Next year Don Nelson Books marks its golden anniversary. We chatted to Don about spending 50 years in the publishing game.
To launch a publishing house while in a novice’s first flush of enthusiasm is one thing; to steer it through half a century of business in an age of publishing disruption is nothing short of a triumph. Don Nelson (1957G) has done exactly that, leaving an enduring mark on the South African book industry.
Don loved his time at Bishops – so much so that he admits to having a good cry behind the scoreboard on his final day. He thrived on the sports field, playing 1st Team rugby and cricket, and he didn’t feel obliged to spend too much time on classwork – apart from History and English, that is. Bishops in general, and those areas of excellence in particular, would, in his estimation, go on to shape his entire career.
He always wanted to write and did so (“a lot of rubbish”) while still at school. After matric, he opted to go into journalism. At that time, it was a difficult field to get into. Aspiring journalists had to take one of the cadet courses offered at the Cape Times and The Argus. “Newspapers were newspapers then, with very good people – unlike today,” he laments. “Most of the local newspapers are an absolute disgrace.”
His friend Chris Greyvenstein arranged a freelance job for him at the Sunday Times, followed by a stint at the Sunday Express. His keen interest in sports, coupled with a desire to do his own thing, led him to launch a sports magazine. For seven years The Sportsman enjoyed a healthy (22,000) circulation, until it was taken over by the South African Associated Newspapers, and closed down shortly thereafter.
And so to books. He started his own publishing company in 1971, embarking on what he describes as a wonderful journey. Its first book was a gift for any new publisher – Giants of South African Cricket, which sold a solid 5,000 copies. A Newspaper History of South Africa followed and also sold well. An unbroken run of successes gave him confidence – “but that’s when you start making mistakes”.
Since then, he has enjoyed the publishing roller coaster, having produced dozens of bestsellers and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, in among dealing with the inevitable duds and difficult authors.
We met with Don at The Mitre for a walk down memory lane.
In your school career, which was clearly a formative time for you, who stands out?
RM Wilkinson, “Wilkie”, was an amazing man and a delightful teacher. He’d come into the classroom and suddenly say, “Put your books away, we’re going to talk about the price of tea in China…” And that meant a free-for-all. We’d discuss anything other than history. He was interesting and much loved. After he retired to Swellendam, ODs on the way to the Garden Route used to pop in – so frequently that he never had a chance to be lonely, he said. In fact, he was overwhelmed.
How easy was it start a publishing business in 1971?
My problem was that I had no money. I wouldn’t recommend starting out like that. I didn’t know how I was going to pay the printing costs of Giants; fortunately, its sales more than covered it. The business progressed nicely; I picked up some good titles. Today you need money to start. The book trade has changed; there is no longer a profusion of buyers. Books, in general, are suffering – people don’t have money.
How many titles did you publish each year?
In a good year, we’d put out 15 books.
How would you describe your business?
We are a general publisher. I’m a marketing man and I have to admit, I still don’t really understand the production process.
People tend to think of you as a sports publisher. Would that be a fair appraisal?
Probably about 30% of our books are sports-related. One of my favourites is Springbok Saga: A Complete History From 1891, written by Chris Greyvenstein in 1976. The last edition was in 1991. We sold a total of 47,000 copies and I put down a deposit on a house thanks to that book. Sport has been kind to me.
I’m also very proud of Bishops Rugby by Paul Dobson. Paul and I worked on it together. It was a lovely book; we put everything into it. I was proud to have done it, and it was a labour of love for him. Paul was an amazing man, a joy to work with.
You found an enthusiastic market for cookery books. How did that start?
Food has been a success for us. Lannice Snyman, who was a delightful person, came to see me in 1979 with the idea for a seafood cookery book. We called it Free From The Sea, and it was an instant bestseller. That was followed by three others of hers: More From The Sea, Braai In Style and Fine Dining.
Whose sports biographies have you published?
Chester Williams, Gary Kirsten, Frik du Preez… Ian McIntosh – that one sold 25,000 in four reprintings. Louis Luyt – he had a reputation for being arrogant, but I have fond memories of him. We used to have lunch in Newlands near the rugby ground. He was always friendly, and – which is rare – he didn’t only talk, he listened! I would love to publish Nick Mallett’s autobiography one day…
Who have you particularly enjoyed working with?
The columnist John Scott, who compiled The Best of PS, a 1974 collection of his enormously popular humorous columns written for the Cape Times. I went to him with my idea for the book, and he was surprised, saying he’d approached numerous publishers, none of them interested. I told him, “I’m new at this. Let me have a go!” He did. The old Garlicks department store in Adderley Street invited us to hold a book signing one Saturday morning. We estimated that we might sell 50 copies. I drove John there and dropped him off at the store while I went to park the car. When I got back, I couldn’t get up the escalator because of the crush of people. I found him seated at the signing table, surrounded (mostly) by women, a huge grin on his face. I had to dash back to the office to fetch more books – we ended up selling 270 copies that day. There were two more reprints, and we eventually sold 7,000 copies.
