One of my first jobs was working at a bookstore in Tygervalley, a shopping centre in the northern suburbs of Cape Town.
It was the late 90s, and hardcopy books were still riding high. I worked nights and weekends, but the nights were my favourite: it was quieter and my shift partner and I would spend the time chatting and arranging bookshelves, reading, and unpacking stock, all the while drinking coffee and listening to jazzy tunes.
It was part of this particular store’s culture that everyone working there had a section they were associated with and were most familiar with. Mine, for my English and clearly heathen ways, was the esoterica section. This suited me just fine because I was young and cool and terribly wise and spiritually connected.
One night, a man came up to the counter with a collection of political books and, as I rung them up, asked me if I knew anything about them. ‘Oh no,’ I said, rather proudly. ‘I’m more interested in esoterica and spiritual books. Politics isn’t really my thing.’ I’m sure I pulled a face that suggested extreme distaste. ‘Ah,’ he said and continued to pay while I packed his books.
As he turned to leave, he paused and seemed to consider something for a moment and then said: ‘It might help to remember that politics is the reason you’re able to choose that it’s not of interest to you.’ And with that he left.
It would’ve been around 1996–97, just after the country’s first democratic elections, and we were deep into the ‘rainbow nation’ narrative. I was a white, middle-class child-going-on-adult, somewhere between 20 and 21, living in a very conservative, very white neighbourhood. Politics was never directly addressed in my family or even close community; racism was an undercurrent of actions and key words: enamel plates and cups for the ‘garden boy’ and ‘cleaning girl’, segregated churches, no people of colour in our school…
The man who dropped that pearl so casually that night was a black man but I was so ignorant about politics and the country I was living in, its people and its history, that it would take me another five years and living on two other continents to understand the significance of what he meant. The political and economic context I’d been born into as a white person made it easy to ignore reality. As a woman coming to adulthood in the 90s and 2000s, I never had to fight for equality or the right to vote or the right to choose. Other people did that for me. As a white person, I’ve never had to fight for my humanity.
Every year, when Freedom Day rolls around, I’m reminded of this man and the privilege of being an inheritor of a system that places human rights front and centre, and the luxury of never having to lay my life on the line to achieve it.
Say what you want about the quality of leadership South Africa enjoys, our Constitution remains one of the best in the world.
You don’t have to think twice about your sexual or reproductive rights or whether you’ll be legally protected against discrimination based on your sex, gender, race, religion, or language. You don’t have to march for your freedom of movement or hide when you post angry opinions about the government on social media. You can choose to vote or which faith you would like to follow. You can expect your rights to be respected. There are ‘leading democracies’ today where these rights are being eroded or have never been codified.
Maybe there’s a new kind of privilege slipping in, where we take these rights for granted and forget that these systems are not innate but in constant creation. Maybe that’s the way it should be. But forgetting is a slippery slope to ignorance and apathy, and suddenly you’re just a 20-something child mouthing off about how much you don’t need to know about something that is supporting your way of life.
Mandela said: ‘Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.’ Commemorating Freedom Day reminds us that ‘never again’ is an engagement with the political context of today to ensure our freedom into the future.
Scene 1 We are preparing. We have heard. I am in a lush suburb that feels like the countryside. Unseen, camps have been made. More in concept than being visible. What is visible is the garden, the tree lines, the rich soil, the beautiful blue sky. I have become quite destructive. I have turned soil and this has destroyed something, like a home for a colony of ants. Will I regret this? I don’t know. But if I have done wrong (I have) no one will know for the world is going to end. We have been warned. It is starting.
The sky is clouded over. I climb to the top of a small hillock, so small it might as well be an earthy jungle gym. I look around me. Is this the best place to be safe? Should I go into the house? Or should I submerge myself in the water of the small pool over there?
I look out over the landscape. There is nothing happening. Were the predictions wrong? It is sunset now, a dramatic red sunset under heavy, black cloud. I see clusters of men grouping below. They are arming themselves. There is no end of the world but for war and they are arming themselves. Should I have chosen a band of brothers and walked off out into the terrain? It is terrain now. No suburb. The earth is already rewilding, even before our destruction. I look out of the horizon again. Still nothing.
I leave our vantage point of the jungle gym hillock, climb down and enter the small underground cave building the men have been entering and leaving from. It is a hull of a ship, and I feel like I am half submerged in the water. TVs up on the wall are showing a game show. A special guest has a message for me. It is my dead friend Togi. There are things he wanted to tell me, to ask me. I must join him. I speak back – tap tap is this thing on – but I don’t remember what I say. The view out the portholes is unsettling. Should I stay here when the world ends? No. I choose to go out, climb back up on the hillock jungle gym and wait under the dark sky with my new stranger friends.
