Our “So you want to be…” weekly series aims to help you in the process of choosing a career. We will be speaking to a practising professional to tell us about their field of work. This week, we speak to James Woodhouse (35) who is a publisher at Kwela Books.
Simamkele for LiveSA: What does a publisher do?
James: A publisher is the force behind every book that you read. While the author may be the creative force behind the text, it’s the publisher who brings that story to the reader by creating the package (cover, blurb, edited content) and dealing with the logistics (warehousing, distribution, liaising with stores).
LiveSA: What does your job entail?
James: My day-to-day varies a lot. But, basically, I split my day between working on logistics and working creatively – on covers and blurbs, etc.
LiveSA: Briefly take us through your career posts and studies. How did these experiences contribute to where you are today?
James: I studied at Norwich University College of the Arts, where I was student editor of the art school’s annual anthology for two years. This helped me build the confidence that I could work in publishing. After that I interned at Picador, and later took on other jobs at a number of smaller publishers and literary agencies. I didn’t want to work for a big corporate publisher like Picador again. Stories are important to me and I want to deal with authors on a personal basis – to facilitate the creative process. I moved to South Africa in 2003, where I now live permanently, to work for Kwela Books as fiction editor.
LiveSA: How has your career grown?
James: I left Kwela in 2005 and worked as a freelance editor. This allowed me to spend more time working with text and to hone my skill as a fiction editor. For four years from 2007 I was programme manager for the Franschhoek Literary Festival. In 2009, I joined Penguin South Africa as their in-house fiction editor, where I worked with prominent authors from across the continent – Ben Okri, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Sarah Lotz, Paige Nick, Zakes Mda, Karen Jayes, and more. It confirmed my feelings that I wanted to work closely with authors. In 2012, I returned to Kwela as publisher. In my three years here we have continued to publish exciting, edgy work and I am very proud of our current list.
LiveSA: Which authors from this list would you say you have learnt from?
James: Niq Mhlongo was the first author I published and therefore we learned a lot together. I think the main thing that I learned from Niq was that trust is more important than just about anything else. We have almost nothing in common in terms of background. He grew up in Soweto. I grew up in the rural areas in the UK. He fought his way into university. I gave up my place at Cambridge and went to art school. And yet his impact on my life and mine on his has been extraordinary to both of us. Thirteen years later our relationship remains as easy and as strong as ever and that is down to trust.
Casey B Dolan is my second choice. She surprised me and that was a really amazing thing after 10 years in the industry. I published her autobiography because I believed that her story was important in tackling women abuse in South Africa. Here is a former FHM’s Sexiest talking about her relationships in the most candid way and asking South African society to engage with her story. Then she wrote a novel and I was really worried. Because my experience has been that people who write autobiography are not novelists. And yet it turned out to be one of the best novels that I have read in years. Wow! What a talent. And the novel – When the Bough Breaks – will be published in France and Spain in 2015.
LiveSA: Any professional highlights?
James: Interacting with authors is always uplifting. Zakes Mda is a special person, he is entirely present when you engage with him. The night of the launch of The Sculptors of Mapungubwe, at the Market Theatre, remains a highlight. Zakes spoke so well and the questions from the audience were awesome. We could have gone on all night. The second moment where I felt truly privileged to be in a space of an author was at Niq Mhlongo’s launch in Soweto with Ndumiso Ngcobo. People have done launches in Soweto before, but these have been for books about Soweto, rather than by an author from Soweto. There was food and drinks and discussion for many hours.
LiveSA: What is the biggest challenge you face in your line of work?
James: Right now it is connecting with the market. Media is changing and the distribution and marketing structures have broken down. People are consuming media in completely different ways. In South Africa this is complicated further by our low literacy rates.
LiveSA: What could potentially put someone off about the job?
James: Low pay and long hours. People in publishing don’t get into it for the money. If you are looking to make money, then get into investment banking or the oil industry. I work about eighty hours a week.; in this industry you put in whatever time is necessary.
LiveSA: What personality traits do you think are key to this profession?
James: Being stubborn really helps. To publish a debut novel, you have to be able to stick your neck out.
LiveSA: Fill in this sentence: “If you’re…this job is for you.”
James: Passionate about South African stories.
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