/ 21 June 2007

Growing healthily

Africa is enjoying its place in the literary sun, with Chinua Achebe winning the Man Booker International (MBI) and the second Cape Town Book Fair proving to be a growing success.

If a good augury had been needed for the book fair, Achebe provided it by taking the second MBI prize, worth £60 000, three days before the fair began. Chairperson of the MBI judging committee, the academic and critic Elaine Showalter, said in her citation: ‘In Things Fall Apart and his other fiction set in Nigeria, Chinua Achebe inaugurated the modern African novel. He also illuminated the path for writers around the world seeking new words and forms for new realities and societies.”

In turn, the fair showed a way forward for publishers seeking new texts and distribution channels for new markets and readers. It also attracted thousands more members of the public than the inaugural event, thus securing its status on local and national cultural calendars. What beckons for 2008 is to enlarge the representivity of that public, which remains overwhelmingly white and middle class, and to build on the international network of publishing and rights sales that the first fair set up.

On its first two days, the fair was a mass of people browsing and buying books and attempting to listen to the numerous panel discussions, readings and authors’ chats on the programme.

Upstairs, in the 60- and 120-seater meeting rooms, it was far easier to absorb what Kiran Desai or the South African Book Development Council or a panel were saying. But it is expensive to hire these venues — to supply only water and glasses, for instance, costs R460 per session — and so it is essential that acoustics at stands in the main fair area be improved.

More than 16 000 people attended the fair’s opening day — almost two-thirds the number at the whole of last year’s event. Day two was even busier, and the event’s final tally of 49 000 was challenging for publishers trying to do business with peers as well as the public.

Veronica Klipp of Wits University Press said a trade day is essential to make the fair worthwhile. For a press such as hers, the expenses — stand rental, staff transport and accommodation, freighting book stock, et cetera — make Cape Town cost ‘as much, if not more, than me going to Frankfurt to do business”. What is awkward is that, ‘even though we sell a lot, we can’t cover costs and we need time to meet with international publishers to talk about trading and rights deals.”

Klipp also had limited time to meet library suppliers and librarians. She felt that the fair ‘might attract more international publishers if there is a dedicated time for trade discussions”.

Fair director Vanessa Badroodien took up the issue and is on record promising that ‘we will have one day that will be sacrosanct in terms of business. It will be closed to the public, as is done at other book fairs around the world.

‘Clearly we cannot exclude the public from the whole fair — this is an event that is part business and part public, after all. But we can look at ways of making the blend flow more easily.”

It was illuminating to talk to foreign publishers and to explore South-South partnerships.

‘We are interested in the South African and African market,” said Dr Ashok Gupta, director of Pustak Mahal publishers in New Delhi, India. With more than 700 titles on his books, Dr Gupta was looking first for a South African distributor.

He noted the ‘high level of interest from the general population — specifically Indian families. I expect these to be good markets for Indian books, because they are cheaper and of good quality.”

It is remarkable that Pustak Mahal is able to produce good paperbacks of a few hundred pages and sell them for 80 rupees — about R11,50. Such books were selling for about R30 at the fair — which has significant implications for South-South publishing and distribution. (Some findings in the South African Book Development Council’s report, Factors Influencing the Cost of Books in South Africa, released at the fair, might persuade some to consider non-local alternatives.)

More profoundly, Gupta addressed the nature of the fair. ‘It has to escape the grip of English and American publishing. It should concentrate on becoming a good fair for everything from the Middle East onwards: Africa, South Asia, South-East Asia. I am here to look for new markets for titles. I’m not here to talk to UK or US publishers — if I want to do that, I can go to Frankfurt or London.”

He has a point: of the fair’s exhibitors, 4% were African, with 26% from beyond this continent.

Rewards of other kinds were actual, not potential. Marlene van Niekerk and Michiel Heyns won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize for the latter’s translation into English from the original Afrikaans of Van Niekerk’s novel, Agaat. Ivan Vladislavic took the Alan Paton Award for Portrait with Keys.

In the M-Net Literary Awards, Shaun Johnson won for The Native Commissioner, and Ingrid Winterbach for Die Boek van Toeval en Toeverlaat. Winterbach’s novel also won the WF Hofmeyr prize at the Via Afrika Literary Awards, at which a little history was made: the Herman Charles Bosman Prize for best English prose being jointly awarded to Kgebetli Moele for Room 207 and Maxine Case for All We Have Left Unsaid.

These reflections of taste and candidates for the South African literary canon aside, the fair also saw an important study released, National Survey into the Reading and Book Reading Behaviour of Adult South Africans. Reading emerged as the third most popular leisure activity, with 13% of South Africans indulging in it most often — behind baking and cooking (19%) and watching TV and videos/DVDs (14%), but ahead of music-related activities (11%). But our reading is predominantly of newspapers (84%) and we spend a weekly average of only 4,1 hours reading.

The second Cape Town Book Fair’s vast array of books and book-related activities is certain to boost the numbers of book readers. Add evidence that publishing networks are growing healthily in what is only the fair’s second year and Cape Town can look forward with confidence to its third book fair next year.