We watch the horizon. What would we do now that the prediction was wrong? What will the world look like with our destructive preparations? The men have noticed us but they don’t care. They have other business. I look to the horizon. Should I go with them? Make my life that of a roving bandit? Wait. What is that on the horizon? It is a wave of lava, rolling in across the plain. Slow but unstoppable.
So it is true. We die by fire.
I say: What a terrible and painful way to end. I wish it had been water. I wish I had died sooner, better.
But the wave of lava is pushing forward an ocean of water. It is so close now, there is a new shoreline. The water reaches me before the lava does. I jump into the gentle wave and let myself be taken down softly, slowly by the warm water before the lava consumes and blackens the world.
Scene 2 I am on the hillock. The lava is approaching. I need water but the only water close by is the pool by the house, the deep, cool pool. I leave the hillock, run to the pool and dive in as the lava approaches. This was a bad idea. The lava will pour into the pool and I will burn and drown in a boiling vat of water.
I go the surface to die quickly but the lava has redefined the shoreline and the sea is gone and the lava has stopped at the very edge of my small pool. The edge around the pool where the lava has stopped is thick, shards of black rock like bitter shale layered sharp, sizzling and cracking still. I am so close to it. I look out. Stretching from my eye-line to eternity is a black, slow-burning pitch. The clouds are still heavy but the sky beneath them and on the horizon is the soft blue of a beautiful sunset. It is what we would’ve called beautiful before the desolation. Now there is no beautiful because there is no one to witness it.
This is not what I wanted. I did not want to be alive. I did not want to be the only person alive. I will not be able to move from my spot. Everything is too hot. The house behind me still stands. I should’ve gone in the house. I see the people there. The lights are on. They will never be able to reach me and I will not be able to climb out and go to them. I look out over the cooling lava. An endless landscape of no hope. Of nothing. The air burns. The air will kill me. The pool is closing in on me. It is a sea mollusk; the black edge of the lava its shell; the walls of the pool the walls of its muscle body. It is closing in on me. I am am suffocating and drowning.
Scene 3 We stayed in the house. It might as well be a space ship. It is at least a research base and the area spared, the botany division. I look out the windows, the lava has redefined the shoreline, there is sea close by now. It is almost night. We might as well be in a ship. We have many resources and many opportunities, but we are many and will need to work together. I take the lead, not only because I am the lead researcher and head of this department but because my calm, unbiased demeanor and reputation for wisdom and fairness makes me a favorite with my peers. I start discussing what needs to be done.
One colleague around the table has intimate knowledge of the data bases and I task him with writing up a list for everyone to indicate where information can be found – we must all become acquainted with a little bit of everything. I look around. We are surrounded by plants. We have ample energy and supplies.
A colleague’s bodytech announces we have 31 days at current rate of oxygen use which reminds me. We must stop talking unnecessarily. But everyone around the table is talking talking I start clicking my fingers for attention. I realize this sign language will be the dominant form of communication in future generations. Eventually they hear me and quieten down. I explain the situation. Everyone agrees that it is best that I lead since I wrote a book on leadership. This seems sensible but we agree to a led committee. If we are to survive the end of the world, we will need to work together.
I leave them to take stock of our supplies. I am in a room like a dark aquarium, but the tanks are computer screens. Our main systems are destroyed. How will we survive here. Why are we surviving? For what?
This is the end of the world.
I wake up.
Stories come to me in many ways. Sometimes I dream them. When this happens they’re usually rubbish or not for me. But sometimes, just sometimes, there’s something there.
A few months ago I dreamed a story that will be my first novella. Last night I had this series of dreams. By themselves they’re not a story, but they do help this new experimental novella I’m working on (experimental for me that is; it’ll be totally outside of my usual form of storytelling).
It’s weird to me that although I’ve always been frustrated by our collective fixation on apocalypse – hence The Fulcrum – I still seem bound to it for one small story more.
Well, I said I was only going to write only two posts about my experience with publishing The Fulcrum, one about traditional publishing and one about self-publishing. So here’s the one about self-publishing. I can’t say it’s a thrill-a-minute read, but it’s a good starter-pack of ‘Valuable Insights’ for those who care.
