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Trade and educational publishers: Know the difference

Recently on Facebook a writer was complaining about the publishers in Botswana because the publisher told them that they would only consider publishing their novel if the politics could be toned down.

The author was angry and felt the publisher was trying to control them and their art.

The integrity of a writer is important; a writer must stay true to what they believe. I have said as much to numerous editors, I have even withdrawn my accepted manuscript once because the editor wanted such changes and I was not about to make them. But there is an important point that must be made here: there is a vast difference between educational publishers and trade publishers and authors must educate themselves on these issues.

A trade publisher publishes books for the general market for sale in the bookstores. A trade publisher is looking for manuscripts with high literary merit or sales potential. They want to publish books that people will buy and enjoy reading. In the end, it’s the publisher’s choice regarding which manuscripts they will choose. It’s subjective, of course, and they have a very wide leeway over what they can choose to publish. The same publisher might publish a literary novel, a cookbook, a young adult romance, and a mystery for kids. The only criteria are appeal to the editor reading the manuscript.

Trade publishers are really the ones who decide a country’s literature.  They can choose controversial books, books by celebrities, political books, or novels that might make people uncomfortable. Occasionally, some of these books might make their ways into the curriculum of schools and universities. Examples of such books are Maru by Bessie Head or Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. These books were never written for a school market, they were books published by trade publishers that found their way into schools.

As a writer, if you write novels, I doubt you’re writing them for an educational publisher. You’re writing the story because you feel you must. You are not being guided by a syllabus or the requirements of an English department or a ministry. You’re writing for yourself, and after that for a general audience. Since that’s the case, you should then submit your manuscript to a trade publisher. As we don’t have trade publishers in Botswana, you’ll likely need to find one outside of our borders. Though I can preface that with the fact that lately some educational publishers in Botswana are attempting to enter the trade market with a

handful of titles.

I have two books used in schools in South Africa and two books (in my name only) used in schools in Botswana. Except for The Fatal Payout, all of the books were written because my mind came up with the story and I felt a compulsion to write it. The first reason was for myself.  The Fatal Payout, many people know, was written for the newspaper I used to own, The Central Advertiser and was serialised there so it’s a slight exception. I did not write any of these books for an educational market. In most instances, I submitted them to publishers that are primarily educational publishers, but not exclusively, and I had hoped that they would be sold to a trade market. Most novelists are writing for a trade market and a trade publisher will get you there. 

But I’ve also written fiction exclusively for an educational publisher and market, and it’s completely different. I’ve written eight books for Cambridge University Press UK’s Cambridge Reading Adventures. This is a reading series sold all over the world specifically to be used in classrooms and published by an educational publisher. Writing for this series meant that there were parameters inside which I had to write. The publisher hoped that educational ministries around the world would pick up the series for their schools.

But educational ministries have requirements that have little to do with literary merit or sales potential. They might look for diversity, for example, or a moral lesson. They also might have other requirements. For example, in the Arab world where these books are sold, they didn’t want pigs or cats in the books, and no magic or witchcraft either. My book, Mmele and the Magic Bones, used in standard five in Botswana, would be rejected for this series. I’d need to get rid of the magical element or accept the rejection. It’s the nature of educational publishers.

If you’re going to submit to an educational publisher, you must accept the parameters under which they are operating, and those are very different from a trade publisher. Frankly, I think it’s unfair to rant at the educational publisher for not publishing a book meant for a trade publisher. It’s up to us authors to understand the business we are working in.

Its all I write



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