Week 32/20 – week ending 7 August

OUP prepares World’s Classics Orwell editions







OUP has announced its World’s Classics editions of titles by George Orwell, whose work comes out of copyright at the end of this year, 70 years after his death in 1950. Orwell’s exclusive paperback publisher until now has been Penguin.

The editions have notes and introductions by leading academics including Selina Todd (The Road to Wigan Pier) and Stefan Collini (Selected Essays).

The titles are:

Fiction: Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air, Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Non-fiction: Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia, Selected Essays

Penguin Great Ideas returns with 20 new titles












Penguin Great Ideas is returning, ten years after the last instalment in the series, with 20 new titles. Penguin Classics’ non-fiction series first began in 1995 with the publication of 20 pocket-sized titles with David Pearson’s cover design, and four further sets of 20 books followed. George Orwell is the bestselling writer in the series so far, and others on the list include Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf, and Seneca. Pearson has returned to design a number of the 20 covers of the news series, with series art direction by Jim Stoddart. The 20 new titles comprise authors ‘whose work remains deeply resonant with and at times starkly reflective of today’s world’.

Simon Winder, publishing director at Penguin Press, said: “The Great Ideas series began in 2004 and came from my frustration that within Penguin Classics we assumed that the great non-fiction of the past should just be studied – that it needed notes, a bibliography and introduction. While these were invaluable for students, they might be seen as a lot less fun just for readers. What if a series could be created where readers came as close as possible to the original experience, with nobody holding their hands? The enormous success of the series has vindicated this view. There really is something wonderful about the raw, direct encounter with great ethical, political, religious and philosophical writing. The concept hardly counts as a very original one. This was, after all, simply the form in which books like The Prince and The Communist Manifesto had been published in the first place! It was also inspired by the famous Italian series, the Piccola Biblioteca. Millions of copies later Great Ideas continues to inspire, confuse and enrage new generations of readers. This new set of 20 has come about because we had accumulated, from different fans of the series within Penguin Press, 20 really excellent omissions. As usual, the series owes a great deal to the designs of David Pearson (who also came up with the Great Ideas name all those years ago).”

Pearson said: “It’s a really interesting process – picking up a piece of work that you put down a decade ago. After 100 books it feels like the series has created its own rules and its own version of reality, which is an unbelievably fertile space for a designer to work in. Whereas the first series dealt mainly with straight cover versions it feels like we are now in the realm of thrillingly-inauthentic remixes. The changing list of books naturally revitalises the look of the series (removing the Medieval and Renaissance periods reduces the scope for all-out decoration for example) but the challenge has always been to develop a sort of pleasing inconsistency, so that books play nicely together but also jar and spar when displayed in different combinations. I’ve always loved this about the series: the surprising effect that different pairings create and this seems to be reflected in the way that people buy them (it is incredibly rare that anyone would buy all 20 on a visit to a bookshop and the books encourage a kind of pick-and-mix approach to buying, especially given their reduced price and size). Some covers prescribe, some misguide; some are formal, some informal; some are minimal, some maximal; some shout and some whisper. Some are legible and some – let’s be honest – require a good deal of deciphering. It was great fun wearing all these different hats, often on the same day!”

The list of new titles is:
Audre Lorde – When I Dare To Be Powerful
Sojourner Truth – Ain’t I A Woman?
Simone Weil – The Power of Words
Peter Singer – Why Vegan?
Epicurus – Being Happy
Aristotle – One Swallow Does Not Make A Summer
How To Be A Stoic
Three Japanese Buddhist Monks
Inazō Nitobe – Bushido: The Soul of Japan
Peter Kropotkin – Anarchist Communism
Hannah Arendt – The Freedom To Be Free
Martin Luther King – A Tough Mind And A Tender Heart
Friedrich Nietzsche – God Is Dead. God Remains Dead. And We Have Killed Him.
Suffragette Manifestos
Simone de Beauvoir – What Is Existentialism?
Albert Camus – Reflections on the Guillotine
Italo Calvino – The Narrative of Trajan’s Column
John Berger – Steps Towards A Small Theory Of The Visible
Georges Perec – Brief Notes On The Art And Manner Of Arranging One’s Books
Oscar Wilde – The Decay Of Lying

PublisHers: Thabiso Mahlape

Thabiso Mahlape is the founder of Blackbird Books in South Africa, an independent publishing house that is dedicated to giving young black writers a platform (www.blackbirdbooks.africa). She holds a bachelor of information science degree specialising in publishing from the University of Pretoria. In between juggling submissions, proofs and sales, Mahlape is a columnist: she writes regularly for the Sowetan newspaper and has contributed to magazines such a Destiny and VISI. As a writer and a speaker, her focus is largely on self-development, body politics and what it means to be a black woman in South Africa. She is part of the Mail & Guardian Top 200 in 2017 and OkayAfrica Top 100 Women in 2020, and was awarded a Certificate of Excellence for her work by the Premier of Gauteng, David Makhura.

