeamish about this: if you agree to interview an author at their launch or moderate a book panel at a book fair, you are agreeing to help sell something, and heaven knows, we need people to buy books, especially local ones. Alongside this, you are there to entertain/enlighten an audience, whose members have often paid money to be present. Your job is to showcase the author and to brag a little bit on their behalf. 

However, while you should always be pleasant and upbeat, don’t be sycophantic. Generalisations like “This book is amaaaaaazing” or “this is the best book ever” will just make everyone feel faintly embarrassed. If you’re asked to speak about a book you consider to be weak or poorly written, this is NOT an opportunity to get out there with a hatchet. Just say no. (Unless the author is rich, powerful and famous, and has churned out a sloppy book -- but I still recommend politely declining to do the interview.) Beware of chairing a panel with both strong and bad/inexperienced writers; if you have a good relationship with the organisers, be frank about your qualms, and see if they can’t line up a more balanced panel. You do not want to preside over a bloodbath or (IMO, worse) a session in which everyone patronises the bad writer.

4) Don’t exclude the audience.

At launches especially, beware of going into a bubble where you and the author (who are both deeply familiar with the book) chat about details the audience – most of whom haven’t read the book yet – can’t relate to. This can be quite tricky: you don’t want the audience to feel left out, and at the same time you have to avoid spoilers.

So ask questions about things like the writing style, characters, pacing, politics, the immediate context of the book – how and why it is important now? What current concerns does it speak to? For every broad question, ask something more intimate: “You have three children under the age of six and a large dog. How did you find the time to write your book?” 

Remember to keep including the audience. Look out at them, make eye contact, and keep telling them how much they will enjoy X aspects of the book. I like to include them in a rhetorical question or address a piece of interesting information to them every third question. Or say something like “I have a question about X – but I should explain, for the benefit of all your readers here – that this interests me because...”

5) Ask the right questions.

Never ask questions to which the author can simply reply “yes” or “no” (see monosyllabic authors below). This is death, especially to single-author interviews. If your author is shy, try the overlap technique; when they say something, reflect it back to them and see if you can get them to take it a bit further.

By all means find nice things to say about the book (see 3 above), but make them specific and concrete, and see if you can lead them into questions: “I love the way you write about gardens and growing things in your novel – it’s so earthy. Do you like to garden yourself, or did you do a lot of research?” Encourage short anecdotes – these make everything more relatable.

I like to ask a few focused questions about concrete things, then invite the author to say something discursive: “explain the writing process you followed”. The idea is to coax them into chatting freely. Keep repeating this pattern until you run dry or the audience looks restive. 

Always come with more questions than you’ll need, even if you end up asking only half of them. It’s fine to bring a back-up list of questions, if you’re not getting good mileage out of the ones you think are important; sometimes the answers to those will be dry or predictable. Go off the beaten track, if necessary.

One way to end a panel or interview is to ask the author to read a passage; it’s a good idea to pick one or two juicy ones for them. Mark these clearly in your copy and hand them to the author, rather than asking them to start thumbing through their book. Another trend I’m enjoying is the practice, at book launches, of employing or asking a professional actor to read extracts, especially at the start of an event. 


Herding cats (specifically for panel moderators)

Make sure everyone gets more-or-less equal airtime. This is hard if you have great chatterers on panels alongside those who are agonisingly shy. This aspect of moderating is like being a good dinner-party host. Chip in pleasantly but firmly: “That’s really interesting, but I’d like to hear what Janet has to say about this.” Watch out for pernicious political habits: the famous, the privileged, politicians, and academics can be bad about hogging the limelight, and although it’s rare, some folks are guilty of appalling panel etiquette. These are my absolute no-nos: murmuring asides to others while another panelist is speaking, especially if you are a famous older white man and the person speaking is a nervous woman doing her first ever panel (you can tell I’ve seen this happen); mansplaining/ whitesplaining/ whataboutery; public drunkeness (yup, seen this, too). Be firm, fair and funny. Humour can salvage a lot of potential disasters. Don’t permit bad behaviour, but allow everyone to save face, too, so no public scolding unless you’re faced with egregious racism/ sexism/ homophobia. Try a comment to all the panelists along the lines of “Well, this is escalating rather fast, and I think the audience would like us to get back to the topic/ the book/ the question, and we can save the more intense discussion for afterwards when we all have more time.” For disrupters, try “It’s clear you have something to say, but I’d like Neo to finish answering her question, if you don’t mind.” If they persist: “I can see you’re bursting to say something, but I’d really like you to let Neo finish speaking.” With luck, Neo will have smacked the interrupter in the chops by now, saving you the trouble, but practice your lines just in case. Use body language: I find people often respond to hand gestures (and not just the smacking kind).

