An Interview with Ivor Hartmann, co-publisher of ‘African Roar’

This week I had the pleasure of doing an email interview with Ivor Hartmann, co-publisher and co-editor of the short-story anthology African Roar and the creator of the literary ezine StoryTime. Born in Harare, Zimbabwe Hartmann is a contributing editor for Sentinel Nigeria and has published fiction and non-fiction works in several magazines, including StoryTime, African Writing, Wordsetc, Something Wicked, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Paulo Coelho’s Blog, and African

The topics we discussed ranged from his writing and publishing experiences, what the future holds for African writers, and the challenges publishers face as they work with authors to build a strong foundation for the continuing growth and flowering of African literature on the continent and worldwide.   

Hartman’s feedback is valuable in that it offers the perspective, not of an outsider, but a born-and-bred African whose love of literature and his knowledge of Africa’s literary turf (particularly southern Africa) make his views a real eye-opener.

The publication of African Roar is clearly a source of pride to Hartmann and his fellow editor Emmanuel Sigauke. His optimism about the book reflects his belief in the ability of the region’s emerging writers to take control of their destinies and chart the way forward for African literature.      

How does it feel having published African Roar?

Hartmann: I don’t really know yet, I am so wrapped up in what still needs to be done to get African Roar out and about. I haven’t had the time yet to sit back and say to myself well there you go, the first African Roar is out. And then collapse with the sure knowledge I have done everything possible I can.

Has the internet been helpful to you in your search for new talent?

Hartmann: Undoubtedly, especially in the early days of StoryTime when I ransacked every online listing of African writers I could, and did extensive Google searches through the night to find blogs, email addresses and more. Basically, anything that would show me which African writers were online, what they were writing and how I might contact them. But there is still a great limit to what you can find online, seeing as how on average only 8.7% of Africans have internet access. This is a great shortfall, which can only be covered through word of mouth. One of the writers at StoryTime can only get in touch when he travels to a big city, and he contacts me through an online café once every couple of months or so. He heard about StoryTime through another writer friend who encouraged him to send me his first short story.

Are you satisfied that the stories in StoryTime and African Roar capture the complexities and diversities of 21st century African experiences?

Hartmann: I don’t think anything can truly capture the incredible complexity and diversity of the African experience now in the 21st century, or ever. Though the same applies to any continent, but more so with Africa as, after all, it is the second largest continent in the world, home to over one billion people with over two thousand languages. However, StoryTime and African Roar, though a drop in the ocean comparatively, does seek to try and faithfully represent the continent in whatever small way we can through the work of African writers. In this only, am I satisfied with what StoryTime and African Roar seek to achieve.

What are some of the memorable experiences you’ve had working with the writers who contribute to StoryTime?

Hartmann: There have been so many in the last three years, both good and bad. What comes to mind at present (and is a bit of both), is how I ended up publishing possibly the last living work of a fantastic Zimbabwean writer just before he died. Stanley Ruzvidzo Mupfudza was a well known writer in Zimbabwe. He was friends with a great set of Zim writers like Memory Chirere, Charles Mungoshi, Emmanuel Sigauke, and many more. Now although he was quite widely published, he moved away from creative fiction writing for a long time but came back to it in 2000. So when he sent me a story in 2009 I was, needless to say, quite blown away that a writer of his prestige would do so (and not from my pestering either). He in his own way by doing this was saying I like what you’re doing Hartmann, and giving StoryTime and me a nod of approval. So I in due course published his story and it was a pleasure to do so. When I found out on the 5th of May 2010 that he had died in Harare on the 3rd, I was deeply affected. As here was an extremely gifted writer, just one year older than me, and who was returning to creative writing after a long absence, also like me. I had from the very beginning of our communications back in 2009 felt a strong kinship with Ruzvidzo, even though we never did get to meet in person. So even though I am happy I published his story, I am still a bit haunted by the loss of a writer who had so much potential and seemed to be back on track towards fulfilling it.

Which audiences are you targeting? And is there is a risk that the book and StoryTime will be out of the reach of many potential readers in Africa considering that the internet and electronic readers are two of your main modes of delivery?

Hartmann: StoryTime has always been about attaining exposure for African writers to the world at large, and the cheapest and most efficient way to do that is online. In this way StoryTime provides a reliable and consistent showcasing of emerging talent (with our one issue with one story, once a week, policy), which gives a week-long exposure to the writer and their story. This is a format I will maintain, no matter how popular StoryTime may get. That is except for the occasional specials. So StoryTime will remain an ezine for as far as I can see into the future, that’s its purpose.  

