Late last week Jeremy Boraine, publishing director of South Africa’s Jonathan Ball Publishers, tried to answer the question “Why are books in South Africa so expensive at the moment?”, but I fear he isn’t seeing the forest for the trees.
Writing over at women24.com, Boraine explains that between imports, ebooks, and short production runs, books are bound to be expensive:
- More than half the books you find on the shelves of your local bookshop are imported from the UK or the US. The Rand is very weak against these currencies which has had a dramatic impact on the price of imported books. There is nothing South African publishers can do about this.
- Ebooks have had a serious impact on the local industry. All imported books once arrived at our ports, moved through our warehouses, into bookshops and, finally, into your hands. Now a multitude of them instead fly direct from Amazon onto your Kindle, cutting out the South African industry entirely. …
- The market for locally published books is tiny. A South African novel that sells 2000 copies is considered a bestseller, so we have to print few copies to avoid ending up with unsold stock. This pushes up the unit cost per book dramatically. By way of example, printing 1 000 copies of a book might cost R60 per copy. Print 100 000 and the cost per copy drops to R15.
Boraine is not the first to reach this conclusion, nor the first to miss the obvious solution.
Earlier this year South African author Tom Eaton reached a similar conclusion, that the local market is so small that the average book only sells a thousand copies. Only Eaton described the market with more color:
Soon you’re riding the wave. A good review in a local newspaper causes a spike in sales, with literally dozens of copies flying off the shelves around the country. Your publisher organizes a radio interview on a very popular book show, and the beloved DJ provides some articulate insights into the blurb, which is all she’s read. (True story.) Over the course of the following week, up to nine people tell you that they heard the interview. Have they bought the book? Oh, they gush, they will. They almost definitely will.
But as weeks become months, and you start seeing your book in second-hand shops, marked down from R100 to R70 to R40 to Shem to Bwahahahaha, you realize that your publisher’s initial print run of 2,000 copies wasn’t a defeatist lowball estimate to knock your self-confidence. You’ve sold a thousand and change. And that’s that.
While that is a depressing summary of the local market, on the plus side it also presents a strong argument that SA authors should go digital and chase after the global English-language.
Boraine sees ebooks as a wound that has damaged the SA publishing industry, but like the apocryphal saying about the Chinese word for crisis, ebooks are both a problem and an opportunity.
eBooks may draw South African readers away from local authors and publishers, but they also enable SA authors and publishers to sell to the nearly a billion English speakers around the world.
Rather than focus on the shortcomings and limitations of the local book market, SA authors and publishers should devote their energies to going after the larger ebook market.
And while I’m sure they’ve already reached that conclusion, it’s kinda hard to tell from the complaints.
image by Stormsignal