Good time management is essential: keep a time-piece on the table, and make sure everyone knows where they are time-wise. “We have ten minutes left, so I’ll ask everyone to answer one more question...” Sometimes I like to chime in “We’re already halfway through our time-slot, and there’s so much still to say!” Slip panelists notes (FIVE MINS LEFT) if necessary. 

Exactly the same goes for taking questions from the floor: take charge before these start by saying “I’ll ask you to keep your questions short, so everyone gets a chance to speak.” I am brutal about chipping in when an audience member is in full monologue mode: “Is there a question there? Because I see a lot of other hands, and we’re almost out of time.”

On this note: if there are roving mikes, this is because the organisers know they are needed. Don’t let an audience member speak until they have one in their hand. A question almost no one can hear is a waste of everyone’s time. If there are no roving mikes, always repeat the question that’s just been asked (reason #574 long monologues from the floor are not a good idea) for everyone to hear.

The short version of the above: use common sense, and insist on common courtesy. In fact, never mind professionals, I sometimes think kindergarten teachers would make the best panel moderators.

Author/crisis management

Although these scenarios are rare, I’ve had to manage all them at least once.

* Author breaks down in tears. Solution: do NOT get embarrassed or awkward: say something like “I get tearful when I talk about that too; it’s a perfectly normal response.” Then pass them water and/or a tissue, and speak directly to the audience in very calm tones about the topic in general terms until your author has recovered enough to go on.

* Author reads utterly inappropriate passage. Solution: cough loudly and say “I’m afraid I’m going to interrupt you right there because there are small children in the audience, but this is an example of the visceral truth-telling you can expect from this writer, and I encourage you all to buy the book to find out what happens next.” 

* Author babbles at machine-gun speed. Solution: be very zen, and speak more slowly yourself – it slows them down. Be prepared to repeat things to the audience. “So what I just heard you say was...”

* Author is inept with mike. It’s a good idea to check that everyone’s mike is working, and that they are comfortable using them before you start – at a professionally organised event, someone will do this for you. Unless you are in a tiny room in a quiet environment, the correct answer to “Do I have to use this mike?” is always “YES”.

* Author responds to questions in monosyllables only. Solution: prayer. I generally abandon hope and read the audience all the liveliest extracts from their book. 

* Author launches into frothing rant. Solution: wait for them to snatch a breath, then jump in to say, “That’s fascinating! Moving along, my next question is...” Unless the rant genuinely IS fascinating, in which case, sit back and enjoy the show.

* Author is a politician – i.e., they refuse to answer your questions, but keep repeating what they want to say. (I am indebted to Fred Khumalo for this definition.) Not sure there is a solution, although sometimes this stems from the author being over-prepared or messianic. Keep saying, “Yes, but I’d really like to know...” until one of you cracks.

One last thing about preparation and crisis management: sometimes a book, an interview or a panel deals with a difficult and upsetting topic. People will often attend because they are battling with that issue and need help and support. But remember that a book fair is not a safe or professional space for dealing with trauma, and authors and panelists are rarely trained counsellors. Yet attenders will often want to speak to them about their particular demons. If you are dealing with topics like trauma, addiction, depression, suicide, dementia and so on, explain right at the start that the issue could be upsetting or triggering, and then supply the appropriate hotline numbers and web resources. I’ve done several panels on sexual violence, and I insist everyone get out their phones and enter the number and link to Rape Crisis before the discussion gets under way. I then add that authors are NOT counsellors, but that there is help for anyone who feels unsafe or distressed via the resources I’ve just provided.

Most of what I’ve said here is summed up far more elegantly and succintly by Michele Magwood, herself a superb moderator and interviewer: “As someone who does a quite a bit of interviewing, both at festivals and for print and podcasts, I feel my aim is simple: to make the author/s shine. In order to do this, one reads the book (and ideally any others they have written). Don't laugh -- there are many interviewers who just read the blurb. Then you read and watch as many interviews with them as you can to see what makes them come alive, and what bores them. You read about their lives, their influences. And then when you have them in front of you you talk about the story, about technique, their preoccupations, their inspirations, about their world view, all those things that will interest the audience and hopefully make them buy the book. At book festivals we, the interviewers/moderators/chairs are not critics. We are there to amplify the books and their authors. To make them shine. It's not about us.”

Don’t be alarmed by any of the above. The truth is that 90% of authors and panelists and book industry people are professionals, and will deliver the goods. Many of them are delightful people. A successful panel discussion or interview is an exhilarating experience, and can lead to long-term friendships. Enjoy.

PS: It may seem obvious, but always thank the audience for coming. The worst book events are those where no one pitches up. Be properly grateful when they do.

