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Aernout Zevenbergen

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

RIP: Foreign Correspondents?

I must have been 15 or 16 when I watched a documentary on television about foreign correspondents. And it struck me like lightning. Were my professional interests prior to that as vague as “become the first president of the kingdom of the Netherlands” or “learn how to build better dikes”, from that moment onwards my mission in life was crystal clear. I too was going to write stories from afar, while in the midst of history in the making; and I’d be sure the news got out about any kind of injustice, so it could be halted and paradise would descend on earth. Because of my writing. Or something close to that.  Of course, nowadays I giggle at the idealism and unlimited arrogance an adolescent is entitled to. In those days I was a firm believer in the malleability of reality. And now? “Now we are pathetically wise,” to quote my favorite Dutch author, Nescio in his short story called “Tiny Titans”.

It took about fourteen years, a degree in Political Science, a whole lot of rejections and stubborn perseverance, but I did make it as a correspondent. Gallivanting Africa, hunting stories, chasing ghosts and riding the riddles of life on this majestic continent of ours. Best of all: I got to write about it. Luckily, I’d lost most of the naive political idealism of youth so I as a journalist could do what journalists are supposed to do. To try report on life and its mysteries as best one can from an unbiased point of view. While seated on a fence.

The newspaper industry has its roots in letters merchants wrote in the early 1600s from their base somewhere far away, to partners and investors in their home countries. These letter spoke of political intrigue, of business opportunities and anything else relevant to the economical elite to base its decisions on.

In the course of centuries, newspapers increasingly became a source of entertainment more than news; in many cases going as far as adjusting the basics of that news so reading it would be entertaining. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

And that is what journalists know how to do like few others: to wrap into a story the facts of life in such a way that it can be comprehended, and the reading of it might even be enjoyable. Of course, I am biased, but the best non-fiction writing I have read so far has almost always been done by a journalist. Jeff Warren for example, in his marvelous work on consciousness: “Head Trip”. Or otherwise: “28 stories of AIDS” (which definitely is not my favorite, at all, by the way). Otherwise look at the works by Jonny Steinberg.

And, best of all, the master of non-fiction writing: Ryszard Kapuscinski.

What started almost 400 years ago seems to be dying, and is heading to a coffin. Foreign correspondents and their trade are no longer needed. There are any factors which, collectively, have brought this on: the demise of print media, the superfast ways of Internet and related social media, a worldwide epidemic of ADD (according to neuroscientist Richard Restak), and so forth.

Oxford University and Reuters published a report recently which announced the terminal state of foreign news reporting. Apart from all those former) colleagues having to find alternative ways of paying the bills (like I have had to), I wonder what other ‘health’ effects it will have on the health of global insight and IQ.

Sure, all the nitty-gritty facts of life on the outskirts of the planet will make it through: your terrorist attack, your tsunami, your collapse of the financial sector. The thing is: although those facts are crucial, they’re not enough. Why not? Because they turn ‘current events’ into nothing more or less than stats – impersonal, distant, cold.

Empathy doesn’t come from stats. Empathy comes from stories about real life individuals. Jotted down by other real life individuals. To be read by real life individuals.

Without that empathy the world will never ever become a better place.

Foreign correspondents pump oxygen into the bloodstream of life on earth. Through the stories they tell.

When the stories fade away, it becomes scarily quiet.

Humans Writing for The Machine

Once in a while, when the South Easter creates havoc and rattles everything that’s remotely loose, I try to visualise what it must have been like to be a monk, sometime in the Middle Ages. With a quill pen and a small reservoir of ink, they sat behind their desks. Writing.

If I’m really in the mood, I might even imagine a howling wind, gushing rains and roof tiles wavering. Oh, and candles of course. A steaming cup of tea would be a sign that my fantasy is taking me for a ride. There was no tea yet in those days (hmmm – interesting… what did monks drink before the days of tea, coffee and cocoa?).

There they did their thing: to copy word after word, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, and page after page. The Dutch have a saying for this: “Doing a monk’s task.” Minute, repetitive, with no input of individuality allowed. Their work had to be flawless, for if  a mistake was made at the bottom end, the monk had to start all over again. Okay, in those days ‘stress’ as we know it now probably wasn’t as much an issue, so if a mistake was made, not much was lost from a “productivity” point of view. And they did have hours available to do their contemplative meditations in their cells, to get whatever frustration they’d gathered out of their systems. In the absence on cell phones, radio, internet and electricity, there was no other distraction but to simply chill.

