Ben Williams has books in his soul and is now making this work for the Times Media Group. He speaks to Daya Coetzee.
Content management and repurposing are the new buzzwords in print media houses. Ben Williams is at the centre of this trend at Times Media Group (TMG). Aficionado of the South African literary world, US-born Williams took over as Sunday Times books editor in July 2013. He spearheaded the recent 2014 Sunday Times Literary Awards where Max du Preez and Claire Robertson were announced as the winners.
Williams is head of books and e-commerce at TMG and is working at the crossroads of publishing, retail and digital technology. One of his latest projects is a book marking the 100th anniversary of World War I, which incorporates reports from the Sunday Times (a newspaper that was established well before the first shots were fired in 1914).
Williams is leading TMG down a myriad of new avenues. He is developing a complete publishing value chain – from publishing books and e-books to selling them directly, leveraging TMG’s media muscle to make readers aware of them. He is also developing new e-commerce initiatives, including a first-of-its-kind boutique news and e-tailing website, which is scheduled to launch this month.
Williams’ career path brought him to South Africa from the US, having befriended there the family of international bestselling ‘Kaffir Boy’ author Mark Mathabane. It positioned him perfectly to get involved in South Africa’s publishing scene. Together with his background as a web technologist, his bookish leanings are set to bring history to life and help steer what some might call a ‘legacy’ content business into the future.
TMG has over a century’s worth of archives at its disposal – a ‘content mine-dump’ of print, photographs, music and movies (including a catalogue of around 250 films; and the group owns Gallo Records) that can be repurposed or “sifted through to find gold”. It is part of Williams’ job to expand TMG’s revenue stream by developing new content offerings. This includes commissioning new books and developing new platforms to showcase cutting-edge trends, enticing readers into a ‘virtuous lifestyle loop’, with TMG meeting many of their entertainment and consumer needs.
The revenue from the e-book market in South Africa this year is already in excess of R200 million and it is expected, over the next five years, to become 20% of the trade book market, or up to R400 million per annum.
Even though Williams’ area of expertise is e-books, other e-commerce initiatives will similarly target areas where e-tailing is growing.
In an interview with TMG CEO Andrew Bonamour in The Media (July 2013), he explained his vision of leveraging all the content at his disposal to further generate capital. One of the ways he saw this happening was by creating books and e-books by using articles about them from the various publications through the decades.
Williams was originally employed at Avusa in 2011 as general manager of Exclusives.co.za, after Avusa acquired his own company, BOOK SA, and folded it into its digital news offering, the Times Media LIVE sites (including TimesLIVE and SowetanLIVE). When Avusa became TMG, they decided to sell off Exclusive Books and Nu-Metro, and offered Williams his current position. (He also continues as the publishing editor of Books LIVE.)
But it was back in 1991, when Williams started his BA at Northwestern University in Chicago, that he cemented his interest in South Africa. His university had offered a scholarship programme for black South Africans pursuing professional degrees such as law, chemical engineering and medicine. The proviso for the scholarship was that the students returned to South Africa after graduating – which they did, leaving Williams with a network of professionals to connect with when he travelled here. Williams’ South African university friends introduced him to the works of great South African writers including Olive Schreiner, Nadine Gordimer, Njabulo Ndebele, JM Coetzee and Steve Biko.
After graduating in 1995, the year South Africa famously won the Rugby World Cup, Williams toured the country, visiting a series of surrogate families, staying in townships and upmarket suburbs alike. Williams said, “It was a transformative time period, a key moment in the country’s foundation. South Africa was the coolest place to be and I had no choice: I had to stay.”
He settled in Cape Town and founded an overseas study programme for US students to come to South Africa. He also worked for The Big Issue, Black Sash and for a tourism company, while completing an MA in writing at UCT in 2000. Williams has published two books: ‘The Masala Cookbook’ and ‘The New Suffolk Hymnbook’, a work of experimental fiction under a pen name.
In 2006 he founded the website BOOK SA, a top news source and social network for southern African writers and publishers. He was astounded by the local book publishing industry. “It was raining books, there was a torrential downpour, almost one book was being published every week by each publisher.”
Williams describes how he first conceptualised the site that led him to where he is today. “I had a ‘Matrix’ moment. You know, the moment in the movie when Keanu Reeves’ character starts seeing the green numbers and letters instead of so-called reality. I saw how the internet was put together, which helped me solve one of its fundamental mysteries: how to deliver an audience to content.”
Now his job is to deliver that audience e-books and e-commerce offerings that will make them click.
This story was first published in the August 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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