Mugabe Ratshikuni is a model new South African. He’s intelligent, tolerant, professionally successful and civic minded. He’s also very quiet, or at least he is today. When we meet, he’s spent the afternoon shouting himself hoarse leading a rally for the ANC Youth League. Everybody knows and likes Mugabe – something he jokes about early in our conversation and I think is just hyperbole, until at least two passing groups of people recognise him as they pass our roadside table in Fourways. One of whom is from Cape Town and hasn’t seen him for something like a decade.

Popular, erudite, able to quote at length from European literature and African thinkers like Nguni wa Thion’o with equal ease. He seems a shoe-in candidate for the career in journalism and non-fiction writing that he wants. The trouble is, no-one’s really hiring right now: the newspapers continue to cut back and publishers remain reticent to spend money on new writers.

“South African publishers want a writer who’s a banker,” Ratshikuni says, “I’ve had a few interested in my work before, but you have to be a household name to get published.”

It’s understandable, he says, given that the South African market is small and distributing copies overseas is too expensive to make most non-fiction works viable. But Ratshikuni has a lot to say and a decent track record. As a volunteer with Diepsloot.com and a regular columnist on Feint and Margin – with a full-time job in marketing to boot – he knows all the complexities of modern South Africa inside out. All he needs is an outlet. And now he’s got one.

Ratshikuni is one of the latest authors to have been published by Mampoer Shorts. Mampoer is an exclusively digital platform for non-fiction authors, which could be seen as South Africa’s answer to Kindle Singles. It’s dedicated to long-form journalism and – happily for Ratshikuni – the promotion of new voices.

Mampoer was started just over a year ago, and is run out of the offices of digital agency Big Media Publishing in Parktown. As an organisation, it has just one full-time employee, while a committee of well respected academics, publishers and journalists guide editorial decisions and company strategy. Mampoer Shorts are published for $2.99 each, and the company aims to publish two a month – a goal it’s easily achieved so far, with 27 titles available in the store right now.

One of the key figures at Mampoer is Professor Anton Harber of the University of Wits’ journalism department. As the founder of The Weekly Mail – now the Mail & Guardian – he’s no stranger to launching new and difficult journalistic ventures. The Weekly Mail was suspended by President PW Botha three years after its launch for its anti-apartheid editorial stance.

Genesis of a thought

Harber says that the idea from Mampoer came from a talk at the Troyeville Hotel following the publication of his last book, Diepsloot, in 2011.

“I remarked that the real gap in South African journalism was longer New Yorker-length pieces,” he says, “That there was nothing between 1 200 word pieces in a weekly newspaper and full blown books. A colleague asked if it wasn’t the time that we could fill that gap electronically, and we realised that was absolutely right. In print, the size of the market won’t support it in this country, but electronically it just may be.”

Mampoer's homepage at www.mampoer.co.za
Mampoer’s homepage at www.mampoer.co.za

Overseas, there have been several attempts to create similar long-form outlets using digital publishing with varying degrees of success. The theory is that while it’s a struggle to get people to pay for newspaper-type content online, longer form pieces can appeal to an audience that wants more in-depth reporting and doesn’t mind paying a nominal fee. It’s much the same principle as mobile phone apps and full-blown software. Kindle Singles, from Amazon, broke much ground in the area, and Atavist has been a prolific publisher too. There’s also Editia – an Australian outlet – and it’s been speculated that South Africa’s own Paperight could provide a future for magazine-style journalism with a digital heritage too. Matter, a science and technology publisher, raised $140 000 via Kickstarter last year only to end up being acquired by Medium, Twitter founder Ev Williams’ latest venture. Matter is still publishing regularly, however.

By using digital, Mampoer can keep its costs down and reach an international audience essentially for free. Stories are expected to be South African in origin, but the more chance they have of selling overseas to ex-pats and those interested in African affairs in general, the stronger the chance that they’ll get commissioned. The policy is turning up some incredible stories: the latest Mampoer Short, Operation Blackwash, tells the little known tale of how the apartheid government paid African-Americans to distribute pro-National Party propaganda in the US.

It’s still highly experimental, says Harber, and there are changes to the business model coming through all the time – the company is currently looking at setting up subscription access to the full archive for a monthly fee – but so far sales have been good and the project is on track commercially. He won’t give away figures, but says that they are on track to become profitable within three years of launch – the target that the committee always set itself.

