Local publisher, Charles Siboto, on our reading culture, competing with international titles, and reading as tool to raise our standard of education
The South African publishing scene is a strange one, consisting of many peculiarities and oddities. The first thing that you notice is that it’s not representative of the country and its diverse range of cultures. There are many factors that lend to how lopsided our reading statistics are. The biggest factor is that as a nation we don’t read much and there are no books in most households, so a reading culture is never fostered. I have worked in publishing for four years and can testify that books are luxury items for most households because they are expensive, especially local books. Publishers would love to make books more affordable but the reality is that publishing books is expensive, with the highest cost being printing. In order for publishers to survive, they have to print enough books to cover the cost of producing the books when most of that print run sells. The more books publishers print the cheaper the cost of printing and thus the cheaper the book for buyers, but if those books don’t sell they sit with excessive stock and pay warehouse costs for that stock, which eventually will have to be pulped. The South African publishing scene, thus, is a fine balancing act of publishers trying to make books as accessible as possible while making enough money to continue existing so as to publish more books. Now, as both publisher and reader, I am thinking we can all do more to promote diverse South African literature, especially as readers.
South Africa already has a model of what a healthy, local reading culture looks like in the form of Afrikaans books. Afrikaans publishers are the biggest in the country and Afrikaans readers buy books. The Afrikaans community does have more buying power than most other language groups in the country but the other thing they have is pride in their language. Afrikaans speakers can still largely get by in our economy without having to learn English. Parents know that the country is constantly becoming more and more English but they still don’t stop placing an emphasis on children speaking and reading Afrikaans. In many cases, English is more the supplementary reading. With the other language and culture groups in the country the emphasis is more on English than on the mother tongue, and for the most part, we all know why and I will touch on this later.
Having spent some time reading books by local black writers in English, I know this is by no means a bad thing and it allows for more people being able to enjoy those books. There is an increase of the black middle-class and publishers realise that they have to tap into this market. Young, black and especially female writers are also on the rise and this makes for a great recipe to produce local books that are entertaining, informative, address social issues, expands minds and are just straight up ‘woke’. The problem with publishing in English is that people still buy more international titles than local ones in English. I am one of those people and I have made conscious decision to buy more local titles and readers who can afford to should do this. Afrikaans publishers usually do publish in English and to a smaller scale some of the other local languages but they have realised long ago that they cannot compete with the international market and have opted to focus on their strength, publishing Afrikaans books. Competing with international publishers is difficult because as a country we are not yet confident enough in the power of our own stories and this should not be so. South African publishers publish books of a high caliber that can compete with titles from the UK or the US but they get lost in the crowd. Publishers have had to be much more creative in their marketing a can continue to do so, but as readers, we should also come to the party.
We have great stories as a nation, our cultures are rich in stories that deserve to be shared with the world. I am in no way asking people to stop reading international titles but simply saying that you can read both local and international. It is refreshing to read stories where the heroes and villains are people you can relate to and people that you can imagine meeting when you walk down the street, stories where the lovers and their secrets are people like you. Local books are still expensive to produce but if we all do a little to support the local reading scene it goes a long way. We can do a lot simply by each person in a circle of friends buying one book and then swapping the books among themselves until everyone has had a chance to read every book in the circle. These are things that help to nurture our reading culture. The stronger our reading culture becomes the cheaper and more accessible books will be and publishers will be able to work with more new writers adding their voices to the tapestry of our stories.
The last thing I want to mention, especially having spent most of my publishing career working with children’s books, is that we have to promote our children reading in their mother tongues. This is way easier said than done because the resources are scarce. Resources aside, many black households are afraid to focus on children reading in their mother tongue because they might then miss out on learning English. This is not so, children who can read their own language well can better transition into a second language and excel at it. Being a multilingual society is complex but we gain more when we allow people to read in their own language and learn English in addition. This makes for more people who are truly bi- or multilingual, in the sense that they are equally proficient in multiple languages. This will take some time and resources to fully implement, though. Some publishers do prioritise publishing books for younger readers in multiple local languages and that is a great start and a process that we should support where we can. I come from a family that does not read but I was lucky to fall in love with books because we lived near a wonderful public library when I was a child so I understand that many families are too busy with the business of surviving from day to day to worry about books. But if we are to raise the standard of education and want to invest in a society of knowledgeable people we have to nurture our reading culture. Resources like public libraries help with making books accessible but all of us can add something to the culture. We can do things like buying local books if we can afford them, sharing books, giving away old books or just telling people about the magic of stories. Stories are in our DNA as a species and adding to that collective pool of knowledge only helps us to progress as a nation and as human beings.