Colleen Higgs : “Digital publishing has brought new opportunities for publishers”

06/07/2020 / Lab Administrator

This article was originally published on “She Leads Africa” by Nomaqhawe Ndlovu, June, 2019

Nomaqhawe Ndlovu is a trained doctor who attended a Chinese university for medical school. She is originally from Zimbabwe but grew up in Kenya. This has given her a unique outlook on life and made interacting with people from all over Africa effortless.

Colleen Higgs started Modjaji Books in 2007 as an independent feminist press that publishes southern African women’s fiction, poetry, and biographies.  She felt African women deserved to tell their stories on an authentic and conscientious platform. Many Modjaji Books titles have gone on to win numerous prestigious literary awards both locally and internationally. In this article, Colleen Higgs talks about her work and what it takes to be a feminist publisher.



What are the top three things someone needs to consider before opening a publishing business?
  • Do you have enough starting capital?
  • Publishing requires money up front and it takes time to earn that money back.
  • Think carefully about why you are doing it.  After many years of publishing, you might find it tough to deal with all the many demands made of you, the lack of appreciation for what you have done for writers and how little money you make from doing the work.
  • What is your focus going to be? It is good to have a very particular focus, it will help you to find an audience and to make decisions about what to publish.


Tell us about your work as an independent publisher.

Being a writer I understood what it was like to want to get published and the inflation and deflation of the relationship with a publisher. It didn’t prepare me for all the work that it takes though, the ongoing attention to the big picture and to detail that the publisher has to manage. Publishers do a vast number of things. You don’t just read through submissions and select books to publish. There is a huge amount of admin. You work out a vision and focus for your company and keep a firm eye on the money and cash flow. You must constantly maintain relationships with all the people you work with: printers, writers, editors, illustrators, artists, proof-readers, shareholders, accountant, book-keeper, bookstore owners and employees not to mention participating in book fairs and doing interviews!


Why was it important to open Modjaji Books as a ‘feminist’ print?

Modjaji fills a gap by providing an outlet for writing by women that takes itself and its readers seriously. Having lived through and enacted publishing only women, I became aware of how this has been a deeply political act. When you think about the way publishing is owned, media is owned, who gets to make the decisions, and how women are represented, here and internationally it just made sense.

Women do have a different experience of the world – not just because they are women, but because of the way power is structured and filtered. I had experienced my own writing not being taken seriously because it is too ‘confessional’. I wanted to make a way that other women could be published where a set of values and perceptions that were not patriarchal and were not centered in the “Dead, White, Male canon” would make the decisions about what should be published.


Many of your authors have been nominated to win prestigious literary awards. How do you feel about this?

Modjaji has been lucky enough to publish the work of very talented writers. I like to think it is also because we have done a good job of editing the manuscripts and because of how the company is positioned and how we have framed and spotlighted particular works. We have published a lot of debuts short stories and poetry collections, many of these have won prizes, and yet they are books that most commercial publishers would not touch.


How has society changed by reading your published books on infertility, stillbirth, homosexuality, etc.

I have seen how these books have added to a growing discourse on topics that were taboo or not in the mainstream but now have a more prominent place. I’m proud to have had Modjaji Books be at the cutting edge of this kind of publishing here in South Africa.


Haven run Modjaji for twelve years, have you faced any challenges running an African press?

Yes, there are challenges, we are not supported by government policies that help us to grow and increase our sales. Recently the SA Book Development Council funded our participation in the SA Book Fair. I don’t think this goes far enough. I think there needs to be an active policy of buying local books for libraries. If we as independent South African publishers knew that even as few as 500 of our really good titles would be bought by the library system, it would make it all much more viable. Trade routes and avenues of distribution into other African countries are not nearly as strong as are those to Europe and the US. It would be great to see work on this taking place at a national level.


Publishing is a very expensive industry. As a publishing brand, how do you approach your need for commercial success?

I have to confess I have not focused too much on commercial success! I thought that if I published something that needed to be heard it would be commercially successful. This has not been the case. I have tried to publish books and voices I have loved.


With the increase of digital books, self publishing, and rumors of the “death of print”, how do you plan on staying relevant in the industry?

If one continues to publish books that are well written, powerful and have a clear voice, a particular story, we as publishers will remain relevant in my opinion. It is important not to get stuck in a particular mind set and to be open to new technology and to new voices and perspectives. Having said that, there have been many changes in the last 12 years. Social media has become a force for publishing books, and for writers to connect with each other. Digital publishing has brought new opportunities for publishers. Self-publishing has its place, but there is still a great deal of room for publishers to work in. Writers sometimes experiment and self-publish one or two titles, but when they see how much work is involved they tend to want to move back to a publisher, so they can focus on their writing.


In moments of adversity how do you build yourself up?

Friendships with other publishers has been important to me. Both locally and internationally, other small and independent publishers understand what you are going through. It is a tough business, and there are many daily challenges. I compartmentalise, so when I am having family time, I put work aside, and try not to worry about things I cannot do anything about right at that moment. I walk my dogs, swim when I can, watch Netflix, switch off. Finally, I keep going, do the next thing, and soon the flow starts again and money and goodness will flow in.


How important is it to mentor promising writers?

I think it is important, but I am not sure it is the work of a publisher. It is expensive to do, I think that if we publish a writer who shows promise – there has to be enough in the current manuscript for us to work with. I think writers find the experience of working with an editor rewarding, someone who takes their work seriously and tries to make the work as strong as possible.


What do you find most rewarding about your work?
  • Finding a manuscript that takes my breath away.
  • Seeing the actual book after many months of working on it.
  • Experiencing the joy of writers when they get their book, and when the book gets a positive reception, a good review, a prize, when the author gets invited to a prestigious event.
  • Connecting with fellow publishers and having a chance to catch up with them and their ups and downs.


What advice can you give aspiring writers on what to look for in a publisher?

Firstly find a publisher who is interested in your book and is prepared to commit time and energy to it. Don’t publish your work with a publisher who wants you to pay all the costs upfront to have your work published. There are outfits that fleece writers and all they get at the end is a printed book, there is no distribution or marketing offered. There are some new models of publishing where writers can invest in their book too, but it shouldn’t be the key reason that the publisher will take on their work. (But if you come to an arrangement with a publisher where you are looking to have someone else do the work of assisting you self-publish this is possible, but do be careful that you aren’t just throwing a lot of money away.)


What is the last book you read, and your take away from it?

I read many books at once, but I will mention one, which is Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.  I was interested in it, because its main character, Maud, has dementia, but in spite of this and because of her tenacity she is able to solve a 70 year old mystery. I found it riveting, I love to read crime fiction for pleasure reading, also my late mother had dementia in the last ten or so years of her life. I could relate to Maud’s difficulties. It was escapist and a page turner.


What is next for Modjaji Books and for you personally as a writer?

Modjaji Books will continue to publish, we have some strong titles coming out this year. I’ve been invited to the Geneva Book Fair in May, as part of a contingent of African publishers. We have sold rights to a number of titles to Catalyst Press in the US, and it’s fascinating to see how those titles are received in new territories by new readers. So we have that to look forward to. I’m completing a memoir about my mother’s last years. It is based on a secret blog I wrote for more than 10 years, it is provisionally called My Mother, My Madness. I had a complicated, difficult relationship with my mother. I took responsibility for caring for her and her needs in those years. I also have enough poems to put together a new collection, so will do that in due course. I find that publishing takes up most of my creative energy, so my writing takes second place. This year my resolution is to give my writing more attention.

About the author