Books: so much potential

The launch of the Cape Town Book Fair is a major development for the book sector in South Africa and the entire continent. However, for its full potential to be realised, transformation across the whole book chain is urgently needed. This requires a major mind shift.

The benefits of freedom and democratisation, which have been exploited by other cultural and business sectors, have largely gone begging in the book industry. Outside the education sector, publishing has been confined to the market as it evolved under apartheid.

South Africa’s book infrastructure still caters largely for the English and Afrikaans-speaking white middle class. This is evident in the general profile of authors and readers, editors and publishers; the geographical distribution of bookshops; the physical quality and price of books; and the content that is ultimately published.

The market and the distribution chain are so exclusive, and so powerful, that they determine what is published and how it is published. It is very risky for any publisher to produce a book that does not fall within these strict prescriptions unless one has alternative distribution arrangements.

A cursory look at the Sunday Times Top 10 lists for fiction and non-fiction, which measure sales on the local market, shows that only a couple of local books out of the total 20 make it to the list. The market’s Eurocentric orientation is further evident in the fact that of every four books sold locally, three are published elsewhere.

A visitor from Europe once hinted at his disappointment when he pointed out that the material on offer in South African bookshops is more “European” than that found in many shops in Europe.

A colleague in the book retail sector, when asked about the exclusive profile of books on sale and the failure to distribute a wider range of books, answered: “We sell a boutique experience to a discerning reader and we make no apologies for that ... our readers seek that experience and are willing to pay a premium for it.”

This may be a sound business principle, but viable alternatives are desperately needed.

The fact that one can count the number of black editors and publishers in the sector on one hand, and that one cannot go to a bookshop and hope to get books such as Ityala lamawele, Unyana woMntu or Zemk’ Inkomo Magwalandini in a country where the majority of the population is non-English and non-Afrikaans-speaking, suggests how far we still have to go.

In such a limited and monolithic market, it can be argued that even books by the handful of black authors are selected not only for their literary merit, but also because they are targeted at the same prescribed market and distribution chain. In most cases, such books do not have as much appeal to black readers.

For South Africa’s cultural development, this is an unacceptable situation and for the business of publishing, it is unsustainable. Yet the current economies of scope for the local industry offer far more potential.

It has been argued that it will take years of expanding literacy and economic development for the book sector to realise its full potential. But it is also clear that democratisation has already empowered a whole range of potential new readers who can grow and diversify the book-reading and book-buying market. To a large extent, the book sector has not shifted to accommodate these potential new readers — nor the black middle-class readers who would enjoy reading certain publications in their mother tongue, if these titles were available and accessible.

Even with all of its problems, the industry and its existing infrastructure form an important platform from which to launch a more diverse and sustainable book sector. South Africa has the biggest general book market in Africa (20-25% of the total book sector, compared to an average of 5% on the continent).

A holistic approach to the book sector will ensure that potential authors can create new content in the confidence that, with adequate merit, their work can be published. Publishers need to be able to assess the calibre of these works with the confidence that the distribution and retail infrastructure can support and get them to readers. In order for publishers to be able to select and develop such content, they need to diversify their skills and cultural pool.

In order for the distribution and retail chain to create better access to more diverse content, they will need to expand and broaden the spatial distribution of bookshops and take on the wide range of content that publishers will come to offer. Such a diverse industry will naturally begin to attract content from other parts of Africa.

The government and the private sector can complement the bookshops as access points by developing libraries and procuring appropriate books for these libraries. The government can also provide stimulation in areas where latent potential has not been realised. Such support can include reducing the initial risks in areas with less commercial support, such as African-language publishing, by procuring a certain number of copies for distribution to libraries, and helping new publishers and booksellers to secure finance for their operations.

The future of the industry lies in the affirmation of the potential that the majority of the population has for the local book sector, and in restructuring the book chain.

In this regard, Unesco’s recommendations concerning national book development policies need to be considered seriously. This means acknowledging the strategic importance of the book sector, and formulating cultural and economic objectives towards which all interested parties need to work.

It is along this path that the momentum generated by the Cape Town Book Fair can be put to good use.

Brian Wafawarowa is managing director of New Africa Books

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