That said, African Roar is, however, a different story. With African Roar I am endeavouring to get it as widely locally published and distributed within Africa as I can. As Nadine Gordimer pointed out recently, printed books don’t need batteries or the internet, and this is particularly important in Africa where both can be a problem. So while I feel that first world countries can make do with African Roar being available to buy at Amazon, etc. (for now), this is not the case with Africa. Local print publishing is the way forward I believe. Now the main reason I am doing this for African Roar is because, although it is drawn from the very best of StoryTime, we (Emmanuel Sigauke and I) then spent eight months further editing each story with the authors to help them fulfil the highest possible potential of their story. And it is these finely honed stories I believe should be read by everyone in Africa. Also African Roar is an anthology of mostly emerging African writers that is not in any way dependant on international acceptance or approval (as seems to be so often the required case for the work of African writers to re-enter Africa in a big way), and is written, selected, edited, and published strictly by African writers only.

What do you consider the biggest challenges confronting aspiring writers and publishers in Africa today?

Hartmann: For an African writer the first obstacle is getting your work published (in any medium), as there are so few outlets, and certainly far more potential writers than outlets at present. Now the internet and blogs have changed this in a big way, but you need online access to do this. And even then you have the most consistent problem for any writer, and that is writers need editors. No matter how good a writer you are, if you don’t have an independent professional opinion on your work it will never be what it could be. It’s the can’t see the trees for the forest syndrome. Every writer has it, because in general only ten percent of the story is actually written down, the rest is inside your head. This means while something may be plainly/painfully obvious to the writer, the end reader won’t have a clue. So what you have is this dearth of outlets and editors, both of which you need as a writer.

Now as a publisher ironically you face the same problems as the writer but in different ways. There are so few outlets to distribute that one then needs to be very creative in getting the book distributed and actually bought. Also as a publisher there is a lack of good editors, so the ones who are good tend to be way over-worked and that, of course, affects their editing. Also editing is certainly not the most well paid job and involves a lot of hard work with long hours. Then, of course, as a business publishing has incredibly low profit margins, and generally banks on one out of x-number of books they publish really doing well and so covering all the others. It’s a very risky business worldwide.

What these challenges do, though, is to provide serious obstacles to both writers and publishers. And in so doing form a filtering system that means only the most determined actually have a shot at succeeding (and thereby it’s not necessarily the most talented that do succeed). Neither is for the half-hearted, though this is true of any profession that requires a similar level of determination. This means that either you are willing to sacrifice great chunks of your life working towards a possibly unachievable goal, or you are not.       

The eminent professor of literature at American University and president of the African Skies Library Foundation, Charles R. Larson has been quoted as saying “African writers inhabit a world devoid of privilege or advantage, lacking many of the things that their Western counterparts take for granted such as informed and understanding critics, [and] rarely encounter enlightened political leaders willing to acknowledge the importance of the arts.” Do you share that view?

Hartmann: Not really, it’s a fairly generalised assessment. For one, what it leaves out is the passion of the writer, the writer who will stop at nothing to write and be read. Like the StoryTime writer I mentioned earlier who lives in a rural village, but because he is passionate about his writing does not let things like first world privileges and advantages stand in his way.

It also does not take into account that Africa has a very long and rich history of storytelling and indeed the arts as a whole, the longest history out of all the continents in fact. Though, this may not be immediately apparent to a foreigner, as it is so imbedded into local culture as to seem an integral part of daily life. So unlike western arts no-one pays to see it, or hear it, or support it; it’s just there, a part of society performed by everyone. This could also be the reason why the western concept of the arts seems to be under-funded and somewhat ignored. As it would in a way be like your uncle saying to you as a child, you have to pay me to tell you a bedtime story. Thus when it comes to books, artworks, etc. there is a natural resistance towards the artist, as only an artist. An attitude that says, but you are just a loafer telling us or showing us what we have already heard or seen from our grandfathers (or whomever) for free, go get a real job.

