Cape Town: how to expand the circles?

Daniel Crewe
Opinion - Publishing Friday, 5th March 2010

Daniel Crewe files the second of a series of reports from the UKYPE finalists' tour to South Africa There are only 100 days until the start of the World Cup, or '2010', as Nelisa Lunika of the Centre for the Book reminds us, pointing proudly to the South Africa football shirt that she is sporting. Nelisa, the co-ordinator for the community publishing project here in Cape Town, greets us before our meeting with her four colleagues, chaired by the Executive Head, Mandla Matyumza. They introduce us to the centre, founded in 1998, which focuses on promoting reading, writing and publishing in all local languages (there are 11 official ones), and easy access to books for all South Africans. It's very clear in South Africa that books are expensive in both absolute and relative terms - the average paperback costs almost four times as much as the price of a cinema ticket.

The projects of the government-funded centre include providing books to reading clubs for children, sponsoring new creative writing projects across the country, and co-ordinating the country €™s World Book Day celebrations on 23 April. (With no full-time agents, the centre also helps writers when publishers do things they shouldn't.) One important project is First Words in Print, which aims to ensure that all young South African children have access to picture books in their own languages. This is vital for the reading culture in a country of whose 48 million people an estimated three million adults are illiterate - even the president, Jacob Zuma, only learned to read and write as an adult.
As we get given a tour of the Edwardian building in the centre of town (whose stone was laid in 1906 by a Hely-Hutchinson, Sir Walter, Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of the Cape of Good Hope between 1901 and 1910), we see the wonderful grand event room, the children €™s books library, and finally Nelisa €™s office. On the door is a sticker saying 'I love Madiba' - this being the affectionate nickname for Nelson Mandela. It was noticeable that Mandela (who has said his favourite pastime is reading) had a section to himself in one bookshop we visited, as did HIV/AIDS.
The focus of the Centre's work is very different from that of the company we had visited in the morning, Jonathan Ball, which started when the eponymous founder was in his late 20s in June 1976, the same month as the Soweto uprising. Since then the company has become the leading publisher and distributor of general English books in South Africa, publishing 'books of a liberal sanity which pander to neither left nor right nor to clever contemporary fashions in thinking'. In 1990 the company was sold to Naspers, the fourth largest media company in the world (whose huge building in the centre of town we had visited the previous day while meeting NB Books). The publishing director, Jeremy Boraine, gives us a terrific overview of the publishing scene, in which he describes the reading public as comprising two concentric circles, the inner one, of about 700,000, being regular readers, and the outer one being people who buy one or two books a year. The key question, as for UK publishers: how to expand both circles?
Jonathan Ball has become a dominant force in South African publishing through a savvy combination of distributing books from the UK - 50% of books across the SA market come from the UK - clever local publishing, and selling books from other local publishers into supermarkets (though this is not on the same scale as in the UK - and there €™s no Amazon SA either). One sector that is working well for the company at the moment is illustrated hardback books, including those published in association with partners keen on sponsorship, just as certain premium books are working in the UK (in the four weeks to 25 December, the top 20 titles in the UK with an RRP of £30 or more sold almost twice as many copies than in the previous year).
There is a different focus again in our third meeting of the day, with Arthur Attwell, whose offices we visit in the Observatory part of the city to the South East, which he likens to Cowley Road in Oxford. He started Electric Book Works four years ago with three colleagues, partly to plug the gap in the South African market for consulting and services on technological issues, the company in particular finding ways to make the most of e-books and print on demand. His key argument is that traditional books and the current e-reading model will be too expensive in SA, so a different path needs to be imagined for readers here - and that this will be even more the case for the rest of Africa, where there are fewer chains. So he is developing ways for companies to convey information to people through mobile phones (though it's worth noting that although SA is the fourth largest mobile phone market in the world, most of the devices aren't as sophisticated as ones in the UK) or through copy shops printing content for customers. It's a very exciting prospect.
Arthur joins us for dinner, heading over to a restaurant where by chance his wife Michelle Matthews, who like him has recently been the South African representative in the International Young Publishing Entrepreneur of the Year Award, is at another table for a meeting of the local chapter of the Slow Food movement. Arthur very patiently answers more questions about his work and the South African publishing industry while we also continue to discuss our favourite books, occasionally raising our voices and perhaps even our eyebrows ...
In 100 days the World Cup will begin in Johannesburg. In South African publishing, within 10 days the new Exclusive Books website will be launched and may well change the dynamics of the industry. Who knows what the publishing landscape here - and in the UK - will look like 1000 days from now?
(If you have any spare books to donate to the Centre for the Book please contact 'daniel dot crewe at
Photo: Meeting with Kwela Books
Daniel Crewe is an Associate Publisher at Profile Books, and one of the six UKYPE 2010 finalists.
About the award
The UK Young Publishing Entrepreneur (UKYPE) award celebrates entrepreneurial ability within publishing, and strengthens creative leadership, networking, and capacity building in the UK publishing industry. It also focuses on strengthening the engagement between the UK and publishing in emerging markets, and seeks to stimulate further the development of the UK publishing industry in an international business context.
After an open application process, a judging panel chaired by Andrew Franklin (Profile Books) short-listed six finalists to compete for the award and to take part in a 10-day study tour of South Africa €™s publishing industry. The group will visit Cape Town and Johannesburg in early March 2010, meeting senior figures and fellow young entrepreneurs, and learning, first-hand, how the South African book trade works. The winner of the award will be announced at The London Book Fair on Wednesday 21 April 2010.
UKYPE is a British Council award organised in collaboration with The London Book Fair, and supported by the Publishers Association and BookBrunch. For more information on the award, visit or contact Pablo Rossello at 'Pablo dot Rossello at britishcouncil dot org'.