Meet the inspirational women in publishing from around the world

Emma House talks to four inspirational women in publishing from four different countries to know about their journey, challenges, proud moments and life as a woman in publishing. Excerpts.

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Here, Emma House talks to four of the female leaders in publishing around the world who are inspiring women. Thabiso Mahlape is Founder of BlackBird Books, South Africa (an independent South African publishing house that gives young black writers a platform).

While, Gvantsa Jobava holds 3 major offices; Editor/International Relations Manager, Intelekti Publishing/ Artanuji Publishing, Chairperson, Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association and Executive Committee member, International Publishers Association. She has managed the publishing program of the Guest of Honour at Frankfurt Book Fair (2018) and is one of the managers of Tbilisi – UNESCO World Book Capital (2021).

Karine Pansa is the owner and Publishing Director at Girassol Brasil Edições – a children’s books publisher in São Paulo Brazil; a board director for the Brazilian Book Chamber (CBL); and a member of the Executive Committee of the International Publishers Association (IPA).

Laura Prinsloo runs Kesaint Blanc Publishing and Printing based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She is part of the Indonesian Chambers of Commerce and was involved in the Indonesian Publishers Association. In 2016, Laura was appointed to be the Chairperson of the Indonesian National Book Committee.

Emma: What attracted you to the publishing industry and how did you start?

Thabiso: I did not have the idyllic childhood of being read to, so I never read any age appropriate books. But from thereon my relationship with words and stories was born. When I finished high school, I thought that the only way I could pursue that passion was through journalism. I later joined the publishing course at University of Pretoria.

Gvantsa: I was born to a Georgian philologist father and English language teacher mother and lived in a house full of books. When I was young, I used to play with books, and very soon started reading them. At an early age I started writing poems and loved to create my own handmade books, so books played a major role in my life from early on. While choosing my future profession, I had two alternatives, journalism or literature and book publishing, I chose the latter. As soon as I graduated, I started my first job at a children’s books publishing house and knew immediately that this was going to be my profession forever.

Karine: I was kind of “born” in the publishing industry. My dad worked at one of the major publishing houses in Brazil, so I grew up attending book fairs and book festivals. I went on to university to study business administration and started working as a trainee at the publishing company my father worked at and stayed there for 7 years. Together with my father we were then invited by a Spanish company to set up Girassol Brasil Edições which is the publishing company I now own and run and am proud to say we have been in business for 20 years.

Laura: Before joining the publishing in Indonesia, I worked for New Zealand’s biggest bank. Work became too comfortable and I felt the more I climbed the ladder the further away I would go from my dream of starting my own business. At the same time, in 2009, my father called asking me to return to Indonesia and take over his publishing and printing business. We resigned from our jobs to moved to Indonesia and revive my family business. I had to learn fast; I read many books, joined the Indonesian Publishers Association, went to many book fairs, seminars, workshops, and built a publishing network. The more time I spent in reviving the publishing business, the more my passion grew for the industry.

Emma: Give us a brief about your organisation/association and your role?

Thabiso: In July 2010 I applied for an internship programme run by the Publishers Association of South Africa (PASA). After the internship at Jacana Media, I worked in the submissions department and discovered a book My Father My Monster (by McIntosh Polela) which I worked on with a senior publisher. The book really was quite ground-breaking and really delivered in terms of numbers.

By 2015, I was working 3 days a week and set up a consultancy business and used this to set up a JV imprint with Jacana called Blackbird Books. I wanted to publish black writers and have a platform dedicated just for them. This arrangement worked for 4 years and in April 2020 we became independent with the freedom to try new things. I want to turn Blackbird Books into THE literary gateway into Africa.

Gvantsa: I started working in both of publishing houses as a rights manager and am now the International relations manager and an editor. I’m not only involved in creating new publishing series for the publishing house and editing books, but also involved in event management, promotional campaigns, presenting at book launches and through the media. Finally, I am a literary agent for many Georgian authors, selling their copyrights to foreign publishing houses, attending international book fairs to both buy and sell rights. My favourite experience was hosting the 2015 Nobel Prize Winner Belarus writer Svetlana Alexievich in Georgia.

Karine: Being able to contribute to the broader publishing industry is hugely motivating for me and so being part of the Brazilian Chamber and at the IPA allows me to contribute to the bigger picture. My work with the Foundation also allows me to contribute my time, skills and expertise to a really worthwhile cause. I was only the second woman to be the President of the Brazlian Chamber of Publishers.