Nick Mulgrew
Women's Day 2016: This year, I wrote a book, not a rant

I was dreading Women's Day -- hell, the whole month -- this year. Here we were, the 60th anniversary of the historic women's march on the Union Buildings barrelling down on us, and almost every single thing about the status and treatment of South African women that's had me frothing at the mouth for decades is so firmly entrenched, it feels like it's been set in concrete.

Right now I'm out the country, which has been an effective way of dodging the usual infuriating, patronising, tone-deaf, saccharine, sexist, and generally asinine things that government, media and corporations do and say at this time of year. In case you aren't quite sure what I'm referring to, see Rebecca Davis's savage pink list here.

But for the first time in a long time, I feel a little wriggle of hope. Why? Because even on another continent, it's been impossible to miss news of the protest by four women who stood before Number One as he tried to heh-heh his way through a post-election debriefing, holding up placards commemorating one of the lowest points in South's Africa's then adolescent democracy: the Zuma rape trial and acquittal, which openly endorsed and entrenched South Africa's particularly noxious brand of rape culture. Their strategy was brilliant -- four young women in elegant black dresses stepped to the front of the auditorium and stood between the president and his audience in silence, their backs to him, literally replacing his words with the ones written on their placards.

Millions must share my relief at knowing that Khwezi, the name given to the Zuma rape accuser, has not been forgotten, that young South Africans recognise the price she paid (nothing less than exile), that the unashamedly sexist, irresponsible and dangerous.behaviour modelled by a man then about to seize leadership of the country has not been swept under the carpet. For an excellent commentary on the significance of their actions, read the unfailingly reliable Sisonke Msimang. If this is the calibre of young activists today, then we can breathe a little easier.

And there have been other glimmers. Prof Pumla Dineo Gqola wrote an electrifyingly good book on rape in South Africa -- angry, articulate, breathless with momentum and bristling with signposts to alternative ways of living our lives without fear. And then she won the Alan Paton award -- South Africa's most prestigious prize for non-fiction -- for it. Michelle Hattingh wrote a memoir (I'm The Girl Who Was Raped) that made for bleak reading, but spelled out clearly and without shame, the multitude of ways the criminal justice system, the medical profession, and society in general, utterly fails rape survivors. Less solution-oriented than Gqola's book, it still makes it crystal clear that our current models for dealing with sexual violence are abject failures; that as long as we deplore rape while accepting and/or encouraging rape culture, nothing will change.

I marked this 60th year since our foremothers massed into one brave cohort and marched on the citadel of apartheid by digging out my research on sexual violence for the umpteenth time, and trying to put the bits I've published into a single manuscript. This time, it actually got off to a publisher. A book doesn't have the immediacy of a rant: but there is so much to say, so much to be undone, unpicked, re-imagined, I had to give it a bash.

So, this year, take the swearing and the fury as a given. And hopefully, next year there'll be a book with constructive analysis, as a tiny token of honour and respect for South African women, and the heavy lifting they do. And as always: donate to Rape Crisis, who do the hard stuff, the life-saving work.

Nick Mulgrew
A Dashing Day: the magic of making books for children

Spend a day creating children's books, and this is what you might encounter. A platinum blonde with electric bunny ears. Two poets in Darth Vader masks duelling each other with fairy wands. A little boy in a scarlet petticoat and ladybird wings. A trio sporting fake eyebrows and moustaches. And that's just the people making the books.

At long last, I got to attend my first Book Dash day yesterday. The impetus: South African (and African) children don't see nearly enough of themselves or their stories on the pages of books -- or if they do, the books are commissioned with the education market in mind, often worthy/preachy, poorly designed and illustrated, and about as light as poured concrete. Besides, for poor families, spending money on a child's book for recreational reading is out of the question.

The brains (and great big hearts -- Arthur Attwell, Michelle Matthews, Tarryn-Anne Anderson, Julia Norrish) behind the Book Dash concept believe that it's vital for very young children to have access to books, something borne out by decades of research on early childhood development. So they make it happen through a truly genius system: they ask teams of three (writer, illustrator and designer) to give one day of their time to create a book for free. Teams are supported by editors, tech advisers and logistical crew, and provided with vast amounts of delicious food and drink.

All the books are licensed under a creative commons agreement, so that anyone can download or print out the books for non-commercial use. This means they can be translated into any language in the world -- for free. So no royalties or copyright fees.

The infrastructural costs of running a Book Dash day, at a central location (itself often donated), are met by corporate sponsors. (Yesterday's marathon was sponsored by Decorland: muchas gracias!) Fundraising campaigns aim to meet the single biggest expense -- printing. (See here for Lauren Beukes's brilliant means of raising enough money to print 50 000 books. Yes, that is the correct number of zeros.) Structures such as NPOs and educational initiatives that have the capacity to distribute the books are identified. Et voila, little children get to own their very first books.

