Monday, July 09, 2007

Cape Town Book Fair Looks to Conquer Africa

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 7/9/2007

Nearly 50,000 people attended the second Cape Town Book Fair, held June 15–19, double the attendance in the inaugural year. This year's event attracted some 350 exhibitors, including local publishers, booksellers and cultural organizations.

Launched in 2005 in partnership with the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Cape Town Book Fair aims to “become the central meeting place for publishers on the African continent,” according to book fair managing director Vanessa Badroodien, taking over the role formerly filled by the Zimbabwe Book Fair; many international publishers had departed in protest over the policies of Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe. Badroodien added, “The majority of exhibitors in Zimbabwe were subsidized by organizations like the World Bank. The only way for this to work is for us to be self-supporting. Combining a trade show and a public book fair makes this financially feasible.”

So far, Cape Town has struggled to attract significant numbers of African exhibitors—just eight were on the roster this year—though the Association of African Publishers held its general meeting at the fair. Next year, Badroodien plans to add an incentive for international publishers by making the first day of the fair exclusive to trade visitors. Among this year's international exhibitors were a dozen from the U.K.; numerous group exhibits from continental Europe; and just two American companies: World Bank Publications and Krishnamurti Publications.

South African publishing has traditionally been aligned with the British subsidiaries of the global publishing conglomerates. The country imports nearly 75% of its books from the U.K. Nevertheless, “there are opportunities for American publishers to enter the South African market through education publishing,” said Musa Shezi, managing director of Via Africa, South Africa's largest trade publishing conglomerate. “The key is for American publishers to partner here with black-owned publishers,” said Shezi, who praised the government for giving special subsidies to black-owned publishers under its Black Economic Empowerment program. “It is a big opportunity, but one which needs a local interpreter so it is not misunderstood.”

Shezi was not speaking allegorically. The greatest challenge to be met by South African publishers, who typically work in Afrikaans and English, is how to cater to a country of 45 million people with 11 official languages—all sanctioned for use in education.

Even local companies struggle to meet the needs of the linguistically diverse populace. Batya Green-Bricker, marketing manager for Exclusive Books, the country's largest bookstore chain with more than 40 stores, admitted the company has struggled to find an audience for books in languages other than English or Afrikaans. “It's a matter of distribution,” she said. “Many of our stores are in malls in urban areas, not out in the rural areas where the tribal languages are spoken. We're just now starting to open in the townships,” citing a new store opening in Soweto this fall, “and that should be an important step for us toward expanding our customer base.” Green-Bricker said imported books outsell local titles at the chain by a two-to-one margin, but that Exclusive's goal is to give more attention to South African writing. The chain sponsors an annual “Homebru” program, promoting 25 books in Afrikaans and English, and also sponsors a children's book award. “Local publishing has become more comfortable in its skin,” Green-Bricker said. “We are celebrating the varied experiences of living in South Africa without the angst of earlier years.”

A new report by the South African Book Development Council found that while the literacy rate in the country exceeds 90%, fewer than half the homes own books for leisure reading. “The South African market may look daunting,” said Dudley Schroeder, the executive director of the Publishers Association of South Africa, “but it is a market that is growing, especially as a large number of people move into the middle class.”

In 2006, total retail sales for trade books rose 12%, to 938 million rand ($135 million), as estimated by Nielsen BookScan. According to the Publishers Association of South Africa, book sales in 2005 totaled 2.2 billion rand ($302.5 million) in 2005, when 8,177 titles were published. With typical print runs of 1,000 to 3,000 copies, a book selling 5,000 copies is considered a bestseller. Last year, Penguin South Africa had a remarkable success, selling 80,000 copies of John van de Ruit's comic novel Spud, which became the fastest selling book in South Africa's history. “That makes him South Africa's J.K. Rowling,” gushed Penguin sales director Janine O'Connor. Spud will be published in the U.S. by Penguin's Razorbill imprint this October.

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