One for the books: Abantu’s bookstore and publishing house

Founder and director of the Abantu book festival, Thando Mgqolozana, spoke to The Journalist about the festival’s bookstore and publishing wing and the role they will come to play in the future of the growing book festival.

In 2015 at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, acclaimed novelist Thando Mgqolozana stood up and opted out, he brandished the festival a space that excludes black writers.

“I’m quitting what I call the white literary system in South Africa,” he said at the time while the predominantly white audience members shuffled awkwardly in their seats. “You can just turn around and look at yourselves – it looks very abnormal. In this country, it should never be like this”.

Three years later, Mgqolozana and his team have successfully run their third annual Abantu Book Festival, a pro-black space that is revolutionising the South African publishing landscape.

The book festival is not profit-driven but Mgqolozana remains cognisant of the need to grow the entity as a business enterprise and launched Abantu Publishing earlier this year. Since its inception they have published reprints of Mgqolozana’s previous works, A Man Who is Not a Man (2009), Hear Me Alone (2011) and Unimportance (2014). He considers that publishing house “part of the evolution of the Abantu entity”.

However, Mgqolozana contends that “physical printing is still very relevant but of course it has financial implications”.

On the other hand, the Abantu bookstore sells a wide range of books in all languages with the aim of catering for everyone. The bookstore replaced the designated booksellers which previously occupied the role of retailing literature at the festival.

Speaking to City Press earlier this month, Mgqolozana said the bookstore is a hit with attendees. “At the first edition, we sold more than 6 000 books in three days. Last year, it was probably threefold…The interesting thing about the statistics from the first year [of the festival] is that, contrary to popular belief, black people are buying fiction. It outsold everything else. I didn’t expect that,” he said.

Mgqolozana envisions the future of the bookstore characterised by an online presence that would enable access to the available stock beyond the festival.

Regarding the performance of the bookstore during the 2018 run of the Abantu book festival, Mgqolozana admits “I would have loved for most books to be bought but we sold very well and once we reconcile after closing that will give us an idea about the best way forward for the store”.

Mgqolozana further explains that no concrete decision has yet been made about the future of the bookstore adding that in addition to an online store, there should also be a physical shop established which could operate from Soweto, following in the tradition of the Abantu entity as a whole.

All images courtesy of Mmuso Mafisa and Abantu Book Festival.

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