Mampoer now publishes through iTunes and Google Play using the Snapplify platform, as well as Kalahari.com, Exclusive Books, Amazon and Kobo – as well as direct MOBI downloads from its own website.

If you do want to support Mampoer, the latter is probably the best way to do it.

The trouble with Amazon

“The model that we’ve opted for has been technically very challenging,” admits Harber, “We’ve found operating in the global market very difficult because of the dominance of Amazon and the Kindle, and the contempt with which they treat countries like South Africa. If the buyer is in a country like the US or Britain, Amazon takes 30% of the sale. If the buyer is in South Africa, they take 70%.”

While Amazon is one of the most important channels, says Harber, the difficulty is that Mampoer itself works on 70/30 split of revenue with authors, in the publisher’s favour. It’s hard enough to ask writers to take the risk of writing a long-form piece without a guarantee fee in the first place, explains Harber, without losing such a large percentage on top.

While cultivating new writers – like Mugabe Ratshikuni – is a key part of Mampoer’s mandate, Liana Meadon says that having a mix of well established writers on their books helps to get publicity across many media. Eye Witness News’ Mandy Weiner has written about police chief Riah Phiyega, for example, and Harber’s own Gorilla in the Room – about media mogul Koos Bekker – is one of the best sellers so far.

“We do really well when the subject is unusual or very topical,” says Meadon, “Helmoed Heitman’s The Battle in Bagui did well, because it was published so soon after the event (When South African soldiers were ambushed in the Central African Republic this March – Ed) and was discussed in both political and military forums.”

SABC’s 50/50 have produced features based on Mampoer stories too, but the gold standard for cross-media promotion is a mention on the Jenny Crwys-Williams show on Talk Radio 702 says Meadon, which can lead to a flood of sales.

Promotion for Ratshikuni's book.
Promotion for Ratshikuni’s book. Trevor is circled.

Ratshikuni’s Mampoer Short, Child of the two South Africas, is about Trevor Vilakazi, a black kid who spent most of his formative years in a white household where his parents worked. As he grew up, he was treated as an equal with his parents’ employers’ children, and enjoyed the same family life and schooling. Trevor’s entertainment and education were typical of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs – up until halfway through high school, when his parents’ employers moved to Cape Town. They offered to take the Vilakazis along, but the family elected to stay in Johannesburg, moving out of suburbia and into the township of Diepsloot.

Trevor’s story is the story of culture clash and how he struggled to find common ground with his real family and new neighbours – while at the same time maintaining his middle class friendships and schooling. It’s also about how he came to terms with his own ignorance of how most people in the country live, the truth behind popular perceptions of places like Diepsloot and the still blinkered experience of the middle classes. It’s a defining story of the schism in South African society that splits the country into two.

It’s also a story that sounded familiar to Ratshikuni, who also moved from a relatively affluent middle class area, in Cape Town, to Diepsloot – although for him it was a voluntary move motivated by a personal desire to learn more about the country.

Ratshikuni has nothing but praise for the editors at Mampoer. He came across Harbor, he says, after a fellow activist took the academic on a tour of Diepsloot’s shebeens while he was researching his latest book about the township, and has received nothing but encouragement from the editors he’s worked with. He singles out Barbara Leudman especially for her guidance through through the lengthy process of publishing and her knowledge of how to develop a story over more than 10 000 words.

For Ratshikuni, electronic shorts aren’t just an innovative publishing mechanism from an economic point of view. They’re a way to engage an audience of young black South Africans who simply aren’t exposed to a ‘reading culture’ of any kind right now. One of his current projects is a book club for teenagers, organised via BlackBerry Messenger. Another is a Facebook page for political discourse for the same audience.

His ultimate ambition is to launch a journal of current affairs written in his native language, and to help others to access African language books – probably through digital platforms.

“All the kids have smartphones and BlackBerrys,” he says, “Digital should be a no-brainer for publishers. There are 280 000 people here and only one library.”

Most of all, he wants more people to share his passion.

“Any publisher who is smart will be interested in getting black kids to read,” he continues, “I love reading, I’ve not travelled outside of South Africa, but I’ve been to lots of places in my head.”

 

(Main image – Mugabe Ratshikuni)