Laura: It was such an honour to be trusted to head the National Book Committee (NBC) which was established largely due to the guest of the honour programme at Frankfurt Book Fair. We believe that our presence in Frankfurt was a huge success, over 200 Indonesians writers/ publishers/ artists/ creative players participated in year-long events. The NBC has now been discontinued but under a newly established foundation, we are continuing programmes that were initiated during NBC periods including the Jakarta Content Festival – a partnership programme with the Frankfurt Book Fair, a 5000 sqm Book Park and Intellectual-exchange hub in central Jakarta, the first literature museum and many more.

Emma: What challenges have you had to overcome in your career?

Thabiso: Being spoken down to, by a lot of the people in the industry and within the company that I worked for. What was hugely frustrating was the need to always need to justify my reasons for all of my decisions when my counterparts didn’t have to. But perhaps the most painful challenge I’ve faced is to have mistakes threaten your career when others can just glide past theirs.

Gvantsa: In 2013, I was elected as a deputy chairperson of the Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association (GPBA) at the age of 27 and after two years, at the age of 29 I became the chairperson. The challenge was that unlike previous chairpersons, I was not the founder or director, but the employee of the publishing house. Whilst gender was not an issue, my age was a problem, especially in a country which is still dealing with Soviet traces in ideology, opinions, views; a country full of contrasts and differences in different generations.

When I started at the Publishers Association, we faced many complications including difficult relationships among members, financial problems and no recognized authority. The staff and board members had to make changes and unpopular decisions for a better future for our industry.

Karine: During my time as president of the Brazilian Book Chamber (CBL), I’ve had various difficult times with projects and initiatives where I had to look through the situation and consider both sides before making decisions. The financial situation of our economy is continually presenting challenges which I’ve had to face both as a publisher and in my role with the Chamber – it’s never easy on a daily basis. Fortunately I’ve never faced challenges because of my gender.

Laura: For me, when dealing with many stakeholders to produce an international programme, managing ego-sectors was a challenge. In every decision made, it was important for me to have a good consensus, to be inclusive and make sure it could benefit the whole industry. Having good and transparent communication was key. Two other things that we are facing in Indonesia are improving the reading culture and fighting against book piracy.

Emma: Have you had any role models who have inspired you on your publishing journey?

Thabiso: Toni Morrison. I realised that I sit in a place where I can do for South African black writers what she did for Americans.

Gvantsa: It was Carmen Balcells Segala, the famous literary agent of Spanish and Latin American authors, and one of the most powerful and influential women in Spanish publishing.

Laura: From Indonesia, its Susi Pudjiastuti, former Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, the first tattooed female minister that never completed high school education. Another figure I admire is Angela Merkel, from her faith to her bold decisions, and she is also an activist of freedom of speech.

Emma: What are your most proud moments in your career so far?

Thabiso: I am most proud of the writers whose careers I have been able to help start, the confidence my ‘yes’ has given them to soar.

Gvantsa: It was in 2018, when Georgia was the guest of honor at Frankfurt Book Fair and I worked on the project as head of the publishing program.

Karine: Actively participating in the Brazilian Guest of Honor programmes in book fairs (Frankfurt, Bogotá, Bologna and Paris) have been some of the proudest moments of my career. And more important than just one moment is making books for children as a career and surviving as a company in these difficult economic conditions. Being able to help kids to build their knowledge is the thing I am most proud of.

Laura: I feel proud when Indonesian books are published overseas, which most people won’t probably have heard of before. Since we started 4 years ago, the National Book Committee has recorded more than 1500 titles sold to foreign publishers. Another proudest moment was being able to give the welcoming speech at the Market Focus reception at London Book Fair.

Emma: What is the environment like for women in publishing in your country?

Thabiso: Even though the face of every day publishing is women, not talking about CEOs and boards, there aren’t any initiatives like that. No one has stopped to really think about how we give women more leadership positions and strengthen and grow their careers.

Gvantsa: I’m happy to say that the situation for women in publishing in Georgia is very optimistic. According to the Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association’s statistics, the percentage of men and women directors of the organizations is 50/50, it is like a paradise of gender equality. In the last 10 years, GPBA chairpersons were 90% women and 10% men. In the Georgian publishing and literary field women are really dominating. Even 90% of the Frankfurt Book Fair Guest of Honour team were women.

Karine: The Brazilian publishing industry has historically been a market that has always had women in various positions – publishing is seen as a career for women, but not necessarily in leadership positions.

Laura: In my financial career, I rarely saw women on top management level. I could say similarly in the publishing industry, especially in Indonesia. The editorial department would be filled with women but for positions that require longer hours and higher commitment, most are led by men.

Emma House is an international publishing consultant based in the UK. Her previous roles included Deputy CEO of the Publishers Association UK and Head of International Development at the London Book Fair.

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