When Sue Nyathi’s novel, A Family Affair, came out in 2020, it was an instant success. The first print run sold out within weeks. Literary critiques could not stop talking about it. But that word, ‘instant,’ camouflages the long journey it took to get to the point where the book was flying off the shelves. There were many years were nothing seemed to be flying – or even crawling. Sue explains…

My journey to being a published author was not linear. If anything it was filled with lots of curve balls, dead ends and detours. I have often read with envy about those authors who write their debut novel and receive hefty advances and instant stardom. That was not my story. Mine really has been about persistence and perseverance, fueled with passion.

Early Start

By the time I was thirteen I knew with certainty I wanted to be a writer. My first “book,” titled Crazy Over You was handwritten and packaged in an A5 Marvo exercise book.

Throughout high school, I entertained classmates with my “books” which were all handwritten. It was only later, with access to computers that I would migrate to using Microsoft Word.

Writing on paper was always messy. With no backspace or delete function, there was a lot of canceling and scrunching of paper.

I was nineteen, in my first year of university, when I embarked on writing what was to become the first draft of A Family Affair.  I thought it would become my first published book. Far from it. It was only published over 20 years later, in October 2020. Two other books would come before it.

Sue Nyathi signing autographs at one of the launch events for  'A Family Affair' in 2020.
Sue Nyathi signing autographs at one of the launch events for ‘A Family Affair’ in 2020.

At that same time I was also studying towards my degree in Finance.  The divergence in goals was because my parents wanted me to pursue a respectable profession as opposed to my passion.

Rejection

I must have been twenty three when I submitted what must have been the 3rd draft of A Family Affair to Weaver Press in Harare. The well-known Zimbabwean editor, Irene Staunton, responded with a two-page rejection letter which changed my life forever.

My first reaction, after reading the letter, was to decide that writing was not for me and that I had to focus my efforts on my career in finance.

My first reaction, after reading the letter, was to decide that writing was not for me and that I had to focus my efforts on my career in finance.

It was my cousin, Nqobile Githinji, a journalist who had grown up reading my stories, who asked me why I had given up writing. I shared with her the letter from Weaver Press.

It was so eloquently and carefully written. However, in my despair I had failed to pick out the positive comments from Irene or any of her constructive advice. With a great deal of objectivity and less emotion, Nqobile encouraged me to embark on the corrective measures outlined in the letter and revisit my manuscript.

Some of the critique in that letter included things that seem obvious to me now; “show and not tell” and “character development.”

Sue Nyathi

Sue’s Publishing Journey

Sue Nyathi - Crazy Over You Mockup

TEENAGE WRITER

1990s

As a teenager, Sue wrote her first manuscripts in exercise books and shared them with her friends at school.

Sue Nyathi - The Polygamist, Sue's first novel, was published in 2012 - Valley of Writers

BREAKTHROUGH

2012

First Novel! Sue launches her debut work after being encouraged by her editor to self-publish. She has been trying to get published for over 12 years at this point.

Sue Nyathi - GoldDiggers Cover - Valley of Writers

PUBLISHER

2018

Pan Macmillan publishes Sue’s second novel, The GoldDiggers, and this helps boost her visibility and sales.

Sue Nyathi - A Family Affair Cover - Valley of Writers

LONG JOURNEY

2020

The manuscript which she thought would be her first novel, finally joins her family of published works, twenty years after she first submitted it for publication.

Sue Nyathi - An Angel's Demise Cover - Valley of Writers

THE JOURNEY CONTINUES

2022

Pan Macmillan will publish Sue’s fourth novel, An Angel’s Demise, in October 2022.

Fourth Draft

So I began re-writing each chapter and I would send it to Irene for feedback. I think we did this for about 3 chapters and then I felt confident enough to continue alone.

I started reading more about the craft of writing. Consuming articles on the internet on writing styles and techniques.

Once I had completed the manuscript, I shared it with peers who provided insightful criticism. The first was Patricia, the librarian at the Ascot Public Library in Bulawayo where I spent a great deal of time buried in books. The second was my former Math Teacher, Maureen van der Horn, who had been a closet writer for years. Their input helped me finish the 4th draft of the manuscript.

I thought my first novel was in sight. How wrong I was.

Elusive First Novel

I then relocated to South Africa which had a vibrant and flourishing literary industry which ignited my desire to get published again. At this point my manuscript had been abandoned again,  sitting there untouched for over three years. I approached Paper Bag Publishing, through a referral from an old high school friend whose novel had been published through them.

After my interactions with Pat Hopkins, the publisher, he suggested I re-write the manuscript, only focusing on one character (Yandisa) and dropping the other two sisters in A Family Affair. I did this and Pat Hopkins agreed to publish the manuscript in its revised form. Then during the process he passed on and that edition of the project died with him.

Pat Hopkins agreed to publish the manuscript in its revised form. Then during the process he passed on and that edition of the project died with him.

So I shelved the manuscript again and focussed on my demanding work life. I am sure you see a pattern here, the career was always the fall back position when my writing efforts failed.