I arrived both stressed and excited: how was I going to provide editing support to three teams for stories that still had to be written? I needn't have worried. When, for instance, I told poet and storyteller Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa that her 800-word folktale source needed to be a maximum of 120 words for this age group, and its rich assembly of characters needed to be cut to three, she sat down and knocked out a perfect story in an hour. I fell upon her neck, proposing marriage.

Maya Marshak, the artist on the team creating Katiita's Song, had flu, but still painted delicate, empathetic panels before being sent home to bed, with designer Kirsten Walker stepping into the breach and making sure we had something exquisite to present at the end of the day. Philippa composed a song that Maama sings to her little daughter, Katiita, and performed it for us, complete with growly gorilla voices, at the Show and Tell session -- this might be Book Dash's first audio-book.

I mostly just hovered appreciatively around "my" other teams: The Best Thing Ever, created by Melissa Fagan (writer), Lauren Nel (illustrator) and Stefania Origgi (designer); and Little Sock, created by Chani Coetzee (designer), Lili Probart (artist) and Jon Keevy (writer who should be doing stand-up, if he isn't already). The Best Thing Ever is about Muzi, a small boy who discovers the magic of found objects on a trip to his Gogo. I was so busy clasping my hands in delight over the charm of the story and the paintings Lauren Nel was doing, I only registered the subtle messages about the environment, imagination and transformation later. Likewise, the story of Little Sock was essentially "The Odyssey, but with a single sock" -- the kind of story that delivers both to adults and littlies. It was funny and quirky, off-the-wall and underground, and I loved it.

It's impossible to describe the atmosphere of a Dash Day. Part of the magic is that people who give this kind of time to make children's books are special. I've long known that anyone, esp in SA, who cares about and creates children's lit deserves a special place in heaven. Then there's the feeling of being in a huge adult kindergarten. State of the art tech shares space with pastels, crayons, craft paper, paints. Writers tell their tales, an artist picks up a paintbrush and an idea blooms on a page, in colour. It's lump-in-the-throat stuff, especially when writing for this particular age group (yesterday's efforts were for 3-5 year-olds). Make no mistake, it's hard writing for kids: they can't be fobbed off with cheesy, preachy or boring.

Everywhere I looked, there was something truly wonderful happening. Jacqui L'Ange wrote a story about a shongololo's disappearing shoes that had layers of wit and heart. Martha Evans, wearing an author instead of an editor hat, said of working in tandem with an illustrator and designer: "It's like that moment when you get a perfect cover -- but over and over."

The shrewdly planned catering involved an endless supply of delicious goodies, featuring masses of protein, no refined carbs or sugar until after the 3pm slump (at which chocolate was introduced into the mix). Endless tea, coffee, Red Bull (I had my first: cherry liqueur meets Iron Brew -- yuk, but what a caffeine rush), with wine broached at 5pm. The cheerleading and support staff were also amazing: special thanks to Noélle Ruby-Mae Koeries and Tarryn-Ann Anderson for cups of tea, TLC and well-timed hugs.

I'm glad Philippa spoke about the elephant in the room: the preponderance of white (and female) faces. She was disappointed, but it was partly circumstantial; seven black would-be participants couldn't make the specified date. Then there are the factors that should be obvious, but often aren't: asking people to work for free for a 15-hour day (if you include travel) takes a middle-class layer of resources, as well as ease of access to a central urban location. And in spite of being a small sector of the population, white Saffers have a dense concentration of specialist skills by definition, because of the affirmative advantages our education and access have bestowed on us. But there are plans afoot, including attracting funding so that Book Dashes happen in other African countries.

There was a moving moment when Maya showed us her painting of the character, Maama: we were exclaiming over the beauty of both the artwork and the character, when Philippa said "I'm not used to seeing my face -- a black woman's face -- rendered as a model of loveliness and goodness. We're presented with so many Western ideals of beauty that it's a pleasant shock when I see a representation of myself as someone beautiful, a heroine."

And meanwhile, the fairy-dust kept swirling in the air: I made new friends, learned new things, and bopped with two Sams -- one of whom, Sam Wilson (of Zodiac fame), helped co-create a book without words or text -- tricky, but invaluable for this age group -- and presented the book to an appreciative audience via interpretive dance. But to get a taste of the energy, colour and zing of the event, look at the photos.

To my delight and surprise, I won a prize for being Book Dash's Number One Fan. But believe me, taking part was the prize. I can't wait to do it all again.

