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SSDA Judge Sean Fraser on ‘Why Books’

Today’s guest blogger for Short Story Day Africa is Sean Fraser. Last year he helped edit the anthology Rapunzel is Dead. This year he is one of the judges for the 9&Under category. Welcome, Sean!

Why Books

I graduated from Rhodes with a Bachelor of Journalism and Media Studies, so books weren’t part of the grand plan initially. I wanted instead the gritty life of a hardcore news reporter, all exotic destinations and/or danger-defying breaking news. Then I spent two years in the Defence Force (as one did in those days if you were white and male), starting as a cub reporter and eventually (with a single corporal’s stripe on my arm) as News Editor at Uniform. But let’s not even go there … Then, immediately following my stint under Oom Magnus and his cronies, I was offered a junior writing position at YOU magazine (not a good place to start, admittedly) but six weeks there quickly put paid to all those noble notions. I was bored stiff and realised that I in my day-to-day life, I don’t even like hiking or camping – anything that does not mean running hot water and flush loos, in fact everything that would require me to break a sweat – so what was I thinking when I thought the frontlines of Beirut and Serbia and Rwanda was where I wanted to be? No, ‘news’ reporting was not for me. That was clear.

So what now? Well, books actually. I’d always been a voracious reader, and everything I was looking for was right there between the pages of books: mystery, intrigue, adventure and current affairs. So I rearranged my CV and began toting it around town. Four months, that’s how long it took for someone to bite. That call from Wilsia Metz at Howard Timmins (a small imprint of Struik Publishers at the time) changed everything. What I learnt at the desk of that woman you can’t learn in courses. And suddenly here I was, 22 years old, earning a ‘professional’ salary of R1 700 a month and doing what I loved: reading. People were actually willing to pay me to do just that. That was cool beyond words. I started off on General & Reference, but within a year or two, when Gerry Struik decided he wanted to establish a Children’s Books division, I leapt at the opportunity. It proved to be an extraordinary adventure. I was getting up in the morning excited about work, excited about the kind of titles that were crossing my desk: fiction and non-fiction, highly illustrated, with authors who were passionate about what they were doing: igniting and fuelling a desire among young South Africans to read, anything from stories about childhood in District Six to why spiders shed their skin.

But, sadly, we all know that book publishing is a tricky business, and that’s especially true of children’s books in South Africa, where parents tend to head for shelves carrying Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson rather than Niki Daly and Jay Heale. So, in order for Struik to see better returns on their investment and for me to keep climbing the ladder, I moved on to another fairly new venture for Struik: the Globetrotter Travel Series. When I started there were already four titles in the series, as well as a couple of atlases and fold-out maps, and what followed were all the destinations I had wanted to travel to as a news reporter: London, Nairobi, Paris, Cairo, Rome, Prague. All from the comfort of my desk in an air-conditioned office. This is where I wanted to be, with dreams of faraway places, and with the smell of books in my nostrils. But there came a time – and it’s really a long, long story – when my work focused more on the administrative aspect of publishing: commissioning, scheduling, administering payments, and I couldn’t help but feel that I needed to be more hands-on, more diversity to keep me stimulated. I wanted to choose which books to work on, and with whom. I toyed with the idea of magazine work, but that’s a whole different ballgame and I certainly didn’t want to have to ‘start again’. And then someone mentioned the world ‘freelance’… Okay, I thought, I could do that – but just until I found some exciting and rewarding position I really, really wanted. Well, that was nearly 20 years ago now, and in all that time I have never found anything that could compete with freelancing. While there are constant challenges and hurdles at every corner, it’s where I’m meant to be. I know that for sure. It’s very, very unlikely I’ll ever go back to the corporate environment. Why would I? I get to choose my own hours, my environment, my clients and my projects. (Okay, that’s true for the most part – to pretend that that rosy picture is what freelancing’s all about would be lying – but it would take a too-good-to-be-true offer to lure me back. And even then …)

