The Old Diocesan Issue5 Mar2020 - Page 66



had it on the shelves a month
after the final whistle blew. We
ended up selling 208,000 copies
of In Black And White; bear in mind
that this is a country where sales
of 10,000 copies are exceptional.
Another sports book I must
mention – because he’s an
OD – is To The Point, the eyewateringly honest autobiography
of Herschelle Gibbs (1992O).
The cricket establishment had a
massive sense-of-humour failure
about it, but the public loved it; it
sold more than 50,000 copies. That
book was actually Herschelle’s
second autobiography. Both of
them were ghostwritten, but he
read the proofs of our one, which
apparently he didn’t do with the
first. Given that he had said some
time earlier that he’d never read
a book in his life, this might give
him the distinction of being the
only person who has authored
more books than he’s read…
The book I’m probably proudest
of is Letters of Stone by Steven
Robins. Steven is a professor
of anthropology at Stellenbosch,
and the book is about his father
and uncle who escaped from
Berlin in the early years of the
Third Reich and settled in South
Robert with Pieter-Dirk Uys
at the launch of Uys’s memoir
Elections & Erections in 2002.
64 | THE OLD DIOCESAN
Africa and Zambia, and about the
family who couldn’t get out. The
“letters” of the title were written
by Steven’s grandmother and
aunt, and document how they
tried to cling to the routines
of life as the noose tightened
around them before their death.
It’s a bitterly sad story, but there’s
triumph in it, because it preserves
the voices of the people the Nazis
tried to silence.
A recent highlight was Gangster
State by Pieter-Louis Myburgh,
about ANC secretary-general
Ace Magashule, which caused a
huge stir and was the bestselling
South African book of 2019.
What’s the best part of your job?
Working with authors. Editing
someone’s book is a strangely
intimate relationship. You sit with
them and discuss the way they’ve
written about seminal moments
in their lives, and explore whether
there are ways of expressing
it better. It’s been immensely
rewarding to do this with people
like Ahmed Kathrada, Pieter-Dirk
Uys, Max du Preez, Alex Boraine,
Antjie Krog, Helen Zille and
Mathews Phosa. I can’t think
of another job that would give
you that kind of access to such
a range of fascinating people.
Perhaps a celebrity therapist?
I particularly enjoy working
on the structure of a book, taking
a bird’s-eye view of the narrative
and figuring out where it needs
to be cut, where it needs to be
expanded, where material is
missing, where it needs to
be reordered. It’s difficult for
authors to see that, because
they are so close to the material.
It takes an outsider to see that.
That’s what editors are for. That’s
why editors can never edit books
they write themselves.
And the worst part?
Working with authors. Some
authors can’t understand why
you want to change what they’ve
written, and they resist it. They
think the publisher’s job is to
fix the spelling, grammar and
punctuation, and to print the book.
Any publishing horror stories?
There are plenty. Authors who don’t
deliver on time, badly written text,
covers that we just can’t get right,
plagiarism scandals, copyright
infringements, defamation
lawsuits, entire print runs we’ve
had to pulp. The main pressure
is not to let any errors through
– because any mistake will get
printed thousands of times over.
What advice do you have for
aspiring authors on submitting
their manuscripts?
Sadly, we publish very few of the
unsolicited manuscripts we receive,
and we receive hundreds. Mostly
we publish books we commission,
new works by existing authors, or
ideas referred to us by authors,
journalists and other contacts.
But it does happen. If you think
you’ve written a good book, or
if you have a good idea for one,
don’t be disheartened. You just
have to be realistic. Are you
convinced that 3,000 strangers –
your mom and your friends don’t
count here – will want to fork out
R250 or R300 for your book? Are
you absolutely sure that your
story should be a book rather
than a magazine article or a
Facebook post? Can you articulate
in a couple of punchy sentences
why your book is going to be a
winner? If so, write a proposal
giving the answers to these
questions, plus a few sample
chapters, and send it to me at
rplummer@penguinrandomhouse.co.za.





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