Nick Mulgrew
Stuff that authors need to know #4: truths about marketing

This piece was commissioned by Colleen Higgs for Modadji’s Small Publishers’ Catalogue 2013. It’s a must-have resource: you can buy it online, or direct from Colleen at cdhiggs at

Dear Lovely Author,

I’ve been wanting to reply properly to the letter you sent me for such a long time. You wrote so angrily, about how you had poured all this work into your book, got it published with a reputable publisher – only to see it apparently falling into a black hole. We both know it’s a very good book: I edited it. The (only) two reviews – by careful, creditable people – were full of praise. You blame the publisher, of course; there is a long catalogue of the things you think they should have done, and which they didn’t do.

As I read your mail, I was compiling a list in my head of all the things authors should do if they want to keep their books afloat in the great sea of indifference that greets most South African and indeed African literary fiction. Or afloat at least long enough to sell enough copies to cover the publishers’ outlay.

When it comes to marketing, many authors, drunk on the smell of fresh ink, assume that the publisher will do it – or at least, take the lead. The most they will have to do is show up for panels at fun conferences wearing a jacket nicely pitched between boho and tweedy, and bearing a trendily archaic fountain-pen for signings. Oh dear oh dear.

No one ever really tells authors the truth: that in the tiny sphere that is the Southern African fiction world, marketing is something they are going to have to do themselves. The support from your publisher will vary wildly; sometimes tiny publishers are excellent about what I think of bake-sale marketing strategies (hand-selling small quantities of books at lowered prices at poetry readings, lectures, even parties, for instance). Sometimes the bigger publishers have budgets (!), and will actually throw launches, host events, print posters, pay for campaigns like Homebru and more. Sometimes it will look as if they are doing absolutely nothing (this is almost never the case, though; there is a lot of underwater paddling that the author doesn’t see – the publisher is far more anxious to capture their outlay than you are). But whatever the publishers do or don’t do will come across as erratic to you, especially if it’s your first book.

It’s a basic truth that you have to take the lead in marketing your book. See your publisher as a partner who will back you up, but understand that you’ll be the one steering the process. The old days of doing a J. D. Salinger, of retreating to a garret or a cabin in the woods while expecting your book to create if not a storm, at least a ripple – they’re gone, along with the purity of the notion that any work of art should stand or fall on its own merits.

For your book to sell, you need to be an odd mix: selfish, strategic and sincere. And let’s add another ‘s’ into the mix – for social media.

First of all, you need to be selfish in pushing your book out into the world, and persistent (without being pushy or a prima donna) in pursuing all the avenues available. Will there be an electronic version of your book, and can you get it onto e-selling platforms? Are there any literary festivals coming up? Any conferences or special interest gatherings (gay, environmental, political, sporting, hobby-related?) that you could hitch your book to? Does it qualify for any literary competitions? (Never assume that your publisher will automatically enter you for these. You might even have to pay for international postage to help things along.)

Being selfish doesn’t mean being impolite. Ask your publisher to get you onto a panel at a literary festival, or how you can help them to organise a launch. They can open doors that are closed to you. But you’ll soon learn that there are certain routes you need to take yourself; you may have a contact at a library or university department that will give you a chance to talk about your book. Always keep your publisher posted about what you manage to set up – you may need them to sell the book for you, if your friendly indie bookstore won’t (and that’s something else to cultivate – your relationship with your local bookseller, of which more later).

I believe launches are essential, but your publisher may disagree. Do remember though, that these are seldom occasions at which vast quantities of books are sold. (See here for more on how to manage a DIY launch.)

It goes without saying that if you are a misanthrope or someone who freezes on stage, you need to get over it pdq. These days, authors need to be friendly, professional, articulate and witty, and if you aren’t, start learning how. I’ve attended agonising launches where authors have had their monosyllabic answers dragged from them almost with pliers. And once I had to fill in at a book fair after an author threw a hissy fit, walking off a panel because the distributor hadn’t delivered his books. Agreed, it’s infuriating when this sort of thing happens (and it will), but just ONE tantrum, and you will never be invited to a literary festival again, and your publisher will think twice before looking at your next manuscript.

You need to be strategic about where and how you’re going to apply your energies – assuming that like most writers, you have a day job. So you need to plan around that. If you’re deskbound, then social media is your friend. Set up something – a website, a blog – that means that anyone who googles your name can instantly click on a link to buy your book. This is vital – you must make it easy for folk to buy online. No-one with an internet connection should ever have to ask “How do I get hold of your book?”

My personal take (others will disagree) is that it’s no use creating a Facebook page or Twitter account for your book – rather chat about it on your personal social media platform. But don’t spam your friends and followers – it gets annoying.

