Fourthwall: Sharing a Passion for Books
Fourthwall Books is a fairly young, small-sized, niche publishing company based in Johannesburg, South Africa, owned by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen and Oliver Barstow, who saw a gap in the publishing sector and an opportunity to showcase unusual stories and subject matter that is not necessarily mainstream and often do not attract the attention of larger publishing companies. Ijeoma Loren Uche-Okeke had a very interesting interview with both Bronwyn and Oliver about their current and future plans for Fourthwall Books.
Both of you are highly experienced in the fields of publishing and design, with very rich resumes. Starting your own publishing company is obviously a natural progression. How did the concept for Fourthwall Books come about and were you interested in focusing on particular types of books that are not considered mainstream?
Oliver and I met out of the blue to discuss the possible publication of a book on the William Kentridge/Gerhard Marx sculpture, Fire Walker. Oliver had been involved in the installation of the sculpture in the city. We found that we had a similar appreciation for art books and both of us had a background in literature. We came up with the hair-brained scheme of starting our own publishing company in order to publish this book. I am an editor and Oliver is a designer, so we brought complimentary skills to the project. We did not want to focus on books that other publishers would do, but rather we wanted to find unusual projects that presented us with interesting book-making challenges. We also wanted projects that gave equal consideration to text and images.
What are your short term and long term plans?
Our short-term plans are to find a way to make the business sustainable while still doing the projects that we love doing. Our long-term plans are pretty much the same! But also, they are to grow the company so that we can take on more projects.
How are you positioned within the publishing sector in South Africa and what are your views on the sector? Do you see it as being robust and speaking to a diverse audience?
We are a niche company in the publishing sector in South Africa. We take on projects that are often too small/ too odd/ too niche/ too difficult for other publishers. The publishing sector in South Africa is, like any elsewhere in the world, having to reinvent itself somewhat in the light of technological developments. As a small publishing company, we don’t face the same difficulties (of overheads and size) as larger companies, so we are able, perhaps, to adapt more quickly. But our strength is also a weakness; we are too small to take on a lot of work, and so have to work at the pace and the capacity of two people. We try to find projects that are specifically NOT mainstream, that tell an interesting or unusual ‘story’. I think the publishing sector is highly risk-averse, and hence they stick to safe and sure projects.
Books are quite expensive in South Africa and I suppose everywhere due to the costs involved in producing them. How is Fourthwall Books addressing this and have you found ways of working around the issue of cost and providing more cost-effective alternatives perhaps?
We are aware of how expensive books are. The difficulty is for us to try to find ways of maintaining the production values of the book (high-quality paper, excellent printing and finishing) without having to sell the books at prices that most people can’t afford. Our answer to this is to do smaller projects – so smaller but not inferior books that cost a little less to produce than bulky hard covers but are still beautiful objects.
What are your distribution channels and can people access your publications within the continent?
We distribute via Jacana Media in South Africa and we have a distributor in North America. We have tried to find ways of distributing elsewhere on the continent but that is an ongoing struggle. In the meantime, our books are freely available from our website that now has a PayPal system in place for payments from all over the world.
Are you looking at publishing books that are not by South African authors/writers?
We are always open to publishing books by authors and artists from other countries.
Do you have an international partner or is Fourthwall Books a fully home-grown company?
We are home-grown, though we have done two projects with an European publisher.
What role do you see yourselves playing as a publishing company in South Africa and perhaps more broadly in southern Africa?
We hope to continue to produce high-quality books in terms of their images, text and production values that more people begin to appreciate. While much of publishing is going digital, so we believe there is a special place for art books in the analogue world and we can only hope that more people share our passion for books as objects.
All images are courtesy of Fourthwall Books
March 25, 2021