By BRUCE DENNILL
How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.
This is the art of publishing – capturing the zeitgeist and knowing what will sell to the wider reading market. Reliably doing this is impossibly hard, of course, and ever more so in the Amazon-induced glut of titles of the modern era, which is why publishers are always so keen to find authors who could become their own brands and books that have the potential to turn into franchises.
In this instance, 50 People Who F***ed Up South Africa: The Lost Decade is the fourth book in the 50 People series, and it comes exactly ten years after the first book, 50 People Who Stuffed Up South Africa. That book was a popularised look at South African history from 1652 to the modern day, and happily for us it sold very well, so the idea of unpacking our tumultuous last/lost decade in the same format, this time attempting to popularise contemporary South African politics, seemed fairly obvious to Alex, Zapiro and me.
That all said, a critical point I try to convey to aspirant authors is that there are many potential success criteria for a book; it’s not necessarily about bookstore sales. Direct sales to your captive audience, building your personal or company credibility and brand, creating business opportunities, personal skills development, personal satisfaction, legacy – these are just some of the reasons to develop an idea into a book.
Most important, I’d say, is to write something you believe in, with integrity and authenticity, rather than trying to find a sales angle.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
That really does depend on the project in question. For the 50 People books, Alex, Zapiro and I put together a longlist of contenders perhaps a year before publication, and we chat about the themes or threads that might emerge as we write. Then Alex and I see where our individual interests take us in terms of reading and research. For 50 People Who F***ed Up South Africa, for instance, I had become interested in how social media has affected society and the way we take in news in particular, and this is reflected in a long entry on Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, and it surfaces at various stages throughout the book.
Beyond that, we feel that the key to the 50 People books is weighting them well so that the pages turn. We want to mix heavy and light, serious and irreverent. We identify around 10 or 15 important entries that form the scaffolding of the book – the really bad buggers or those who represent key incidents. This time it was the likes of Shaun Abrahams, Malusi Gigaba, the Guptas, Markus Jooste, Ace Magashule, Tom Moyane, JZ and a few more. Then we see where the writing takes us, and we continually refine the list according to what we’ve come up with.
This particular 50 was the hardest of the four books to narrow down, and we only finalised it once we’d written about 45 of them.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it?
In all four books, the subject matter has been so broad that most people included could have a book or more written about them, and in many cases they do. So again, the research is about getting the balance right – enough to add genuine insight and understanding, but not too much so that we can’t see the wood for the trees, and that either the book or the writing process itself gets bogged down.
These are mostly people with complex personal histories we’re writing about, and the trick for us was to unpack some insight about them or explain in an easily digestible way the key incident they represented, be it Nkandla or VBS Mutual Bank or the Life Esidimeni tragedy or the meltdown of Eskom over the course of the decade.
For some people we might read a book or more, or consult a specific expert in the field for key insights. Often it was about explaining quite technical documents like the Nugent commission report for Tom Moyane or the Corruption Watch report on the Water and Sanitation department for Nomvula Mokonyane’s entry. There is a temptation in a book like this to be lured down research rabbit holes that aren’t necessary and hold up the overall project – getting the balance right is always key.
How much planning do you do before beginning in earnest? Do you have to know where you’re going to end up before you start?
Some kind of structure – what we called scaffolding for this book – is absolutely key. A pitfall for many a writer, particularly shorter-form writers looking to author a book for the first time, is the lack of direction. They have an inspirational idea, get stuck into it with gusto then literally get stuck in it because they have no sense of where they’re trying to go. If you have a clear structure, then you have a lodestar to guide you when you hit those inevitable writing dead-ends or moments of creative crisis and insecurity – which we all get at some point.
To all authors, I’d suggest clarifying a short one-sentence mission statement for your book – “I’m writing a book about x, for reader y, to achieve goal z” – and then a two-page summary of the book with chapters outlined. Then give yourself a bit of leeway to adapt as you go.
If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?
So many… In particular, the publishing day job. Which is a justified reason to procrastinate when the writing isn’t coming easily. The greatest luxury for an author is to be able to take a writing sabbatical so that you don’t have to answer emails and take calls. I managed to do this once – to a degree – and I was particularly proud of that book, which needed more time and reflection than others I’ve been involved in. I recommend it if possible, and I’d love to repeat the process again in future.
That said, I’m a firm believer in harnessing whatever situation you’re in. 50 People Who F***ed Up South Africa was written in the craziest year since the Second World War, and that emotion and occasionally manic energy comes off the page, I think. To get it done and sent to print, as we hurtled towards that first unmeetable deadline, I ended up putting an “on sabbatical” auto-response on my email just so that I’d have fewer distractions during the day. Inevitably, though, I ended up writing into the early morning for a couple of months and not getting enough sleep.
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
Well, in this instance, this is the problem of being the publisher and the co-author… I have to tell myself – and Alex – that it’s unacceptable to miss deadline! Inevitably, though, we did, and the justification I gave myself was simple: “It’s 2020.”
Deadlines are wonderful things. They focus the mind. The trick is to have an ideal, false deadline and then a real one, usually not more than about two weeks further back. This becomes problematic when you’re giving yourself the deadline, but there are ways to make them stick. I find it very difficult to write without a deadline, and this is why so many manuscripts go unfinished. You have to find ways to write under the focusing pressure of time.
There’s a good Leonard Bernstein quote here: “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”
Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of wordcount or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter?
Just put something on the page. Open the document, create the header, maybe write the intro… That’s a start. Starting the writing process, for me, is always hard. You over-research and over-write and end up with far too many words that you have to cut down… Often the first 10 or 20% of the manuscript takes half the time and then the rest comes like an avalanche. Whatever your process, you must understand it, go with it and have faith that you’ll hit form at some point – and when you do you must cash in.
Again looking at this book, there are entries that took literally one or two weeks to write and there were others written in a morning – they tend to be different types of entries, but often the moments of magic come in a flash out of the blue.
What have you found are the best ways to get this done?
For me, it’s writing at night. No emails or phone calls and everyone else – including my five-year-old son! – is asleep… There’s nothing for you to do but write.
Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?
A million-dollar question. Marketing of books in South Africa has never been particularly innovative unfortunately – our market just isn’t big enough to encourage much budget or chance-taking. So one route I encourage is for individual authors to build their own followings and create books for those fans and readers in particular, taking the books directly to the readers rather than expecting them to be discovered in bookstores. Ideally, they should be available in stores though…
Ironically, I’m not one of those authors, so this book has gone the traditional publicist route. Perhaps we’ll try some targeted online advertising – if you read the book, though, you’ll see that we believe the Google and Facebook ad cycle is the work of the devil, so let’s see about that…