If your day job is unrelated to writing, this isn’t a bad thing. If your clients and colleagues are, say, computer programmers or party planners, that creates an entirely new potential market for your book. Obviously you shouldn’t push, but make them feel included in your publishing project. This goes for all your circles – I once had members of my flamenco class show up at one of my book launches.

And while we’re talking strategy, get creative. I’ve tried many tricks, including leaving a copy of my debut collection of poems (which deals with, among other things, infertility) in my gynaecologist’s waiting-room. By local poetry standards, it’s a bestseller (i.e., it’s actually been reprinted).

Some strategies are obvious. If you’re local, and you don’t have a Books Live microblog, I have no sympathy for your tales of marketing woe. But even here, you need to do two things: post blogs that are NOT always about your book (tell folk what you’re reading, take part in debates about local fiction) – and read and comment on the blogs of others. You may think no-one notices these, but you’d be amazed at who comes browsing by.

This leads to perhaps the most NB advice of all: one of the most underestimated and valuable marketing resources is other writers. I’ve never forgotten a conversation we had where you implied, rather aggressively, that you saw other writers simply as competition. Right then, I had a hunch that your book might not sell.

In most cases, if your book is to succeed, you need other authors. This is where the sincere bit comes in. To gain traction on the local book scene, you have to take part in it – actively and enthusiastically. I think it was Justin Fox who said that the day South African writers stopped buying each other’s books, the local market would collapse, and he has a point. Literary fiction in particular sells to a tiny niche audience in this country, and that audience largely consists of writers and intellectuals.

You need these people to come to your readings and events. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve gone to a launch, sternly telling myself I can’t afford to buy any more books – only to be won over by hearing the author read.

Writers who hear you read and like it will recommend your book to their friends. Who also have friends who read books. And their friends go to book clubs, or write book columns for newspapers, or have book blogs, or belong to social media bookchat groups, or post on Goodreads.

But how do you get the attention of this small but influential bunch? You need to get the ball rolling by going to their book launches in the first place. It’s almost a hanging offence not to go to events featuring your publisher’s other authors. Buy their books, ask them to sign them, read them, and then – this is critical – if you like them, say so. Not just to their faces, but on public platforms.

Plus, your presence at launches and your purchases will not go unnoticed by your local indie bookshop, where most such events are held. Get to know their staff. Tell them about your book, but as part of the local writing scene – who your influences are, and what audience is most likely to buy it. It’s no good saying “I’ve written this amazing book about a boy who can communicate with rhinos”. Say “I’ve written a book set in Nairobi and Joburg that has shades of magic realism, sort of like Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City, but with the same environmental concerns you see in Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness.” Then they’ll know exactly who to sell your book to.

Not only that, you never know when they might organise a festival or an event or even a protest (against rhino poaching) and say, “Hey, why don’t we get that chap who wrote X on a panel with Lauren and Zakes…”

Local writers are your colleagues and potential allies in the great swim-or-sink publishing adventure. Volunteer to read their drafts; congratulate them on their achievements; offer to write prefaces or blurbs for their books. Sign up for every short story or other anthology going, and make it known that you will jump at commissions.

Don’t stop there. Go to book fairs and festivals, attend poetry readings, take part in initiatives like Short Story Day Africa, organise local events for World Book DayLibrary WeekNaNoWriMo – the list is endless.

All this bread on the waters will come back to you with jam on it. Through the relationships you build, you’ll be asked to interview other writers or sit on panels with them. Every time this happens, your books go on sale, too.

The connections should run deeper than that, though. It’s other writers who will read your manuscripts and make invaluable suggestions. They’ll put you in touch with excellent cover designers or brilliant development editors. You never know when one with an agent or international publisher might be able to hook you up too. You can weep on their shoulders about bad reviews, even worse royalty statements, and the dread letter putting your beloved book out of print. (Every writer has horror stories along these lines, no matter how successful they may seem.) But all this is based on relationships of sincere reciprocity. No writer is an island, especially not on the African continent.

But, but, you say. You live in the middle of nowhere – no hobnobbing at book events for you. Or you’re too busy (you have a life, a family, a day job). So do almost all the writers I know, including the successful ones. If you have electricity or a generator, a modem or a smartphone, then there is no excuse.

One of the best-connected local writers I know is Lauri Kubuitsile. She has a popular blog, a newspaper column, and is active on Facebook and Twitter. She writes textbooks, romances, YA, short stories and mysteries – and is capable of very fine literary fiction as well. She’s worked with multiple local publishers. She’s been shortlisted for the Caine Prize and won coveted writing residencies. By any accounts, she’s a successful writer. She has an incredibly effective network, mostly via the world-wide web, across Southern Africa. And yet she lives in a village in the Botswana bush.