I’m a romantic at heart, I believe. There’s a beauty to the vocation of a writer with a quill and rattling roof tiles. But even if you’re not a romantic, you’ll probably agree with me that the way most of today’s texts are produced differ tremendously from the olden ways. No, I’m not so much referring to the word processor and the keyboard. The moment Gutenberg assembled his first printing press it was just a matter of time before a keyboard would pop up into existence.

Gutenberg’s press produced books to be read by human beings, to enhance knowledge and entertainment. The contemporary trend is the other way around: humans producing texts for the sole purpose of machines ‘reading’ them.

I’m referring to what these days – from a point of view of numbers – has come to dominate the entire ‘industry’ of writing. We might not know it, engulfed as we all are in the fields of literature and books. But from what I’ve been able to gather over the last few weeks, millions and millions of ‘articles’ are being produced annually, mostly in shabby rooms with neon lights and broadband connections. These ‘offices’ are located somewhere in either India, Pakistan or the Philippines, where ‘office managers’ hand out writing tasks to workers who’ve proven to type with the speed of light, and so manage to push out around twenty unique articles of 500 words every day. I personally think it comes close to a modern kind of slavery, where it’s not so much clothing that’s produced in sweat lodges at a slave’s wage, but ‘articles’. The going rate is about US $ 1, for a text of 500 words. Yes, read those stats again… Increasing numbers of people are fabricating texts, like factories are producing bread. And most likely of the same solidity, form and feel as they ‘bread’ coming from a machine.

What’s happening? It’s all related to how search engines like Google and Yahoo calculate the importance of a particular web page, and therefore the place that this web page will get when someone searches on a particular keyword. If you want your page to end up as high as you can, you need a whole lot of texts, with a decent amount of keywords, and a sensible amount of links all pointing to your site. Once you have those texts, you post them on sites that are keen to have as many articles as they can possibly offer, for that’s how they make their money.

The word wizards in Asia produce amazing amounts of texts on subjects they know nothing about, by using software that can generate completely new versions of the original text by using synonyms for nearly every word in the text. The thing is: Google ignores duplicate entries, so every text has to be 70 percent unique, to earn a second listing in the search engine. This part of the trade is called ‘spinning’, followed by ‘submitting, which is when software actually starts distributing the texts amongst hundreds of different web pages.

The purpose of those tens or hundreds of ‘different’ texts is not to be read by human beings, but by the all-powerful search engines and their spiders.The more unique texts you have on the web, the more the search engines pick you up. In the race between competitors for No.1 exposure, the winner is no longer the person with the best product, but the person with the most ‘articles’ on the web. He will end up number one on the results page of Google.

I find it amazing (and a tiny tad hilarious) that increasing numbers of texts, written by homo sapiens sapiens, have an exclusive audience amongst “The Machines”, and aren’t even supposed to be consumed by real-life readers, people of flesh and blood. It does make an author like me quite humble in my own vocation. The sweat shop scribbler definitely makes more impact than I’ll probably manage to do in the foreseeable future. He can manipulate the Machine.

I wonder what the monk with his quill would have thought after a hard day’s work, had he’d known none of his scribbling would ever make it onto a human retina. Lots of contemplative prayer, I’m sure. As well as a glass of one of those delicious beers they are still famous for.

Creative Chaos – love it, or hate it

How come books into East Africa almost exclusively come from the UK and the US? Why don’t South African books make it into a region which has neither VAT nor duties on books, more or less lies around the corner, and has a capital filled with bookshops, all the way into the major supermarket chain of the nation: Nakumatt?

Since the early 1990′s, South African entrepreneurs have taken almost every opportunity to expand into Africa. Thousands of kilometers away from Sandton one can find a Woolworths, a Mr Price Home or a Truworths.

Even Kalahari.net has expanded into Kenya, with its local bracnh: kalahari.co.ke, which accepts the so-called MPesa way of doing business over the cell phone system (a system so widespread by now that banks are slowly waking up with a shake, for having missed an entire segment of the market – even Kenya Airways sells its air tickets through mobile banking these days).

And still… No bookshop in Nairobi has any collection of South African literature.

Unless…

It is printed in and distributed from the UK!!!!

I ask you: How ridiculous is that?

Let me tell you: It is as ridiculous as the ways in which representatives from the South African book industry try to sell books in Kenya.

And that is quite ridiculous.