Deep Doubt

Then in 2010, still itching to write, but really fatigued by A Family Affair, I decided to write a totally new book, The Polygamist. This went on to become my debut novel. I just wanted to work on something fresh and exciting. Upon completion, I found an editor, Paula Marais who is also an independent publisher. She worked on the manuscript and then acted as my agent in approaching traditional publishers, scouting for publishing offers. None of the enquiries yielded interest.

This was another disheartening blow and I started to deeply question my ability to write. I wondered if this was really a pipe dream that I was really not qualified for.  I had been writing all my life, it seemed, and I just couldn’t get published.

I started to deeply question my ability to write…
I had been writing all my life, it seemed,
and I just couldn’t get published.

Publish Yourself!

Paula came to the rescue with the suggestion that I self-publish, saying it was a viable path. Up until then I had not been aware of it as an option. She assured me that she had published two of her novels this way and that it was a way of getting my name out there. Once my first novel was out, it would help attract the attention of other publishers for subsequent work.

She held my hand through the self-publishing process. There were many more lessons to learn. With traditional publishing, the publisher foots the entire bill and in return you receive a royalty on book sales. With self-publishing, you self finance the process.

I used my salary and received support from an angel investor, Victor Utedzi, to fund the publication. It was a very hands-on process and I learned a lot about the book manufacturing process; from editing, to typesetting and layout, to copy editing and proofing.

Six drafts later, The Polygamist was published under the Logogog imprint. I launched the book in March 2012 at Rosebank Mall in Johannesburg, over two decades after I first shared the handwritten Crazy Over You with my high school friends. Finally, my first novel. It was the fruition of a dream I had nurtured all my life.

First Novel | Guests at the launch of The Polygamist
Birth of a first novel. Guests at the launch of ‘The Polygamist.’

Costly Errors

However, I was still very naïve about how the publishing industry worked. It’s one thing to get published, but quite another to get into bookshops.

It’s one thing
to get published, but quite another
to get into bookshops.

The Polygamist put me through a crash course in distribution, the wholesale and retail aspects of the book trade and the marketing of books. There were many costly errors on my part and I had to revise my initial sales forecasts.

The returns I had promised the angel investor were not going to be realized as quickly as I had anticipated. Book sales were slow. The book was not the runaway bestseller that I had envisaged. I had done an initial print run of 500 copies and it took me over 2 years to sell those.

I had to market the book and I was a novice at this. The distributor I was using at the time, Wild Dog, went bankrupt and they returned a lot of stock they had on hand.

Business Decision

In 2016, I met a man called Owen Early of Bacchus Books. He changed my fortunes considerably when he took over my distribution. The sales of my book picked up considerably. I went from modest sales of 250 copies a year to 100 copies a month. However, Bacchus Books could only service the Gauteng market. So in 2018, Protehuis Books made an offer to do my distribution and they had a national footprint. While I was sad to sever my relationship with Owen, it was the only way I could grow my sales and footprint.

…the onus of book marketing still lies with the author and not the publisher. I have managed to grow my following through social media interaction and being active on the book club circuit.

With the subsequent publication of my second book, The Gold Diggers (2018) with Pan Macmillan, they were able to put their weight behind me, marketing wise. This helped considerably to assist my individual efforts, which were small in comparison.

I had initially submitted the manuscript to Penguin. The publisher who had received it had been excited about it but the rest of the team said no. So I got a rejection letter which was accompanied by a positive reader’s report. So I was introduced to Andrea Nattrass at Pan Macmillan. I submitted my manuscript together with the reader’s report. To my joy, they responded with a  yes and made me a publishing offer.

That said, the onus of book marketing still lies with the author and not the publisher. I have managed to grow my following through social media interaction and being active on the book club circuit.

Sue Nyathi book covers in circle

The journey in pictures

A Family Affair – Finally

Confidence found, I resurrected A Family Affair and it was published in 2020 by Pan Macmillan.

Interestingly enough, the title held and so did the core characters but their names and storylines evolved over the years. This was largely influenced by my own growth, mirroring my own journey through womanhood, self discovery and writing prowess. Looking back now, I think the timing was right for this book. Any earlier and I feel it would have been premature.

All three of my books have now been
accorded bestseller status…
All three books have been optioned for film

All three of my books have now been accorded bestseller status as defined by the South African literary industry. All three books have been optioned for film. My fourth novel, An Angel’s Demise, comes out in October 2022, So while my odyssey was challenging and fraught with frustration, it does have a happy ever after ending.  It has taught me that persistence, perseverance and passion eventually pay off. And add prayer to that too, I have been living on a prayer!


Are you working on your first novel? Or next one? Check out our toolkit featuring life-saving tools and resources for writing and marketing your book.

Sue Nyathi
Author: Sue Nyathi

Sukoluhle “Sue” Nyathi was born, bred and educated in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and now resides in South Africa. She describes herself as an investment analyst by profession and a writer by passion. She has a career spanning over 20 years in the financial services sector. Fate retired her from this profession in 2020 so she could pursue writing full time. She is the author of three published fiction novels: The Polygamist (2012) The Gold Diggers (2018) and A Family Affair (2020) She recently edited a nonfiction anthology titled: When Secrets Become Stories, Women Speak Out (2021) which is a compilation of nonfiction essays with a gender based violence theme.

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