I’m not saying any of this is good or bad, but it’s a fact that has to be accounted for, and why generalisations like the one above don’t really get at the truth of the matter of the arts in Africa. Though of course, you also have to add the ever-rolling process of the westernisation of Africa into the equation, which means things are changing. More and more Africans are buying books, artworks, etc. for the pure pleasure of them, and thus starting to see support of the arts as a good thing. Africa is not static and therefore dynamic and ever changing, and this defies attempts to point fingers or bemoan the state of the arts in Africa from any perspective.

Some African publishers have complained that often when they discover and nurture fellow African writers, they end up losing them to mainstream Western publishers simply because they can’t find financial support to expand their business, nor can they afford to pay the royalties that the bigger publishing houses do, or offer the level of readership that is available in Western countries. Is that your perception and, if so, what are the implications for the future of African publishing?

Hartmann: Sure, this does apply to some African writers, but so few as to be insignificant in comparison to the number of African writers who don’t get nabbed by the big publishers. If an African writer does make it into the big time, I say more power to them, well done. But don’t forget your roots, make sure at the least, the local rights for your country goes at a reasonable price to those publishers who nurtured you. As the author you have the power to put that clause into whatever contracts you sign. Authors must realise that the power does indeed lie with them not the publisher. As sure, maybe you balk in the beginning at demanding anything from your big publisher who has been ever so kind enough to realise your talent and take you under their most esteemed wing. But there does come a time when they need you more than you need them, and then you can make sure your original publishers are taken care of.

For African publishers this dilemma is commonly called putting all your eggs into one basket, and then moaning when your sole basket gets bought from under you at a fraction of the authors real earning potential. However, and this is what I’ve been thinking about recently, how about keeping the author and selling the foreign rights country by country to the big publishers for decent sums and royalties. In this way you can sort out the author in proportion to their sales and rights fees, thus keeping them happy. And also launch the author in a big way through the big publishers without losing them or losing out entirely. I suspect this is what (though I could be wrong) Bakare of Kachifo Ltd. did with Adichie.    

Most publishers in the Caribbean survive by publishing textbooks for schools and adult non-fiction books. A lot of the fiction originating from the islands is self published and read by a relatively small number of people. How does that compare to the African countries, particularly West and East Africa?

Hartmann: I can only really talk for Southern Africa (being born and raised in Zimbabwe and now recently living in South Africa as an economic exile), though I have had some contact through fellow writers with West and East Africa. The way I see it, what it comes down to is this, it’s tough being a fiction writer anywhere in the world, and you do whatever it takes to keep on being able to write fiction. If that means publishing textbooks and non-fiction, then that’s what you do until you don’t have to anymore. In my case, I do visual arts stuff and write non-fiction articles, and have recently ventured into publishing to survive while I build my writing career. That’s what it takes for me to make fiction writing a career. But as I have said, I don’t think this is an isolated African or Caribbean issue for fiction writers. All writers have to do something similar wherever they are in the world. That is unless they are incredibly lucky and their first book is an astounding success, which is just so very rare.

They used to call self-publishing vanity publishing, and in my opinion it still has this stigma attached, and for good reason. If you write and self-publish a book, the chances that it has been properly edited, proofed, published, marketed, promoted and widely distributed are slim. Yes, there have been successes with self publishing, and more so each year because of the marketing and promotional power of the net, I don’t deny this. But it does require that you become a one-person writer/publisher with all that truly entails, which is a huge load that not many people can successfully bear. So, unless you can be that successful one-person band, or alternatively if you’re happy with the odd few sales to friends and such (but I’d call that more of a hobby than a career), then I’d say get serious. Start hunting for a good publisher and don’t give up until you have been accepted and published by one, and not just once, often (a minimum of one book every two years after the first one is out), as one fiction book rarely makes a profitable life-long living for a fiction writer.

Although they face tremendous obstacles, some publishers on the African continent who have been investing in fiction are reportedly experiencing some level of growth, such as Sub Saharan Press in Ghana and Kwani and Storymoja Publishers in Kenya. Should that give African fiction writers hope?

Hartmann: Definitely, as I’ve said in the forward to African Roar, there is a revolution going on in African literature and there are many reasons for it. There are, as I see it, three big ones, the net, westernisation and technological advancement (as in better print presses, therefore more affordable and reliable publishing, etc. and also easier access to first world presses like Lightning Source and shipping from them). These three things are whipping up a thirst for both African writers to be published and African readers to read those writers. And the thing is, there is a massive talent pool in Africa (being the second largest continent), one that has barely been touched and once it starts to be (as I think is beginning to happen), I do believe that African writers on the whole will be unstoppable,  both locally and internationally.

