Southern African writers are publishing books through Facebook and Whatsapp that speak directly to readers' lives . Is this the future or a fad?
As a young teenage bookworm, Lizzie Muchenje would buy novels from bookshops, borrow from libraries and exchange literature with her friends. But in 2018, her reading life changed. A friend added her to a WhatsApp group on which readers and writers share online books in English and Shona. Some require a nominal fee to access but many are free, meaning Muchenje could suddenly access an almost unlimited array of new literature for a dollar's worth of data.
Muchenje is far from the only satisfied customer. Across countries in Southern Africa, a trend has emerged of readers turning to books by local authors that are uploaded directly to Facebook pages, Whatsapp groups or shared online as pdfs. The genres span everything from fantasy to crime and self-help. They are often in local languages and some even use emoji to depict action. Many readers find them not only more affordable and accessible, but more relatable.
"Online books are free and entertaining, and are based on true stories affecting us," says Theresa Mwando, another keen reader. "The names and places are real, and one feels attached to the setting. It feels real and interesting to read a thriller by a local author in vernacular, rather than a book written by the thriller author John Grisham who is far away from me."
The lockdowns imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic have only accelerated this trend. "I am an avid reader but with many libraries closed and expensive printed books, online books are serving me well," says Muchenje.
A novel trend
This new phenomenon began in earnest around five years as more writers in the region - particularly in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe - began trying to circumvent the traditional publishing industry.
For some, such as South African novelist Sanele Shongwe, it started as an experiment. "I started writing on Facebook, using a pen name afraid that people would label me a failure who write stories on Facebook, but the support I got gave me the courage to reveal myself," he says.
He is now proud to put his name to his works and this January started a new Facebook group called Ka-Shongwe Stories. On the page, which already has 1,500 readers, he publishes novels in Zulu for free, one page at a time. "My readers appreciate and like my writing a lot, and send positive comments," he says.
Morgan Tatenda set up his page Dr TM Stories five years ago as a way to reach his audience more quickly and directly. It now has nearly 50,000 followers, who keenly await updates of his detective and love stories. "I write novels in Shona but normally I mix Shona and English because I am trying to attract today's generation," he says. "Nowadays, our generation mix vernacular and English in their conversations. That's what this generation wants."
Tatenda has now published over 27 books online. He provides a few chapters for free and invites readers to pay a fee to read the rest. He says he sells about 500 pdfs of his books each month.
Pride Mawedzere, 24, writes at Suwani Stories, which has nearly 25,000 fans. Like Tatenda, he publishes sections of his writing for free after which readers can buy the complete pdfs for a fee. The Zimbabwean author says he turned to direct online publishing to ensure he received maximum profits and ownership of his work.
"I use my smartphone to type and I take a month to finish a book," he says. "After writing, I give it to a proofreader, then to my editor. It is then designed for typesetting and registered." He explains that he pays these individuals a flat fee, but after that, any income is his.
"There are a lot of disadvantages with publishers," he says. "For instance, the publisher will get the copyrights for your work unlike with self-publishing where you get 100% of the profits."
Fad or future?
The response to this new trend in the traditional publishing industry has been mixed. Some, such as Zimbabwean author Ignatius Mabasa, 50, welcome it. In his decades long career, he has published several books through the traditional publishing industry but has tried to find ways to innovate. Mabasa was one of the first Zimbabwean writers to publish e-books and, in 2012, established Bhabhu Books to support books written in local languages.
"Reading books or stories on a phone is cheaper, easy, accessible and not intimidating," he says. "The more online stories we have, the better our reading culture becomes... If you want your work to have a market, then go to where the people are."
Mabasa has followed the phenomenon with interest and suggests new online authors are now beginning to compete with more established writers by circumventing the "gatekeeping and bureaucracy" of the traditional publishing industry.
"The competition with bookshops is there because online books are creating a new culture which is quick and accessible and flexible," he says. "There is also an interesting aspect: the ability to directly interact with the author can create a new way of co-authored works, or works that gratify readers better."
Others, however, are more sceptical about the impact of online publishing and see it more as a passing phase.
"I don't think it is the future of the publishing industry, but when the economy is down something takes over," says Bridget Impey, publishing director at the South African publishers Jacana Media. "As publishers, we don't see online publishers affecting us, but the competition is from self-publishing authors. It is hard to measure the impact of online authors."
She also points out that publishing online brings with it its own financial risks such as piracy, which can make it less lucrative for writers. This issue was echoed by some online authors. Impey is nonetheless open to hear from writers who have cut their teeth in unconventional ways.
"I think it is a fascinating and developing trend of flash fiction, but we might be slow off the mark. If the writers tell us what they can do, we will consider their writings. They have followers already," she says.
For some online writers, this is a welcome invitation.
"I have never sent my books to a publisher for consideration... I don't know how book publishers operate," says Shongwe. "It's every person's dream to have a career out of a passion, so I am willing to have that opportunity if there is a chance."
For others, the traditional publishing industry is of no interest. For them, publishing directly online is not merely convenient but an active choice.
"I condemned traditional publishing; to me, it is out fashioned," says Tatenda. "I have to follow what this generation is doing and whether you are in a taxi or a bus or even walking down the streets, you will see everyone glued to their phones... Some of the media houses are now doing everything online. Even radio stations are doing the same. So why not us as authors?"
Derick Matsengarwodzi is a content creator with experience in the media, public relations, advertising and marketing industries, including NGOs. He contributes to regional and international publications.