First things first
This post about self-publishing isn’t for everyone. There are many reasons to self-publish where reach isn’t a factor: family books, memoirs, business books, super niche reads etc etc
But this post is for writers wanting to publish a piece of fiction that they hope will reach an audience akin to having their novel traditionally published. It’s mostly about the South African landscape, but the same points apply to a greater or lesser degree everywhere else.
It’s all on you, baby
It’s typical for authors to grumble about the little 12% they take from the sale of a book. I know I have. (Do you know it’s not even 12% of the listed price! It’s, like, 12% after the bookstore takes its cut! Do you understand how little money that it is!?! etc etc).
But the fact is that publishing a book demands a whole network of skills and services.
From production (editing, proofing, typesetting, cover design) and sales (PR, marketing, connections, book launches) to legal (keeping your botty safe, getting the book’s ISBN, making National Library deposits, finance to track your sales and royalties) and distribution (getting into bookstores and online stores, putting your e-book together, etc) and everything in between, producing a book that might actually find some readers is a mammoth task.
With other people managing these annoying sidebars to The Art, it leaves the author free to lit-crit their work with adoring readers and complain about sales.
But when you self-publish? Well, honey. All of this becomes your problem.
I know, tough guy. But here we are now. Hurrah. Such fun. Which leads me too…
You need time and skills – or lots of money
So you can work your way painstakingly slowly through each process, trying to understand whole new universes of frustration and tedium, design and layout, tutorials and Kindle back-end help – or you can pay someone else to do it.
There are many individuals and companies, small and smaller, that will take care of these very important aspects for you. But everything comes at a cost and soon you’ll find that publishing your book becomes an investment not only of your passion, hopes, dreams and self-esteem, but also a whole stack of casholas.
So how much do you invest and what do you invest in?
Well, ask any corner of the internet and it will tell you: At the bare minimum, a proofreader, but definitely an editor, then obviously a cover designer, then a typesetter, then a…
Of course there are those companies who do it all for you in one package so you could pay a flat fee of 20k and above (if you’re lucky) and then you’d still need to pay for the printing of the books and the marketing and the …
…and so and so forth and so on and so forth ad infinitum.
I was lucky in that I had lots of time and some of the skills, design programmes and systems know-how, not to mention Tom, to get things going. It’s not as slick as I would’ve liked it, but it’s okay. Would I have preferred to use a company to do all the hard graft for me? Absolutely. Could I afford it at the time? Absolutely not. Was I going to take out a loan for this? No. Do I regret not taking out a loan for this? Also no. More on that later.
While I was still considering an outside service, I was super impressed with MYeBook. Dave is very helpful, very accommodating and very knowledgeable. He’s very active on LinkedIn and it always offering great insights. Definitely worth a looksee. There are many other services that will do the whole shebang for you. Burble seems like a vibe and I might be using them for the printing part of this venture.
These are only two service providers of very, very many so you will need to do your homework on what is going to suit you and your pocket.
Once you’ve done all that and you’re knackered and worn out from the effort, then it’s time to really gear up folks, because now you have to sell your book.
Marketing and other magic words
In South Africa, books are one of the only consumer products that aren’t traditionally advertised. If a new toothpaste is launched, there will be adverts and sponsored posts, radio jingles, samples, tasting groups and maybe even a billboard.
Here, when a new book is launched, local publishers rely on networks and goodwill: book launches and festivals, book bloggers, newspaper and magazine reviews, the publishing house and author’s social media accounts, book groups and clubs, the book store it’s in and the interest of the bookseller, and so on until, hopefully, word of mouth takes over and people are buying the book because they heard it was great and suddenly you’re feeling like a superstar.
If you’re self-publishing, you rely on … well … this is awkward … um you can rely on … well …
How good is your social media reach? And do they read? Are you part of writer’s groups? Do you know all the book bloggers and can you send them free copies? Can you get onto radio shows? Do you have a relationship with the indie bookstore owners? Can you spend some cash on advertising and boosting across Amazon, Facebook and Instagram? Do you have extra more cash to hire a PR person to get you some exposure? Do you understand how complex Amazon makes the e-book business?
Selling a book is more than just putting up your website and loading your book to Amazon and waiting for the magic to begin.
Even though there is more and more talk about authors having to ‘market themselves’, quite a lot of that supposes you have some of the base covered by your publishers, whether they’re indie or huge megagroups.
If all you have to worry about is your Facebook posts, blogging occasionally, and saying ‘yes’ when your appointed publicist books you a slot on radio or you’re invited to a festival, it leaves you a lot of time to ‘build your brand’ etc.