What are your thoughts on the relationship between writing from the African Diaspora and works from the African continent in terms of relevance and authenticity?

Hartmann: All writing is relevant and authentic no matter where it comes from or its genre. The problem always arises when you try and categorise it. It seems to be just an exercise in semantics to me, to even start down that road where you are trying to separate the two in some definable separation that is either relevant and/or authentic. At what point do you draw the line? How long you have lived in Africa? Whether you were born here? For StoryTime, because I have had to, I draw the line thus: ”African Writers: (writers born in Africa, or having domiciled in Africa for over 10 years, and/or holding citizenship in an African country)” but I’m not happy about doing it, so for me these are just rough guidelines. For example: if a child of an African is born somewhere else, has not lived here for over ten years, visits irregularly, but has been brought up and exposed to African culture, and does not hold citizenship in an African country. Does this make them any less African? Should their writing be spurned as inauthentic and not relevant? I don’t think so. If there wasn’t such a first world domination of the literature scene, there wouldn’t be a need for a solely African literature-orientated publisher.

Do you think the providers of international literary prizes should seek out more books published in Africa and marginalized areas like the Caribbean?

Hartmann: Sure they should. If they lay claim to being an international prize, it should be their utmost duty to seek out the entire published works for that year worldwide regardless of where they come from. Not, as seems to be the case in general, just peruse the most heavily marketed, which would naturally come from first world countries at this point in time. But that aside, what I would really like to see is more locally created and sponsored writing prizes, awards, competitions, etc. As it stands Africa’s most esteemed literary prize, is not even based in Africa and not, for the most part, judged by Africans. This means we are looking to outsiders to judge us, with their own criteria, what they happen to think from their perspective is Africa’s best writing. Look, I think having such a prize is better than not having it. But, I’m saying, is it not about time we started to judge ourselves with the same rigour, backed up by the same kind of cash and opportunities such a prize brings? I think it is way past time for that.

What are your hopes for the future of African literature?

Hartmann: As you might have gathered in the previous answers, I’m very optimistic about the future of African Literature. What I would like to see are the same opportunities a first world writer has from the moment they decide to become a writer, no matter the age that occurs, being available for African writers, and it can, and will, happen. The net and technology, though still limited at present for Africa, has and will, in many ways, level the playing fields. Ten years ago, StoryTime and African Roar just wouldn’t have happened, not by me anyway. It just would have been too difficult and costly to even contemplate. But look at them now, they are thriving and producing fine writing that is being noticed and read worldwide. And if you look at both, I have hardly spent anything except vast amounts of my time on them. StoryTime, although a registered serial publication, is on the free Blogger platform. Sure, it doesn’t have a dedicated domain name, but so what? Is a dedicated domain name really that important? To me what is important is what it publishes and that anyone online can read it, for free.

The same in a way goes for African Roar; the biggest real expenses so far have been buying the ISBN, registering the title and paying for the Lightning Source online distribution network. The stories initially came from StoryTime, the editing and proofing was done for free by Emmanuel Sigauke and I, the cover I designed and laid out printer ready also for free, The Lion Press through Lightning Source (a Print On Demand printer, so no massive and costly print runs or warehousing required) puts the title up online at Amazon, etc. And there you go. One book on the international market, though admittedly only really for first world countries in a major way. Then my fellow African Roar authors and I embark on a blitz of online marketing and promotion (which this interview is part of), again at no cost to them or myself except time and net charges, which also includes sending out free PDF copies of the book for reviews. Now we want to also get it print published and distributed locally in Africa (being well aware of the limitations of the net in Africa), so then with a firm and growing online base (website, facebook page, and that the book is available to buy online), I start asking around for local publishing. Now obviously, because we have done all this work beforehand, and the book itself is a really great book, the chances of a local publisher acquiring the rights are far greater. Because they (who generally are also online because they have to be), have seen the impact the book is having. So although I approach them un-requested, first via email, they ask to see the book and I send them the PDF copy, which is more than enough to give them an idea of the book and whether they think they can sell it. And there you go, local publishing of African Roar is now underway and should hit the shelves from July to December in quite a few African countries. All this from a relatively unknown group of African writers who happen to have written and edited some fine stories and put them together into an anthology called African Roar.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m no longer just hoping the future of African literature will be bright, my fellow African writers and I are making sure it will be.

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