In an earlier posting I wrote about the ease with which I have been able to sell almost as many copies of “Spots of a leopard” in ten days in Nairobi as it has been for my official distributor to sell books in the whole of South Africa, through the many chains of bookshops and indie’s we are blessed with here. That in itself already says a lot, I think…

I’ll give you a few quotes from book sellers, to ponder over:

* “Those representatives from SA say a lot, but when push comes to shove they’re nowhere to be found”

* “How they come up with their pricing beats me – they think we all sit on diamonds and gold”

* “Why would I buy anything from SA, if the UK can provide it for less than half the price…”

* “They come in here with their arrogance, telling us how to do business because the boy happens to have an MBA in something useless. Hello, wake up, and behave.”

* “Hahaha, the South Africans… They have no clue on how to do business in Africa. You know, they have all these graphs and statistics on whatever, and then come with predictions that are plucked from the moon. Let me explain: having a statistic on GDP won’t make you sell books here. Because it doesn’t mean anything here. This is real Africa, this is Kenya. This is the land of creative chaos. Either you love it or you hate it, but if you don’t know you way around it, no statistic is going to help you.”

And so where no publisher dares to go, and no distributor knows how to do his or her thing, a market lies for the taking.

For those who know how to surf chaos.

Ash and Nairobi

So, there it is. Another one stuck in a place on his way to the LBF. :-)

How small the world has grown in less than a century. Had no one any clue in the 1820′s why people simply dropped dead in the British Isle’s (grace to poisonous air from the same volcano that is spewing right now), these days the entire world knows why thousands of people are stuck on airports, hotels, metropoles and islands.

“Ridiculous,” says NASA of a European ban on flights.

I’m not sure.

I am no expert of ash and plane engines, so I won’t mingle in that debate.

What I, however, do like, is the fact that one volcano teaches me to simply chill out and await better times. A lesson in humility. That not everything happens the way you would want it to happen. Or had planned it to happen.

I’ve just sold my last two copies of “Spots of a leopard”, and will come back next month, with new boxes. I sold out in just a few days. Which is yet another lesson.

How come, I wonder, Kenya seems so far ahead of South Africa, when it comes down to books, literature and issues of identity? How come I was able to sell as much books here in a mere week, as I was in a few months in South Africa?

Is it an issue of race and racism, as someone mentioned? Deeply engrained after over 350 years of idiotic ideology and brutal behaviour? Is it because Kenya debates and discusses completely different issues? When I brows Saturday newspapers here, many a column is filled with issues of identity, romance, marriage and sexuality – all topics one is not likely to find in the columns of SA newspapers…

I think it shows the maturity of Kenyan society as opposed to that of the still young “new” South Africa that here, in the midst of horrendous corruption, brutally violent crime, stiff ethnic competition and a sick political system, most people still live their lives with some priorities straight: a sense of liberty that despite all the odds against them, each man or woman eventually is responsible for his or her own ideas of comfort, contentment and self.

And people laugh out loud while talking about them.With wisdom, insight and humour.

There is a joy to life here, that seems missing in South Africa. A kind of “let’s not take things too seriously” while an ash cloud hits the fan.

Yep, I like it here.

And yes, I will come back mid-May with a couple more boxes with books.

I’m so happy I could dance! :-)

It has been a bit of a regular theme, on those rare occasions of me blogging here, on book.co.za: How to get my book “Spots of a leopard – on being a man” beyond the boundaries of SA… Doing the digital version is simple, that has happened already. But how to really get the paper versions into this marvelous continent of ours?

Sure, the myths are that people don’t want to buy books there. Indeed, anything north of the Limpopo is not easy Barnes & Nobbles land. Most bookshops limit themselves to a few classics, a bestseller or two and tons of educational material. However, I have found that a great deal of problems in doing business with East Africa is simply the Catch 22 that no one seems willing or able to break open: “There is no export because there is no market – there is no market because there is no export”. The reality of this is that linkages of trust and the logistics of chains simply do not exist.

Trade doesn’t happen where trade is thought of as impossible. No matter how “true” that thought is, in and of itself.

Despite over half a century of independence from colonial masters, and despite twenty years since SA got on the road to freedom as a real African country, the eyes of book shops, publishers and distributors still are mainly focused on ‘the North’.

With few initiatives amongst Africans in the book business industry to strengthen ties, and with everyone in South Africa (me included) hoping to find the cracks in the walls around the ‘developed markets’ it has shown itself close to impossible to export books from here to East Africa.