As an independent, my range of projects is essentially without limits – when the economy and the state of local publishing play along, of course. There are indeed bad months (when you barely cover the debit orders) and good months (when we eat steak). But there are also excellent months (2012 was a phenomenal year for me, for example, whereas 2009 was awful beyond description), and times when you’re able to say, ‘Bugger this! I’m taking some time off to spend with my kids.’ Financially, then, going freelance was the best thing I ever did, but the real rewards really do lie with the book projects that land on my desk. (Face it, if you want to make ‘real’ money, publishing doesn’t really come into the equation – not like nursing and teaching, which offer a king’s ransom in comparison …) I have been very fortunate to land some amazing writing and editing and proofreading jobs. Within months of going out on my own, Struik Travel commissioned me to write Seven Days in Cape Town, and then a series of field guides for young readers. These books continue to be reprinted over and over again, with new editions every couple of years. This was a whole new element to my game, and for a change I was on the other side of the editor’s desk. These commissions have led to a number of others over the years, but still my bread and butter is editing and proofreading. And that’s still the most rewarding of my work. Of course, I work really, really hard and have to be extremely disciplined to keep up with the pace and to earn a viable living, so publishers can depend on me to stick to deadlines while still moulding manuscripts into fine books that read well. It’s not always easy, and sometimes you’re drained by the time you get out the other end. But it’s almost always worth it.

And, as a freelancer, the diversity of projects is enormous. I’ve been very lucky, for example, to have worked on the biographies of some extraordinary South Africans, such as Walter Sisulu (with Elinor Sisulu and Helen Moffett) and Oliver Tambo (with Luli Callinicos), and with veterans Raymond Ackerman and Jane Raphaely. In fact, for a while, it was one biography or memoir after the next; there’ve also been a number of fascinating current-affairs projects, children’s books, recipe books, controversial projects about the Inge Lotz murder case, the Oscar trial. And, of course, fiction. I can never do enough fiction. It’s by the far the most exciting and most rewarding – and also the hardest work. But there’s nothing like seeing a work of fiction you’ve worked on be embraced by the reading public – and the judges on literary award panels, of course. Today I work with almost all the top local publishers, and some international ones too, on jobs that that vary from short stories and novellas written by young readers and writers (for the likes of FunDza, for example) and award-winning fiction (Steven Boykey Sidley’s Stepping Out and Imperfect Solo stand out) to high-profile and often controversial titles, such as Mandy Wiener and Barry Bateman’s upcoming Behind Closed Doors, about the Oscar Pistorius case.

And, in all of this, what remains clear to me is that South Africans have stories to tell, and it’s my job to help them tell those stories. It’s what I did with my own The Children’s Madiba, aimed at young readers and parents who may not be able to afford access to stories such as these, which often come packaged, in full colour, in high-gloss coffee-table volumes. Initially there was a lot of local interest in a flashy upmarket edition of the Madiba book, but those are a dime a dozen, and what are the chances that everyday South Africans can get their hands on stories such as Madiba’s without forfeiting a meal, for example? It’s my hope that Penguin will not only translate The Children’s Madiba into as many local languages as possible, but also stock them at outlets that are accessible to everyday people. Because that – despite suggestions to the contrary – was the real intention behind writing that book back in 2009.

So, you see, my work on children’s books, my own volumes as an author and even as an editor, mean that being asked to be a judge, to read and evaluate submissions for Short Story Day Africa is a full-circle moment for me. Back to what makes children tick, what makes them write, what motivates and fuels them. It’s a great honour, even a privilege, not only to be asked to judge one of the categories for SSDA 2014, but also to participate in campaign that aims to get more South Africans – young and old – reading and writing in a genre they will learn to love, if they don’t already: the short story.

Sean-150x150* Sean Fraser is an editor and writer. He is married to Tracey, a book designer, and has two sons, Darren and Aidan. He lives in and works from Cape Town. Visit his PUBLISH CAPE TOWN Facebook page,


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