So: to sell your book, build a network, and then work at maintaining it. Frankly, it’s often the best part of the lonely business of writing. I wish you luck – but remember, we have to make our own luck.


PS: If you found this useful, there’s lots more need-to-know stuff in the Small Publishers’ Catalogue — essential resource for all local writers.

PPS: Quite few folk have asked if they can use this piece in other booky forums. I’m all for link-love and would like this to travel widely, so feel free to circulate this on the following conditions:

1. You MUST acknowledge me as the author (note: my surname is spelled M-o-double-f-E-DOUBLE-T), and Modjaji’s Small Publishers’ Catalogue 2013 as the source.
2. Please don’t cut and paste the entire piece, not even if you acknowledge source: you’re welcome to provide the link, or the first three paragraphs, followed by the link to the entire blog-piece.
3. The piece was especially commissioned for the Small Publishers’ Catalogue 2013. It would be cool if you gave the SPC 2013 a well-deserved plug.
4. If you’d like to use this, or any part of it, in print media, please contact Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books and make arrangements to pay her your publication’s standard per-word rate. Ta!

Nick Mulgrew
Stuff that authors need to know #3: what your editor wants you to know

I recently finished editing Lauren Beukes’s second novel Zoo City (to be published in a few months by Jacana and Angry Robot), and as always, learned and relearned a lot in the process. This, plus the fact that I’ve recently assessed several unpublished first-novel manuscripts, has meant yet more brooding on the business of writing and editing fiction.

It was amazing to be reminded just how intense editing fiction can (and should) be. It involves total absorption in someone else’s world. There is no coming up for air, no pausing for a chat, a glass of wine with friends (something utterly necessary to the academic editing ultra-marathon). It’s not a bad analogy: academic editing is like one of those hundred-mile marathons where you proceed at a steady trot, stopping off each night for a hot bath and a bowl of pasta — and fresh socks. The scenery changes day by day, the terrain differs mightily (especially if you’re editing something with multiple authors — some days you’re striding across gentle meadows, some days you’re stumbling over sharp rocks and picking thorns out your legs).

Editing an 80-000 word novel is more like a race over a shorter distance — ten or twenty kays round a track. You can grab a wet towel or water from someone on the sidelines, but you cannot stop to shoot the breeze or wash the dishes. You’re in the same environment the whole time, and that environment is all you can think of.

During my spell in Zoo City, I got total tunnel vision. I found it incredibly difficult to respond to phone-calls, emails, demands from the outside world. I often didn’t even hear the phone ringing, or found myself hitting “reject incoming call” without even thinking. This may be a personal failing or just the way my concentration works.

The crux is that there is a gap between the real world and the world on the page. It’s a given that the real world is more important, but if the world on the page is to work, it requires total immersion. On the last day of editing ZC, a friend rang for help with a CV. We kept arguing about how long they’d been in a certain job, until I realised I was working from a March 2011 calendar — which is when Lauren’s novel is set. It was quite a shock to remember it was still 2010.

So then, a round-up of some thoughts on editing and writing fiction.

When editing fiction, it is your responsibility to enter the writer’s world and head. You may NOT redecorate to your taste. (Neither Lauren’s Moxyland nor Zoo City are H-rated, the latter most especially not. At times, my eyes were watering from the effort not to squeeze them shut, but it was not my job to PG-rate the text.) You are, however, allowed to point out that the back stairs go nowhere, there is no supporting wall holding up the second storey, the characters curl up in front of the cozy fireplace, but no chimney emerges from the roof. In which case, the author must fix the problem, not you. You can prompt, nudge, encourage or suggest: but you may not wheel in your own bricks and cement and start putting in a load-bearing wall.

Immediate sort-of exception to this rule: if your author is experienced, you’re in tune with each other, and they trust you, you can be quite directive about how to tackle gaps. This consists of literally papering the cracks to which your author needs to take a trowel and plaster: you’ll write something like “This transition is too abrupt. How does Thando go from cracking beers in Ellen’s kitchen to falling down the manhole? Can you have him weaving his way drunkenly down the street, back-chatting the local prostitutes while the long-suffering Ellen watches from her front gate?” If your author is gifted, she’ll take the idea of a transition and run with it, so that a drunken Thando might spin round to blow kisses at a passing beauty and take a tumble in the process. Or start walking backwards, waving at Ellen, ignoring her warning shouts. Or… you get the picture.

This, of course, isn’t line-editing — the business of taking a manuscript and running it through the grammar, spell and consistency check machine. There are lots of different words for this editing approach in the industry — some call it manuscript development, some development editing, some copy-editing. All I know is that it’s what I do.