But when you’re also trying to figure out Meta’s advertising system as a newbie and how to set up a site with an e-commerce capability or don’t know how to design and put together social media ‘adverts’ and you don’t have much of a writery network and you still have to work to make money and live a life … then … well … you’re pretty fucked.
Unless, of course, you can pay someone to design all your ads for you and pay someone else to do your PR and pay someone else to send awkward emails to book bloggers (and you can find book bloggers who read your genre) and pay someone else to…
And what can you expect from all of that investment? Here is something straight from the Kindle Direct Publishing forum (remember: sales = readers)…
‘What sales should I expect?‘ ‘None. Anything over that is a bonus. Some people sell a book a month, some sell a book a second, and there’s people on every step in between.’
Suddenly that 12 or 15% starts looking like a pretty good deal, right?
Look, it’s not that traditional publishing is a ticket to wild success; it just gives you a good, solid, credible and understandable foundation to work from. And that’s worth a lot.
Boo hoo this sounds terrible. Why even try?
Because you’re a writer who wants readers and because you’re a bit mad and masochistic and you’ve put all the time into it so why stop now?
Seriously though, I believe all stories are in a way co-creations. Writers co-create their stories with their characters, stories co-create themselves into something bigger, more intimate, more meaningful with the reader who resonates with it.
To complete the creation, to make it more than it ever could be as just yours, you need the reader and so you do what you can to find those readers and hope they like your stuff.
So, what? It’s all just going to be awful?
Nope. There are definitely a few plus sides to self-publishing.
You have – for better or worse – full creative control over your work, from beginning to end. You also learn a lot.
If you didn’t know anything about what it takes to bring a book into a world, you will certainly get a crash course in that. If you didn’t understand what it meant to sell your book and promote yourself as an author, you will certainly become uber aware of how important it is.
Self-publishing is really an exercise in growth mindset and grit. As long as you manage your expectations around what you’re likely to achieve doing it alone, you should be fine. There are lots of writers who have made this work for them, it’s just a case of figuring out if it’s going to work for you.
You could be the exception to the rule
To be honest, I’m not sure if it’s working for me yet and so everything I write about this is coloured by my own experience.
You might find that your experience of self-publishing is very different: you got a hot hot story, you got the connections, you got the groups, you know the peeps, you got the cash, you have oodles of self-hype and everything you touch turns to yes yes yes…
All of this is possible. If so, that is beautiful. Use your powers well.
It’s the daily chats that keep us connected and our sanity in check Woman&Home, March 2022
There’s a love letter I write every day. It’s part of an ongoing love letter, written now over almost a decade, in many parts and in many ways: in short phrases, in long tomes, sometimes recorded, sometimes with pictures and gifs, sometimes in rage CAPS, sometimes in a small voice that only the recipients of my letter will recognise because they’ve known me for so long and so well.
I’m not alone in this.
This letter is one that many women write every day in their own way to their own loves; letters that keep them connected, that build intimacy, that provide a safe space when life feels mean.
Tom says these love letters would drive him mad if he were getting them every day, at least once a day, sometimes every hour; wonders at my capacity to listen to a letter and type a response at the same time; marvels at the sheer volume of communication we can get through.
There are those who would call these love letters ‘chats’. Worse: just WhatsApp chats, or Telegram chats. And they’re not wrong, technically. There are those who would call my loves ‘just friends’ and I guess, again, they’re not wrong.
But much like a million million little drops of water will turn a stream into a river, the daily pings between my close friends and I have strengthened our relationship beyond what I thought I was possible for friendship in my adulthood.
You get to know someone intimately not through the broad brushstrokes of their life’s creation, but by the tiny details only those who care to look will see.
The dinner parties and sea swims, birthdays and funerals, hangouts and talk-therapy lunches are important, of course. But it’s in offering the daily trivialities of living, without concern that any thought is too small, any feeling too inconsequential to share – the delight at a bargain, the petty bitch about a rival, the boredom of a Home Affairs queue – that trust finds a play-space to grow … or be dashed.
Unlike the love letters of old that would take weeks or months to reach their destination, leaving time to carefully construct thoughts and project wild wish-fulfillments, group chats are quick and brutal in cutting through pretenses.
When it comes to texting, there’s no relationship red flag quite as immediately evident as judgement or othering – with or without words. Just ask anyone who’s dropped an awkward photo or story into the wrong chat and you’ll quickly get a feel for what’s definitely not a group love letter with sympatico sister-friends.