This is the latest in Emma House’s series of interviews with members of the PublisHer community, an industry-led push for progress on gender equality in publishing around the world.

Tell us about your journey into the publishing industry- what attracted you to the industry and how did you start?
I wasn’t attracted by the industry actually; it was an accidental relationship. I taught myself how to read because I had a burning desire to be learn English after suffering some humiliation at age 7.

I started with my father’s newspapers, which he brought home every day. I soon graduated to books. I don’t know or remember how I first came by those condensed Reader’s Digest editions; I found in them for the first time the wonder and joy of being lost in a story and absorbed by characters.

I did not have the idyllic childhood of being read to, so I never read any age-appropriate books. But from thereon my relationship with words and stories was born. In high school I would write stories in a notebook and loan it out to school mates as a library would. They’d come back worn and torn but I was happy that they had been read. When I finished high school, with my limited knowledge of what else was there I thought that the only way I could pursue that passion was through journalism. At the age of 16 I didn’t know that publishing was a career that you could enter in South Africa. This was partly due to lack of representation in books (all books were by white people). I saw bylines in newspapers by black people, hence my leaning towards journalism. I didn’t know that you could study publishing.

But just before I was to leave to study, I was recruited into an engineering programme because of my good results in maths and science, and thus began the biggest nightmare of my young life. I spent four years depressed and wishing I’d die.

After failing horribly in the last year, I eventually told my dad why, and luckily he remembered who I’d wanted to be, so he agreed to pay for me to go and try again at something I loved.

When I arrived at the University of Pretoria, the journalism class was full. Someone advised me to study publishing, and the rest is history.

After you finished studying, how did you get into publishing and what led you to set up Blackbird Books in 2015? What do you hope to achieve with the publishing house?
I finished studying in 2008, and had 18 months doing odd jobs here and there. In July 2010 I applied for an internship programme run by the Publishers Association of South Africa (PASA). They told me I had been placed with Jacana Media, but when I arrived, they knew nothing about my internship! They were very gracious however, and took me on. That was a decade ago. After the internship they kept me on doing all kinds of odd jobs, and I decided to give myself the job title of junior publisher. I worked in the submissions department and discovered the book My Father My Monster (by McIntosh Polela), which I worked on with a senior publisher. The book really was quite ground-breaking and really delivered in terms of numbers.

As a junior publisher I spent a lot of time in commissioning meetings with only white people who were able to name drop lots of people they could approach for books. It really made me wonder whether I fit into the industry, as I couldn’t contribute to those conversations. However, the best piece of advice I was given was, “Contribute by saying the names of people whose stories resonate with you.” I did this, and found I was able to participate much more actively.

I soon gave myself the job title of “publisher”, and by 2013-2014 I reached a ceiling with my career. A few books in I had already published a book that won the biggest book award in the country at that time, and I was already feeling, what’s next? I knew I deserved a higher salary, but because the company couldn’t pay me what I wanted I reduced my hours to three days a week and set up a consultancy business. In 2015, I used the consultancy business to set up a JV imprint with Jacana, and we called it Blackbird Books. I really welcomed this opportunity with both hands, especially because it meant I could publish just the stories I wanted to publish and that black writers would have a platform dedicated for them.

The arrangement worked for four years, but in the end we had very different views on how Blackbird could be a different way of publishing, and in April 2019 we realised it was the end of the road for the JV and that I would have a year-long exit plan. April 2020 came around very quickly, and before I knew it, we were independent with the freedom to try new things.

Now that I am independent, I want to turn this into THE literary gateway into Africa. What I mean by this is that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there were lots of people actively looking for African writers and content. But successful African works usually had an element of northern influence – they were by people who had left Africa to go to the UK/USA. My vision for this publishing house is that Africans need to define and be settled with what African content is. It will be a platform where authors are not asked to conform or shy away from ideas because they are not palatable to someone who was not in Africa. It will be African stories by Africans and for the world.

What challenges have you had to overcome in your career?
Being spoken down to, by a lot of the people in the industry and within the company that I worked for. What was hugely frustrating was the need always to justify my reasons for all of my decisions when my counterparts didn’t have to.

A huge challenge now is to be publishing for a market that is largely still trying to find itself in as far as books and reading are concerned, after having been ignored for so long. Representation has many layers, and we are a very diverse country with 11 official languages; we need many black publishers to really cater for the market. The black readership is not homogenous, and being expected to cater for all is very challenging.

But perhaps the most painful challenge I’ve faced is to have mistakes threaten your career when others can just glide past theirs.

Have you had any role models that have inspired you on your publishing journey?
Toni Morrison. I realised that I sit in a place where I can do for South African black writers what she did for Americans. And because I really want to be able to write, and hope that one day I can be able to retire well in time before my mind leaves me and write, just like her.

I have had other people that inspired me since that initial inspiration, but hers was most definitive.

