Pelmo Books: Molefe takes on multilingual publishing in SA
It’s not difficult to understand the importance of South Africa’s book publishing industry to our country and economy and – most importantly – to our communities. However, historic disadvantage has created an industry noted for its appeal largely to English speakers and challenges for unpublished writers to have their work published.
In a Business Day interview last year, Rhodes University lecturer and independent publisher Fouad Asfour put SA book publishing into perspective when he said: “The problem is that the industry is framed for a white audience. It hasn’t yet quite transformed. Reading and writing has been associated with colonialism. For books to become popular culture they must become less white.”
Enter Nkemi Molefe, founder and CEO of Pelmo Books. She is everything that current industry icons are not: Young, black, female – and driven to see African writers create stories in their own languages, for readers to relate to in their mother tongues. Her company payoff-line is “Read, Write, Rise”, and it’s the ethos she bases her entire business model on.
“The challenge in book publishing today is multi-faceted. Writers are forced to tell their stories in a language foreign to their hearts’ experiences, and it often seems that the only people who get published in South Africa are authors who have already been published,” Molefe says.
“Publishing in indigenous languages is a double-edged sword,” she notes, “but one that is necessary to grow readers in South Africa and the continent. On the one hand, Pelmo is publishing to a far smaller reader base in, for example, isiZulu; but enabling the great African tradition of storytelling to continue in our various cultures by encouraging reading in isiZulu.”
Even while literacy issues plague the continent, the book publishing industry in Central Africa is estimated to generate some US$ 220-million dollars per year. “While South Africa operates on far smaller margins right now, I see little reason why we can’t grow a multilingual local market,” she asserts.
As a daughter of author Dr Lawrence Molefe, the art of publishing is in her blood, Molefe says, “It started with helping my father collate his manuscripts for publication, which I began to realise was something I loved to do. I was good at it, understood the process and held my father and his associates in high esteem. Why couldn’t I make a living doing this?”
Challenges, chapters and verse
Pelmo Books opened for business in 2012, when Molefe was just 25 years old, and today has more than just 65 published titles, 29 authors and 15 distribution contracts (from self-published authors) and one international rights contract.
“South Africa is not much of a reading nation, but this is one of the challenges we are hoping to meet head-on by publishing in the vernacular,” says Molefe, adding that Pelmo chooses scripts carefully to respond to market relevance and social issues. “We will also pick up self-published books, as many authors are taking that route to overcome the obstacles not being published here.
“The Pelmo team will evaluate their books, make suggestions for increased attraction and if the book suits our publishing model, we will contract the authors and take them through the publishing journey, including getting into bookstores and libraries, and marketing their work.
Pressed on the difficulties of taking on large publishers, Molefe insists she’s in her own lane. “Publishing in indigenous languages is a plus. It separates me from what every other publisher is doing and eliminates direct competition. It gives me the upper hand in terms of speaking the language that millions of people are speaking.”
At the recent London Book Fair, Molefe met British publishers looking into what the rest of the world is publishing, with a view to translating from our languages into English and other languages for the UK and EU markets. “This opens so many doors for storytellers from Africa, it could put African countries on a platform we’ve never occupied globally.”
Interestingly, a publisher -printer from India struck up a conversation with her about a series of books that take classics like Shakespeare and bible stories and simplify them for lower literacy level reading. “The books don’t replace the originals, but create pathways for readers to access classics,” Molefe notes.
It’s the story more than the sell
At this stage, Pelmo Books looks to the number 5 000 as a best-seller when viewed from an indigenous language perspective. “It’s a good number, growth prospects increase as education becomes less of a talking point and more of an action point here,” says Molefe.
“We understand that many people can’t write or read in their mother tongues yet, but ‘Read, Write, Rise shows our determination to change this by providing well-written, well-edited books to ensure young readers and writers become enveloped in their culture.
“One of the genres we are keen on in order to do this is children’s books, that tell our story, in our language, so black people can identify.” So, less English is good? “That’s not what we’re saying. We still have to compete business-wise and in many ways in a world that speaks English.
“However, at home, African children who speak their mother tongue and have parents read to them in it get the best of both worlds… the ability to interact in English, and the security and beauty of growing up with their own ancient culture.”
Asked about how young black women could follow in her footsteps, Molefe keeps it simple: “Don’t see yourself as others label you. See yourself as your passion; as an achiever of whatever you set your mind to.
“Mix with people who uplift you in this regard. My most inspiring people include my Dad’s colleagues, who all worked at the African languages department at UNISA and all stick together. Their tenacity and stick together has been inspirational and their passion to bring languages alive is contagious. Seek friends and mentors who don’t label you as ‘the young black woman trying to prove a point’, but as the woman with mission and the tenacity to make things happen.”