The demand is there. Or so bookshops owners tell me. It is just that a trodden path is way much easier and nicer to walk on, than to clear a new one. With publishers from the UK actually doing a thing or two to make sure their books reach a market in (East) Africa, why would the distributors there get all excited about South African colleagues who seem reluctant to do so?

Sure, kalahari.co.ke has opened up shop in East Africa. It takes an estimated 11 days for any book ordered on their site to leave the warehouse of On the dot somehwere in SA to make it onto someone’s nightstand in Nairobi. Because kalahari.co.ke (apparently) does not hold any stock in Kenya itself. The website seems no more than a portal into a market. No risk, no energy, tiny investment.

It is an approach that won’t really cause a tsunami amongst book readers in East Africa, I guess.

So, what is one to do?

As a Dutchman, I’ve been taught from a very young age to dredge a channel where there is none, if one is needed to make life more enjoyable. :-)

And it seems to be paying off…. Hooray!

Just this afternoon I have written an invoice for the first shipment of books to Book Stop in Nairobi, the best book store in town there. A shipper will come and fetch them tomorrow.

And now, to all those colleagues who wouldn’t mind entering the market of East Africa: know that there is great demand for books from SA in Kenya…!

Anyone interested to come and sail on this new channel – please feel free to contact me.

Aernout

The Art of Self-Publishing

Spots of a leopard

Just over half a year ago, the result of years of work came out in English, in South Africa. What I started in 2001, saw a climax in April 2007 with the publication of the Dutch edition for the Netherlands and Belgium. ‘Vlekken van een luipaard’ was nominated one year later for prizes in both Belgium and the Netherlands. It was these nominations that strengthened my resolve to make sure this book would also find an audience in the English-speaking world; and especially in Africa.

When I started writing I felt this deep passion to do my bit in making sure that a debate that just wasn’t happening on the continent, might get a little push (and preferably a strong kick in the butt) by making ‘Spots’ available. » read more

Yep – that’s an iPad

Okay, it’s a done deal. I am about to order one.

iBook

Admittedly, I am a Mac fan.
In the last two years or so I have done away with everything coming remotely from the stables of Bill G. and have embraced the blessings of Mr Steve J.

Mostly because most of Windows and everything that comes with it is just utterly badly designed, unfriendly, unworthy and just not up to what it says it’s up to.

The difference between Microsoft and Apple is simply this: the boys and girls at Microsoft make what they like. While those at Apple make what I like.

And now?

Now there is the iPad.

Which will store iBooks.

As a publisher of my own book, I’d happily give Mr. Steve J. a copy of my piece.

It’d make me proud, knowing ‘Spots’ can be read on a tablet on the toilet.
With touchscreen and beautifully flowing pages, and the reader can even choose his/her own font, if the one my designer chose isn’t good enough…

Wow – don’t you just love gadgets?

I’m sure Mr. Steve J even has thought of a version that smells like paper.

Okay – off you go, reader.
Get the iPad.

And download my book.

Stats, Sales & Salsa

One commenter on my previous posting asked how I knew I had had a visitor from Shanghai on my site.

Well, here’s the thing. Google has all these technological gadgets that help their customers (their customers are not you and me who use Google to search for things, by the way, but their advertisers who pay Google to help us find them, and then spend money on what they offer us while we were searching for something remotely related to what they sell) keep track of traffic.

It is called Google Analytics – yes, sure: Google it, I’d say.

After I, as the webmaster of my own virtual universe, place a code on all my pages, I can keep track like a real Big Brother of everything that happens on my site. The only thing I will not be able to find out, is who is behind a particular IP address, or what hair colour a visitor has. » read more

Aiaiai – the Chinese are coming!

It’s funny what happened once I saw this morning my site had been visited by someone from Shanghai. ‘Would my site too have been hacked, like Google’s?’ Of course, my site is not nearly as popular as Google. Were I to compare us, my site is a grain of sand, and theirs is Mount Everest.

But still…

A visit from China?

Beware!

» read more

Exporting to Kenya

Dear fellow book.co.za users,

I need some advice on how to export books to Kenya. A variety of bookshops has shown interest in selling my book “Spots of a leopard” there, but so far I get stuck in actually getting the books there. Does anyone here do business in Kenya? Does anyone have names and numbers of importers in Nairobi?

All advice welcome.

Thanks,

Aernout