Wordsmack is a digital publisher ready to breach a new frontier in publishing: African speculative fiction. The team, made up of Leani Wessels (top image) and Louise Cosgrave (bottom image), saw a gap in the publishing industry and set their minds to mining it. They have already published some interesting SF books that are bound to make readers sit up and pay attention. I asked Leani a few questions to get a better idea of what Wordsmack is all about…
Tell us a little about how Wordsmack was founded.
It’s something of a dream business. Let’s be honest – we get to publish local speculative fiction online, what can be better than that? We were both working in industries experiencing huge change – Louise in publishing and myself in magazine journalism – and were itching to create something that could take advantage of the incredible freedom that is offered by digital business. We both felt there was a gap in how traditional publishers approach online publishing and felt a business like ours could innovate and adapt faster to meet and deal with the opportunities and challenges offered by the digital age. So we quit our jobs, bought a coffee machine and registered the name Wordsmack.
What is your vision as a digital publishing company?
To innovate to the point where we’re not merely adding more ‘noise’ to the online space, but where we are the ultimate source of highly entertaining and affordable reads. To be a publishing company that can offer readers curated content where they want, how they want to read it and when they want it.
You are one of very few publishers in South Africa who publish speculative fiction. What draws you to this genre? And why do you think there is a hesitance from mainstream publishers to publish it?
Initially we were drawn to the genre because we like the audience – they’re loyal consumers, willing to experiment and discover new authors and early adopters of technology like ebooks. It’s also a genre traditionally under-catered for by the big publishers and so we saw a space where we could make a start. We also felt that it’s much more difficult to write well in this genre than in others, so the quality of submissions would be better generally, making it cheaper and more efficient for us to decide on what to publish and to edit. Also, if I had to edit reams of self-help or business advice papers, I may just drown myself in wine.
Why do you prefer SF set in Africa?
Simply: originality. There are thousands of books published every minute – to stand out we believe that originality of stories will play a big role and so we’re setting our sights on African speculative fiction. So much of the entry-level SF themes coming from the US and UK are so ‘done’. Here we’ve got unique points of view, cultures and socio-political changes that inspire really interesting storytelling. We also feel that there’s a global interest in Africa that is growing slowly. You see it in design, fashion and in books.
Largely, I think it has to do with the low entry barriers associated with publishing digitally and the realisation from consumers that buying books from physical shops is crazy expensive. A stagnant and stuffy traditional publishing industry also created those individuals who are more open-minded, forcing them to create their own businesses where the book price, its look, even its distribution model can change within 24 hours. I also think that there are exciting and interesting platforms that are keeping our eye fixed on the digital potential. The bookly app, for example, is an app that allows you to read books for free on any kind of cellphone (not just smartphones). This means we can get books to most kids in Sub-Saharan Africa. That is intoxicating potential!
What kinds of stories would you love to see in your submissions inbox? Do you have a wish-list?
Well obviously the next Harry Potter, but bar that, something that makes us just want to read more. Something we can’t put down. Basically any original speculative fiction that can be made into a series that people will want to read. Our passion is getting more people to read, so books that can reach a wider audience would be ideal.
What are some common mistakes you see in submissions?
Aside from the usual spelling mistakes and bad grammar in cover letters or not following the submissions criteria on our website, worlds that aren’t well thought out or the author clearly knows but can’t convey– especially in the fantasy genre.
On your website you make it clear that promotion is a joint affair between publisher and author. How important is an online presence for a new author?
Incredibly important. I can’t stress it enough. An online presence shows me you can at least open an account on Twitter and won’t need me to baby you through it. Also, the beauty of being online is that you can engage in real time with your readers. They can tell you what they like or don’t like about your work – that kind of market knowledge used to cost a lot. And at the end of the day, you need to be your own brand ambassador for your work. You need to live, eat … and tweet your writing, the best way to do that is to be online and draw fans to your work that way. We obviously also market the authors’ works and spend money on the marketing, but it helps when the author can collaborate with us on it on social media.
Do you have any advice for first timers?
Practice your craft by writing short fiction for magazines like Something Wicked, Jungle Jim, Aerdrome, Prufrock or Short Story Day Africa. I can see the difference between a submission from a writer who has been published (in a magazine, mostly) and one who hasn’t.
Don’t take yourself so seriously, it’s about giving your readers what they want. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
Can you give us any hints about future publications?
We’ll be releasing the second installments of the Idea War and The Folds series soon, which will explain a bit more about the worlds created and about the characters’ reasons to be fighting the regimes. Then we’re very excited to announce the release of two cracking young adult novels: The Ripmender, by Julianne Alcott – a love story set in Durban between a very ordinary girl and an international rock star who is tasked with mending the ‘rips’ between different planets by a secretive interplanetary association. Then we’re publishing the inimatble Nerine Dorman’s young adult fantasy adventure The Guardian’s Wyrd. It’s the story of friends Jay and Rowan from Hout Bay who find a secret passage to another world in Rowan’s large, creepy garden. Details of releases can be found all over the web, but primarily on our blog, our facebook page, our website or our twitter account.