It’s a rough, but necessary revelation. The problem with friendly social media groups is that simply being part of one assumes connection between individuals where there is none and sometimes we only come face to face with the real status of a relationship when a conflict online isn’t followed up with a courageous conversation offline. Friendships I’ve had have lived and died on group chats because of this.
To elevate a group chat to a daily love letter, you need good friends to begin with and close friends to compose with. And you need that closeness because relationship depth takes honesty and the intention to stay connected.
When kids and work, distance and family commitments get in the way of the couch talks and crochet brunches, it’s the regular love letter check-ins that confirm our interest in each other; that add the detail to the creation of the person you call ‘friend’. It’s the grown-up version of nattering with my high school besties over warm sandwiches and flat Coke every day.
My love letters are to a small handful of women only; I keep my inner circle smaller than most. Between recipe and joke swaps, our daily digital contact has supported us through divorces, identity reckonings, recovery, career changes, health crises, parenting chaos, relationship explosions both happy and devastating, political awareness and Wordle rage. It confirms for me every day that love grows where you tend to it, whether it’s a romance or a vroumance.
So, here’s to the tiny tap tap bloops on phones across the world, sending those love letters, making the magic of living this one life shine bright.
If trash-talking yourself is second nature to you, maybe it’s time to take look in the mirror
Woman&Home, February 2022
If I asked you to go to a mirror right now, look yourself in the eyeballs and say: ‘I love you. I am worthy of love. I am worthy of respect. I am beautiful and loved. I am enough.’ What would your emotional reaction to that be? I’ve spoken to enough women to know how generally difficult this exercise is and how generally similar the response. If you’re even able to bring yourself to do it, I’d hazard a guess that your feelings would run the gamut from awkwardness to shyness to comic or cynical dismissal to rage to outright loathing.
And yet, how much easier would the exercise be if I asked you to list your faults and why you’re failing at whatever it is you feel you should be succeeding at?
It’s perverse how much more emotionally comfortable negative self-talk is, how smoothly it slips into your thoughts: I am so stupid/ugly/weak/incompetent, no wonder I am failing/single/lonely/unsuccessful … Hateful words we’d never utter to our loved ones, we happily shower on ourselves.
I know using the word ‘we’ might be overreach. There are those who can do this exercise wholeheartedly and believe every word, embodying it without judgement and without hiding behind ego. There are those whose confidence and self-love is innate, who were shown they were worthy of existing and wanting the best for themselves from the moment they howled their arrival into the world. And there are those who have worked through their healing to reclaim those parts of themselves that life and circumstance ripped away from them. I can say that after a very committed process I am somewhere in the vicinity of this space of self-love. But not entirely.
Self-dislike or even self-hate is a sticky web to untangle yourself from. While self-love or the lack of it is not a gendered experience, the odds have been stacked against women for millennia.
The ancient subjugation of the female and the feminine in the patriarchal set-up has, in modern times, distilled its toxicity to such a fine art that its poison now feels like fact: how the female body should and shouldn’t look, how a good girl does and doesn’t behave, how a woman should and shouldn’t be treated, what she can and can’t say, what she does and doesn’t deserve, what spaces she may occupy, what words she may utter. How she is worthy, how she is not. Even the ‘Yas Queen’ generation suffers.
The question ‘When did I start believing I wasn’t worthy of love or of loving myself?’ throws a powerful beam of light on the road less travelled.
For most of us, the journey to self-love is a harrowing and difficult one. The question ‘When did I start believing I wasn’t worthy of love or of loving myself?’ throws a powerful beam of light on the road less travelled. It inevitably leads to unpalatable or painful truths in our origin story, it reveals raw and hurtful memories of those impressionable early years of becoming a human in the world. Worse maybe, it forces a reckoning with the choices we make as adults about who and what we allow into our lives.
This is such difficult terrain to venture into that it can feel like the safest step is the one you don’t take at all. Why take a flamethrower to your toxic relationship with self and others when you can take another spa day and call it self-care?
But anyone who has been on the heroine’s journey to integration will tell you that the treasure of healing and self-love lies only on the other side of the dark forest, with its scary trolls to tell off, raging beasts to acknowledge, hungry wolves to appease and dragons of grief to slay.
It’s a journey you undertake by yourself, but you are not alone. There are self-help books, counsellors, free groups and online resources to guide and sustain you. If you’re lucky, you might have loving friends, partners and family who will support you. It’s blood, sweat and tears soul work, but I know this much: there is also laughter, strength, joy, and revelation.
If you want to gift someone something this Valentine’s Day, look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I love you. You are worthy. You are enough.’ – and if you don’t mean it, find out why. Happy travels.