Some years ago Michael Titlestad took issue with the way some local first-time writers were being edited. I certainly don’t agree with everything he said (his piece was suggestive of the diffused light found in ivory towers), but one thing he wrote is worth tattooing on all publishers and authors’ foreheads:

…before copyediting and proofreading, writers need … to labour over revisions. They need to fashion the best and most compelling narrative they can. The best literary editors guide authors, especially new authors, down this path of frustration and travail.

The point is that the editor or the publisher often needs to return a novel – especially a first novel – to its author for rewriting. Substantive rewriting. With copious instructions and a map of the way. And you hold their hand and chivvy them and cheerlead them while they do this. Then you make them do it again. And again. And sometimes yet again. Only then do you start line-editing. Zoo City travelled the cyberwaves between Lauren and myself umpteen times before we were both satisfied. It was already a gem, but we were determined to polish every single facet.

The problem comes when you return something that needs a lot of work to a gifted but inexperienced author. (This was NOT the case with Lauren, who picked up every useful suggestion and responded with flair and speed. She also knows by now exactly when to ignore me.) For a newbie, instructions like “rewrite” or “promising, but needs work” or “cut substantially” are hopelessly vague. I’ve seen second attempts that are worse than the raw but feisty originals: rewrites are often longer than the original (usually an indicator that you’re going in the wrong direction), dialogue has become more formal, the text has been padded with yet more adverbs, adjectives and metaphors, and the latter have been lovingly polished while the pace languishes.

So for everyone in this position, this is what every (good) fiction editor wants their author to know:

1. Ditch the notion that every word you write is precious. Those lines of type marching across your screen? Raw material only (yes, this is a business where you put in months of labour just to create the raw material). Don’t even think of confusing this with the finished product. What you have at this point is a block of wood or marble from which you are going to sculpt something fine and rare. Now start chiseling.

2. Same goes for even the most brilliant, original and creative metaphors and images. If they distract from the action taking place in the sentence, toss them. Don’t expect your reader to stop in the middle of a car-chase to admire the scenery.

3. Your fictional world has to obey much stricter rules of internal logic and consistency than the real world (aka the Mike Nicol rule, aka the John Lanchester rule). In real life, the unimaginable happens all the time, wildly improbable coincidences occur daily, and characters are much larger than life. This is seldom tolerated in fiction.

4. Corollary to the above: if you are taking real life and turning it into fiction, you will probably have to tone real life right down. However, don’t ever mess with the facts. Readers get very beady-eyed about this. For instance, don’t set your novel in autumn and then have a character listening to the call of a bird that sings only in spring.

5. Numbers 3 and 4 apply especially strictly if you are writing magic realism/sci-fi/fantasy. Your fantastical world has to follow its own internal rules as rigidly as tramlines. If you establish that your heroine is a mind-reader in Chapter 1, do not have her gazing at her lover, wondering what he’s thinking, in Chapter 9. Or if you do, you need to create a water-tight exemption to your rule first. Which can look clumsy.

6. Another way that fiction differs from real life: there should be some measure of closure. Wrap up the loose plot threads — not all of them, especially not if you have a series in mind. But you want to avoid too many questions trailing in the reader’s mind.

7. Beware of purple prose, of dense lyrical passages, no matter how exquisite. Modern readers want to know what happens next — the era of lingering for two pages on the cry of the peacock in the Moghul gardens at dusk has passed. (Personally, I think this is a pity, but only the famous are permitted this luxury these days.) Rather sprinkle aesthetic sugar throughout with a restrained and even hand.

8. Readers enjoy characters with whom they can identify. Your hero or heroine should be sympathetic. Failing that, they should be compelling. A few very good writers can get away with creating a central narrative character who is repulsive or alienating, but it might not be wise to assume you are one of them.

Circling back to the editor/author relationship, it is essential that you actually have such a thing. Some publishers (none that I know of in this country, thank goodness) believe that there should be no contact between author and editor, much less dialogue and debate. You don’t have to like each other, but mutual respect is essential. There has to be a certain chemistry. This is what makes the total greater than the sum of the parts. (Over on his Facebook page, Louis Greenberg says: “Editors are shinks with a lower hourly rate.” Yes indeedy.)

A final insider PS via Elinor Sisulu (who recently chaired the judges’ panel for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize): When there are very, very strong contenders for a literary prize, and the books vying for the prize are truly equally brilliant, guess what one of the deciding factors is? How well the book has been edited. (How can you tell? A good novel that’s also been beautifully edited reads effortlessly, with no “fat” or excess verbiage, no typos or silly and sloppy mistakes, no unevenness, and an overall sense of polish, flow and clarity.)

Nick Mulgrew