Most people, when faced with a world which in-creasingly sees blogs as high-end literature, would throw up their hands in surrender, but not Robin Stuart-Clark who valiantly publishes book after book from his small publishing house in Noordhoek – and wins international prizes to boot.
Upstairs in a suitably attic-looking room, framed art on the wall, comfortably shabby, is the headquarters of Robin’s Publishing Print Matters. For the past 10 years, this is where books on South African art, craft and heritage have been published and, under the imprint Bumble Books, books for children.
But not just any books. You can tell Robin is a man with a mission. His business card says, “Warning: reading can seriously improve your mind.” His books on the arts, craft and heritage are “especially about people who have been overlooked, people who have stories to tell and a vision to share. It’s a way of getting these stories out to people. They are not in the mainstream of South African art and history and they deserve to be.
“The response I’ve had has been very positive in terms of restoring pride in various communities.”
One of his passions relates to traditional Zulu handcraft which is dying out but can be sold in New York for thousands of dollars – clearly a way, if properly appreciated, that rural people could make a living.
Another of the books he has published, The Artist in the Garden, is about Moses Tladi, one of the first indigenous artists to be painting in an international style, in the 1920s and 1930s and whose work was exhibited in 1931 and 1933 at the SA National Gallery – and was exhibited there again from September last year to mid-March this year.
Robin’s background is in graphic design in the corporate world.
“Having been an illustrator, writer and designer, I know how tough it is getting published – or even getting work,” he said. So for him it is important – in the children’s books in particular – to provide an international platform for new South African illustrators and authors.
So this is why he attends international book fairs such as in London and Bologna, in April.
Bologna was an eye-opener.
“It was stretched over five halls. The variety. The languages. The visual … just astonishing what’s out there. We match up to that, if not better. Literary, verbal, technical, printing – we can do it.”
Do it Bumble Books certainly can, winning the Best Children’s Publisher of the Year Prize for Africa. This prize is awarded to those publishers who have most distinguished themselves for their creative and publishing excellence over the year, showing originality as well as professional and intellectual skills.
Robin takes the book-to-be from manuscript stage and edits, designs, produces the book, contracting out the printing, with the books distributed by Jacana media.
The beautifully produced books often have an environmental or social message, but lightly done, such as Rainbow’s Heart by Richard Latimer, a vibrantly illustrated story of two cousins asked to save a mysterious colony of bees; or one that Robin is particularly proud of, I am Alex by Elena Agnello illustrated by Adrie le Roux.
“It’s a wonderful story of diversity. When I saw Elena’s manuscript – such a simple idea, about a child’s birthday party – I couldn’t find anyone having done it before. It was a matter of teaming her with an illustrator, Adrie le Roux, an arts graduate who is working on a PhD focusing on wordless picture books in creating a culture of reading.
The story is about Alex inviting different sorts of people to his party, different backgrounds or sexual orientation (“Kids don’t see colour or sexual preference”, pointed out Robin), “and of course, the reader is invited too!”
One thing these international book fairs have shown Robin is that publishers all over the world – whether Armenian, Macedonian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Spanish – have the same problems.
In South Africa, for example, said Robin, a book is a luxury.
The world market is no longer a printed book orientated place and book shops are no longer the primary sales channel. So all publishers are having to think laterally, looking at new ways of selling, high retail discounts and selling online. Robin freely admits that publishing is “a battle”.
“The books are funded by myself and by raising subscriptions – like mini-crowd-funding. Most sales are pre-sales to a database. It doesn’t cover half the cost of printing. I work deals with printers – it’s difficult.”
So the focus is on international sales and international rights.
One of his titles, Annie Learns to Swim by Katrin Coetzer, has been translated by the Chinese who are doing a print run of 6 000 to test the market. Robin marvels – a test run of 6 000! His entire print run was 500 in English and 500 in Afrikaans. He’s definitely holding thumbs there.
* The Echo has five English and two Afrikaans children’s books to give away. To stand in line to win one of them, SMS FBBook along with your name, surname, contact details, and the language of the book you’d prefer, to 34445 before 10pm on Sunday June 5. Winners will be notified telephonically.