Tony Grogan was another who was a pleasure to work with. We recently published a large photographic book titled Forgotten Cape Town: A Visual History, 1850-1950, for which he wrote the text. We are good friends.
Did the success of any of your books surprise you?
Senior Citizens’ Money-Saver was definitely a surprise in the late ’80s. Pam Black came to me with the idea of compiling a book listing all the places – stores, venues – where over-60s qualified for a discount. I didn’t think it would find a market, but I agreed to do it. We ended up with 12 editions, selling more than 140,000 copies.
Did anyone ever approach you to sell?
There were a couple of offers to buy into the business, one being from Gerry Struik. I turned them both down; I’m my own man. I don’t work well with other people.
Any other books that you’re especially proud of?
One that gave me great satisfaction was Soweto, with photographer Peter Magubane. It was a hard-hitting, heart-wrenching account of the 1976 riots. It was close to being banned but went into a second impression.
Any book you wish you’d published, or anyone who slipped through your fingers?
I approached Shaun Pollock, who said, “I’m sorry, I can’t; I have to be true to myself, and if I’m true to myself, I’m going to harm a lot of people.” Mark Andrews said the same: it’s controversial out there.
The book I regret not having published was one from Struik. They came out with a book on South Africa. It was so obvious. It was the early ’80s, tourists were beginning to pour into the country. Struik was in trouble, but they produced a truly beautiful full-colour tourist book. It sold unbelievably well and saved them. I doubt whether I would have done it as well, but I am sorry it wasn’t mine.
What’s the best part of publishing?
When books sell.
And the worst?
When they don’t!
Publishing is fun, except for difficult authors – or, sometimes, their spouses. I once had a very unpleasant encounter with the husband of one of our authors, who barged into my office and was rude and aggressive about the amount of marketing I was doing for the book. I had to physically throw him out.
If I wrote an autobiography, not that I would, I’d call it Publishing Was Fun, Except For Authors.
Advice to aspiring writers?
Don’t publish poetry! And don’t go into it if your goal is to make money. Authors often tell me they’re not in it for the money, but in the end, that is what drives them.
And advice to would-be publishers?
Make sure you have proper funding or investors.
Tell us about The Book People
We launched it in 1999, headed by my son Russell (1991G), to sell books directly to the public. The book trade was going through difficult times and we needed to increase turnover. Within 18 months we saw its potential. We registered the name in 2001 and it became a stand-alone business. Turnover has significantly increased every year. We’ve also introduced the concept of sales at schools, which has proved very successful. We were holding 100 school sales a year. Because of Covid-19, though, schools are currently out of bounds, and sales have been temporarily suspended.
What can we look forward to next?
I was doing fewer books each year, but with the current difficulties of The Book People, I’m publishing more titles, about 10 books next year. They Made Headlines is due out in September. It describes memorable moments involving 15 South African sportsmen, from cricketer Basil d’Oliveira and long-distance runner Josia Thugwane, who won gold in the marathon at the 1996 Olympics, to the racehorse Sea Cottage – that’s a fascinating story. Wayde van Niekerk, Siya Kolisi, Hansie Cronje, Graeme Pollock and Naas Botha are also in there.
In October we’re publishing 25 of the Greatest Rugby Schools In South Africa, a large volume – 276 pages. Bishops is one of them, of course. The book is already generating great interest.
We’re also moving into children’s books. Endangered Species is due out later this year.
Any plans to slow down?
No! What would I do if I retired? Stay at home? I love my wife dearly, but I enjoy books so much. I’ll fall down on my computer one day. The lockdown was tough – I couldn’t go to my office every day, although I did sneak in sometimes. It’s also tough on my staff. We had to cut back from 12 people to five. With UIF and interrupted business funding, they’re okay until the end of the year. But they’re standing by to come back.
20 South African Schools – A Pictorial History
St Andrews, Grey, SACS, Hilton, Rhenish, Bishops – these illustrious names feature in a roll call of top schools around the country in a recent release, by a variety of contributors, from Don Nelson Publishers. Abundant photographs capture not only buildings and grounds, but drama performances, sporting moments, legendary principals and pupils who went on to become household names. Alumni will find the history and photographic records especially engaging, but there is a wider appeal in the book’s reach and depth. As Don writes, “The story of these schools is the tale of modern South Africa.”
20 South African Schools is available at bookstores, or directly at a discounted price of R350. Contact [email protected]
Don Nelson Publishing has just released a new book on 25 Great South African Rugby Schools. Please click on this link 25 Rugby Schools PDF
to download an order form and follow the relevant instructions on how to get a copy.