Colleen Higgs: Digital publishing has brought new opportunities for publishers

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 book 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.

Self-publishing has its place, but there is still a great deal of room for publishers to work in – Colleen Higgs of @modjaji_bks Click To Tweet

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.  

Rights sales- Modjaji Books

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.

I try not to get thrown or stopped in my tracks by challenges and difficulties. This is not always easy. – Colleen Higgs Click To Tweet

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.

Oladoyin Oladapo: I never planned on writing a book series

Oladoyin Oladapo

Oladoyin Oladapo is inspiring girls to reach their maximum awesomeness with Girl to the World Click To Tweet

Oladoyin Oladapo is the author of the “Girl to the World” book series which consist of four chapter books and four picture books for children below 12. These books share values essential to girlhood; intelligence, curiosity and self-esteem while highlighting the diverse world around us. They are more than learning about differences instead, they are fun and captivating to read like traditional children’s stories.

This is because after spending six months in a local elementary school with her team, Oladoyin discovered that children that age are not as concerned as we were about learning about developmental concepts such as culture and values. So if her team wanted to get children to read, they had to mask all the educative material with fun and exciting stories.

This led them to create the “Girl to the World” book series which empower children but are still fun to read. The series teaches children but not are not textbooks. Oladoyin believes that the content children consume at this age moulds their future; her goal is to expose children especially girls to different cultures. 

Read on to find out how Oladoyin Oladapo is helping girls reach their maximum awesomeness through the celebration of culture, girl power and universal concepts like arts, friends, family, fashion, sports and school.

Tell us a little about yourself and your writing background?

I am from Nigeria but live in the USA. My family migrated to the States when I was very young, so that was where I had most of my education. I studied sociology with education concentration and political science with international relations concentration.

Around my junior year, when I first got the “Girl to the World” idea, I was studying gender and inequality in education and I think that a lot of that really formed the idea. I however planned on making multiple things with the idea; thus toys and animation etc. The first prototype I made with this idea wasn’t a book. I had to try out other things until I finally decided to start with a book, which was a great idea I must say.

With regards to my writing background, I never had professional experience in writing. But I was always doing creative writing among others in school which gave me some experience in this field. So when the time came to write the books, what I did was to put together what I knew and I guess I did the best that I could.

You said you and your sister read a lot when you were young, which books had the most impact on your life? Would you say reading so much at a young age ignited this passion to write the Girl to the World series?

My sister and I read a lot, I remember reading the Bible a lot when I was growing up. At that young age however, I wasn’t able to understand the Bible so I was given the picture Bible which made it a lot easier to understand.

In terms of actual storybooks, our dad would take us to the library all the time. We spent an entire summer reading Chicken Soup for the Soul. I mean we read the entire series of that book just like the Babysitters Club, the Magic Treehouse, Junie B. Jones  and Captain Underpants series. I really enjoyed  Captain Underpants because it was an easy read and I loved the pictures and how funny it was.

Also I believe that because I read so much, I had the confidence that I could write the book even though it was something I never planned on doing.

Everyone wants to know why I don’t have a Nigerian girl in my series - Oladoyin Oladapo Click To Tweet

From your Youtube video, you stated that there are four chapter books and four picture books about four amazing girls. These girls are Akua from Ghana, Shivani from India, Estefany from Colombia and Chazelle from Trinidad and Tobago. How did you come up with these characters and how did you choose their nationalities? Was is random or planned?  

Everyone wants to know why I don’t have a Nigerian girl. It’s a long story. The thing is, the first person who joined my team was a Ghanaian girl who helped me write the first story. And later, when we decided to extend to other characters, we wanted geographical diversity.

It didn’t make sense to have Nigeria which is like two doors from Ghana. I wanted to get other places around the world. Ghana was already there so I decided to hold on with Africa and try other continents.

Then I decided to choose countries that I felt like I knew enough to write about. As I am an outsider and not from any of these cultures so I did research and talked to people who are from there. I wanted to make sure I had enough resources, facts and details so I could write about them.

I wanted it to be authentic, genuine and good. That was the major reason for creating stories from different regions. Also these were cultures I really really enjoyed.

I feel like if I wasn’t a Nigerian, I will be Indian. All these countries I was exposed to, I felt like part of them. With each character we wrote about, I felt like I was the one in the story. As a Nigerian, I have lots of Ghanaian friends and I am used to their culture so I chose cultures that resonated with me. However, these characters are just the beginning. I plan to extend to all the other cultures.


You and your team spent six months in a local elementary school to study and test out your contents. Can you share with us some of your findings?

What I learnt was that children just want to have fun and want to be engaged first and foremost. When I was serving them lunch, I would observe the things I did that got them excited. At the end of the day, I didn’t want to make textbooks.