What are you most proud of in your career so far?
Mostly, staying in it, when it is so hard with few returns.

But I am most proud of the writers whose careers I have been able to help start, the confidence my “Yes” has given them to soar. This really warms my heart on days when the spreadsheets are more red than black, like now.

What is the environment like for women in publishing in South Africa? Are there any programmes or initiatives that support women in the publishing sector to get ahead?
Even though the face of everyday publishing is women, not talking about CEOs and boards, there aren’t any initiatives like that. No one has stopped to really think about how we give women more leadership positions and strengthen and grow their careers. If there is, I am not aware. And of course, the government ministry (Arts, Sports and Culture) under which we are lumped seldom ever has the word publishing in any of their communication about the arts.

How has the environment for black writers changed in South Africa over the last five years since you started Blackbird Books?
This is weird to answer so I am going to borrow from someone.

“BlackBird Books has broadened the space for black narratives and experiences. It has given a voice to those whose life’s journey can impact broader society” – Redi Tlhabi, broadcaster, journalist and author.

I do believe that the presence of Blackbird Books and the visibility of Thabiso Mahlape as a publisher have encouraged a new wave of literary interest in the country. We have seen more book clubs and a wave of self-published authors, because this platform created an energy that could be tapped into.

You are a writer and speaker yourself: what are you passionate about when it comes to writing and speaking?
I write about my life a lot. My dad doesn’t always enjoy it because unpacking my issues means delving into a lot of our shared history as a family. But he is particularly proud when I tackle misogyny and call it out. I don’t think he particularly wants any of us (three daughters) to get married; I think it comforts him knowing I would never allow a man to treat me as anything else but what he brought me up to be.

Mental health, women and society are generally my interest.

What do you think of the PublisHer initiative?
From the minute I met Bodour (Al Qasimi, IPA vice-president and founder of PublisHer) I had renewed hope of what support can look like. I am especially proud and supportive of the platform because I have met and seen her heart. Sometimes people start things because they tick boxes – this is not one of them.

How do you think we can encourage and support more women into senior positions in the publishing industry?
I try to offer my ear and expertise where I can.

I hope to be able to grow some pushing women leaders in my own company, so if you know anyone keen on investing in a small African press, let me know.

Jobs go as sales halve at WH Smith

The full impact of the pandemic was laid bare by WH Smith yesterday morning in an unscheduled trading update, which revealed year-on-year total group revenue was down by 57% in July. Although a sobering decline, the July figure in fact represents progress: the same measure was down 83% in April, 82% in May and 69% in June.

Recovery was faster in the high street division. Although trade was down 71% in April, by July this had recovered to only 25% as lockdown eased. Throughout the lockdown 203 stores that contain Post Offices stayed open and since June other stores have reopened, with all 575 now trading.

The travel division however, saw sales down 92% in April and still down 73% in July. The division is now trading from 246 oulets that historically represent around 75% of its sales. In the UK 53% are open. It has been reported that a dozen of the very smallest kiosk stores may be axed.

For the year to 31 August WH Smith is now predicting an annual loss of £70m-£75m. In the year to August 2019 the company made a pre-tax profit of £155m, on a turnover of £1,397m.

Although now loss-making, ‘the Board is confident that the Group has sufficient funds to allow it to operate throughout a prolonged downturn in our markets’, according to the trading statement.

‘Our liquidity position remains consistent with the detail we provided at our Interim results on 14 May 2020. As at 4 August, we had cash of approximately £63m with a revolving credit facility of £200m and an additional committed bank facility of £120m, both of which are undrawn. In addition, we have secured eligibility for the Government’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility (“CCFF”). In July, our monthly cash burn on an underlying trading basis was between £15m and £20m.

‘The £120m short term facility, which was agreed at the time of the Group’s refinancing in April, was due to be cancelled when the Group accessed the CCFF. We have now agreed an amendment to this short term facility with our banks so that there is no immediate requirement to cancel the short term facility, should we access the CCFF.’

WH Smith group chief executive Carl Cowling (pictured) said: “In our Travel business, while we are beginning to see early signs of recovery in some of our markets, the speed of recovery continues to be slow. At the same time, while there has been some progress in our High Street business, it does continue to be adversely affected by low levels of footfall. As a result, we now need to take further action to reduce costs across our businesses. I regret that this will have an impact on a significant number of colleagues whose roles will be affected by these necessary actions, and we will do everything we can to support them at this challenging time.

“While we are mindful of the continuing uncertainties that exist, we are a resilient and versatile business. The operational actions we are taking along with the financing arrangements that are in place, put us in a strong position to navigate this time of uncertainty and we are well positioned to benefit in due course from the recovery of our key markets.”

The job losses will mainly occur in travel outlets, and will see the company’s overall headcount fall to about 12,500. The company’s next scheduled trading update will be its prelims, set for Thursday 12 November.