Exclusive Books in Hyde Park, Johannesburg, encourages book lovers to sit back and relax. Picture: Alon Skuy
Exclusive Books in Hyde Park, Johannesburg, encourages book lovers to sit back and relax. Picture: Alon Skuy

After losing ground to Kindles and tablets, physical books are making a comeback, and SA’s printing industry wants to make sure the country doesn’t lose out.

In developed markets, the initial swing towards e-books has begun to reverse, according to several reports.

In the UK, for instance, "screen fatigue" helped printed book sales reach a five-year high in 2016, according to a report by The Guardian.

Sales of consumer e-books fell as much as 17% to £204m in 2016, the lowest level since 2011, which is when the Amazon Kindle first "took the UK by storm", the publication reported last year.

However, it is worth noting these numbers aren’t always reliable.

Jeremy Boraine, publishing director at Jonathan Ball Publishers, points out that while numerous reports from the US and UK suggest that e-book sales have flattened out over the past 24 months, it’s difficult to confirm this trend "as most e-book sales are through Amazon, which doesn’t flash them about".

For now, indications are that SA’s e-book market is still in growth mode, though it was expanding at just 2% a year at last count, says Elitha van der Sandt, CEO of the SA South African Book Development Council (SABDC).

SA is also different from its developed market counterparts in that high inequality means e-books are not accessible to all, so their market share is effectively capped, says Van der Sandt.

Nevertheless, international trends show that print books have regained market share, "and it’s likely to be the same in SA".

With print expected to make a comeback, the industry plans to lobby for books — particularly local ones — to be printed in SA rather than elsewhere.

The SA Typographical Union, the SABDC and Printing SA have resolved to call for an industry summit aimed at revitalising the printing, packaging and signage industry.

"The intention is for the summit to make a presentation to the president’s jobs summit," says Printing SA CEO Steve Thobela.

"The printing of books outside the country will be part of the discussions.

"We are putting together a paper for discussion with all relevant stakeholders at the industry summit," he says.

SA has no book policy

Van der Sandt says books are often printed elsewhere because SA has no policy on book publishing and no incentive schemes to print here, and there’s no holistic approach to increasing access to books.

However, in other arguably less important industries, government has subsidies and incentives in place, she says.

"So for example, SA has a motor industry development plan, yet no plan to develop the book industry. So cars are more important than books?"

Essentially, SA has not yet recognised the importance of its book industry, even though it’s a relatively important contributor to GDP in more ways than one.

"It would be better for SA, industry, consumers, the education system and so forth to have more books printed here. That means that we would develop skills and secure jobs, and that we would be able to be globally competitive. But in the absence of a book policy and book development plan, this cannot happen."

Van der Sandt acknowledges that a lot still needs to be done to get South Africans to read.

Just 14% of the population are "committed book readers", she says, while as many as 58% of households in SA do not have a single leisure reading book.

That’s a huge issue that needs to be tackled.

"The economic growth and development SA so desperately wants cannot happen if we do not have a more well-read society."

A longitudinal study, across 20 years and 27 countries, shows that having books in the home has a strong effect on children’s educational attainment, "even above and beyond such factors as the education level of the parents, the country’s GDP, the father’s occupation or the political system of the country", says Van der Sandt.

She adds that having books in the home is twice as important as a father’s education level, and is more important than whether a child was raised in China or the US.

Of major concern, then, is that some publishers in SA believe the country’s total book market is stagnant, at best.

A spokesperson for Penguin Random House SA says e-book sales in the country "have certainly slowed, but physical book sales remain in a slow but steady decline".

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