We know that it is good for them to read things that will educate, inspire and inform them about other cultures, but they don’t know that and they do not care. Thing is, they don’t need to care because they are 10 years old.

If we want them to learn these things then we have to make sure to create something that would be exciting, informative, relatable, fun and easy for them to grasp. I think my problem with the books out there is that they don’t have that.

If you should read a book about a girl from Ghana, what you will find is; “Hi, I am Akua from Ghana. Ghana is a country in Africa. Africa is a continent”. That is true and nice but that is not fun to read. Older people can read that and be all right with it but imagine a 7-year-old reading that. It is just not going to stick.

So we decided to write out all that we wanted to do and teach. Then we had to brainstorm on how to mask them underneath the fun; so that the children will enjoy the books but also be educated.

For instance, we wanted to teach kids about entrepreneurship so we talked about how Akua who lives in Cape Coast, Ghana spent her holidays with her aunty in Makola Market Accra. She gets bored and ends up creating something out of some old Kente then sells it in the market. But we never mentioned the word entrepreneurship even once in the book.

However, we stated the qualities and skills of an entrepreneur. We wanted children  to understand the essence of creating something on their own. Even if you are not from Ghana, you know how you can be so bored during the summer. So we wanted them to know they could create something and make money during this period.  

We wanted to teach kids about entrepreneurship through the book series - Oladoyin Oladapo Click To Tweet

What makes these four girls and their stories so special?

Their diversities and the fact that they are just like us makes them so special. Diversity is not just about skin colour, it is about experiences and having different stories to tell; that is what we are capturing.

Growing up, there weren’t many books with characters that looked like me or experiences similar to mine or the woman I was becoming and we wanted to change that. We decided to create books children would relate with. So I sat down with my team and we really broke it down according to what we want the girls to be exposed to and we came up with diverse characters.

Oladoyin Oladapo and her team wanted to bring diversity to the world of children's books Click To Tweet

We had one girl who was interested in science, another interested in politics then one who was really loud and the other an introvert. We had to make sure that we had girls who had afro, straight and curly hair. This is supposed to be relatable to all sort of people since we were looking at diversity and different kinds of personalities.

These books are also special because they;

  • Ignite – open your eyes to the characters in their countries and their lives. Thus causing children to be curious about other cultures.
  • Inspire – shows the various types of careers and academics; encourage skills and talents building; hobbies. Also encourages girls to try out academic fields that are mainly male-dominated like science, politics, engineering, entrepreneurship which only few women tackle. We want to show how fun these unrepresented fields are. 
    The reader is exposed to the character’s relatable personality traits, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, passions and fears while also learning how to navigate them.
  • Engage – this is all about history; exploring defining moments in the past and making it enjoyable to learn the unique stories from each character’s country. This ties historical events to the characters’ life which is relatable.
  • Excite – this is culture. It is the highlights of festivities and occasions which genuinely depicts a cultural event or experience in a character’s country; usually traditional events with a touch of modern emphasis.

All these are embedded in every single story created. When girls read the books and see girls like them from across the world, they will think about being leaders and savour their culture and history.

They will view themselves not as superheroes or princesses but just as regular girls with lots of potential to offer to the world.


Among the four girls, which one is your favourite and why?

I really hate this question but I think Shivani is my favourite because she is actually me. The thing is I didn’t realize the similarities until I finished writing. Except for the fact that she is Indian, this girl is actually me.

Shivani is into student leadership and has a lot of activities in school. She is into fashion and she is a boss lady. Shivani is also structured, rigid and predictable. She had to learn to be a little spontaneous; something I also had to learn to do over the years. She was faced with some experiences where she learnt how to take life as it comes.

Who are your target audience? Which age group can read this book?

The chapter book is for children between the ages of 7 – 11 ,while the picture book is for children below 7.

I however think that the older you are; the book series is a quick read. I also have 15-year-old and 16-year-old reading it.

What was the hardest and easiest thing about writing these books?

The easiest thing was actually gathering the information while the hardest was the writing, editing, formatting, illustration then the publishing.

When you finish a book, you have to go through this entire processes before publishing it.

Oladoyin Oladapo: When you finish a book, you have to go through many processes Click To Tweet

After publishing, how were the books received? How and where are you selling the book?

Reception has been overwhelming and people have been very supportive. Everything has been going a whole lot better than I expected, which is burning me up and I have to catch up to the wave. We have been shocked by the amount of support we have received. I don’t have any complaints.

We already distribute to three schools and have 200 other smaller distributors. The books are also available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble booksellers, through me and some book stores depending on where you are located. We are also trying to get the books on other distributors at other countries.

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