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Widow bereft as Nkosi's esteemed works add up to nothing

By BY THE BOOK - Don Makatile | 2010-09-08 09:22:15.0

But when you learn that a prolific writer of the calibre of Lewis Nkosi made a paltry R140 in royalties from his book in one year, the reality hits you that you cannot make a living out of writing, unless your name is JK Rowling.

With a lump in her throat, Nkosi's widow Astrid shared the pain of taking receipt of a cheque "that you can't even go to the bank to cash".

When he sighed his last on Sunday from medical complications brought on by a stroke he suffered last June, Nkosi had accumulated a medical bill he just wasn't able to service. A benefit fund was duly set up to try to offset this challenge.

A colourful Drum journalist of the inimitable 1950s era, that he went on to crack an invite as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard was proof of his rare knack for the written word.

He then wowed the literary world with his debut Mating Birds, which was translated into French. His CV, in fact, is a road map many of us have only touched at the starting blocks. We're likely to need several lifetimes to achieve half of what his body of work entails.

Mandela's Ego, his third novel, is the source of the meagre earnings Astrid couldn't dare attempt to transact at the bank. No one is saying the proceeds of the book should have bought him a villa on the French Riviera and ample writing time on the beach, but his publishers, Random House Struik, consider every question about the cash so confidential you'd think the secret service was an open book.

The publishers say: "The RHS policy is that all elements of each contract that we conclude are confidential. Details about our author contracts are restricted for discussion and dissemination exclusively between us and our authors. At no time, under any circumstances, will RHS or its employees divulge any details of our contractual agreements with our writers."

Maybe they are within their rights to say this and Nkosi committed pen to paper fully aware of what he was getting himself into.

Frederik de Jager from Umuzi says: "In the case of Mr Nkosi, as is the case with all authors whose work we publish, all payments were managed in strict accordance with our agreement that the author signed prior to us proceeding to publication."


But why could a man who has written all his life suddenly not afford hospice fees?

From September 2008 to February 2009, Mandela's Ego sold 60 copies; from March 2009 to August 2009 another 77 were sold; then 49 from September 2009 to February 2010, and in the last accounting - March to August this year - a further 14 copies were sold.

Hiding behind confidentiality gobbledygook, the publishers have wriggled their way out of culpability.

I am angry and in no mood to exonerate everyone. Out of a nation of 48million, how do we buy only 200 books of someone like Nkosi's work?

Astrid must sell the 1000 copies she bought from Random Struik at the memorial service today.

And the operative word is buy!