Dryad Press: amplifying local voices
Caitlin4 Mar, 2021
I am a huge poetry fan. There’s a whole shelf dedicated to poetry in my living room, some of my own poems feature in some of these books. Poetry is deeply personal, and so beautifully shareable. A good poem can really punch you in the gut, or make you laugh, or make you cry – it can stir up a memory, a fantasy, or bring you back to the present moment, words expectant on the page.
We chatted with Michèle Betty, co-owner and founder of Dryad Press, to discuss her business journey, and learn more about publishing poetry in South Africa.
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Why did you name your business Dryad Press?
In Greek mythology, a Dryad was a spirit that inhabited trees in groves, woodlands, and mountain forests. It was believed that the dryad lived only as long as the trees they inhabited. Dryad Press was named in deference to the conceptualisation of the dryad as epitomised by the ancient Greeks.
Tell us about your journey?
I began my professional career as an attorney working in Johannesburg, but had always written poetry as a student. After having two children we relocated to Cape Town and I stopped working for some time to be with my children. It was here that I began writing again.
I joined Finuala Dowling’s famous poetry workshops in Kalk Bay. Finuala helped me to craft a portfolio to submit to UCT for its Masters programme in Creative Writing. Studying a Masters of Art (MA) at UCT as a mature student was an invigorating experience. It was there that I met Joan Hambidge, my mentor and supervisor for my MA. My debut collection, Metaphysical Balm, was written as part of my dissertation.
After graduating I established Dryad Press, working in collaboration with Joan Hambidge.
Why is it important to publish poetry in South Africa?
When I started Dryad Press, I realised that there were so few avenues open to poets in South Africa. Many mainstream publishers no longer tackled poetry, as it is difficult to make poetry a financially viable enterprise, especially because of the low margins on the production of books. In the past poetry also used to have a very small sales market, but this seems to be growing over the last few years.
That said, I was astounded by the depth of talent available for publication in South Africa. I felt it necessary that these voices be given the opportunity to be heard.
Providing an avenue for critical voices to be heard in South Africa is vital: illness, death, isolation, and gender based violence are being experienced at an unprecedented scale and poetry provides a unique opportunity to address, recognise, and voice that pain.
What’s one of your biggest learnings in running Dryad Press?
I have had many learning curves in running the press. One of the greatest challenges has been understanding the system of book distribution into bookstores. At the end of the day, the margins for the publisher are tiny and almost do not cover costs. This was a surprise to me and a challenge that I had to work on. Finding new ways or additional ways to access distribution channels is key. My online store has helped me hugely in doing this, especially during the pandemic. Most of my sales during 2020 were made via the online store, and this kept the business going through trying times. I was grateful that I had the store in place prior to the pandemic raging. All the infrastructure was there, it just needed some additional marketing and social media input to push it to the next level.
Why did you add SnapScan to your online store?
During the pandemic the online store really took off. Research showed me that making it really easy for my customers to purchase my books would help to secure sales. I purchased items on Yuppiechef one morning and they had SnapScan as a payment option. So I tried it and was amazed by how easy it was – not needing to load your card details onto a foreign website was a huge plus for me. I knew I had to get that for my own online site. It has been a great success at the Dryad online store, with many people opting to use SnapScan as the preferred payment option on my website.
How else do you use SnapScan?
As a poetry publisher, I often have readings by poets at venues that do not sell books (like coffee shops, gardens, at people’s homes, or book clubs). It is so useful to be able to take my SnapScan code along. I recently went to an outdoor market, where every supplier was using SnapScan and I paid for all my items without once having to pull out my purse. It is so easy and safe.
Did your business need to adapt in 2020? If so, what did you do?
The publishing industry was hard hit during 2020 and all areas of publishing felt it. On my side, we were hit by large returns from bookstores, which negatively affected our numbers. However, I was determined to continue. I swapped my in-store launches for online versions facilitated by Exclusive Books and later in the year when we could go back to stores with limited numbers, we live screened our launches on Facebook to enable many more people to attend from various areas in South Africa and around the world. It required innovation and determination.
I also took the new found time to apply for grants, two of which were awarded to Dryad Press, one from the South African Book Development Council (for training and guidance) and the second from the National Arts Council. This was a lifeline for Dryad and one that I might not have pursued if it had not been for the pandemic.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I will share a poem that I keep on my desk and read frequently to provide me with composure and comfort during the pandemic:
The Peace of Wild Things
By Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I don’t think a bookshelf can ever have enough poetry books.
If you’d like to share your business’ SnapScan story with us, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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