This question was up for debate at the media launch of the National Book Week (NBW) campaign run by the South African Book Development Council (SABDC) on the 1st September.
MC for the afternoon and NBW Ambassador Aaron Moloisi, led the debate between 11 panelists. Elitha Van Der Sandt, CEO of the South African Book Development Council began by reflecting on a 20 year study across 27 countries that said that having as few as 20 books in a home is the key indicator for children going on to higher levels of education.
“Books are a creative outlet. Language develops through writing. The book is the most traded cultural product in the world, and the best tool to record and transmit knowledge,” she said. To Elitha, books are so vital to our people, that whether they are expensive or not should not even enter the debate.
In the Apartheid Museum, surrounded by images of Madiba, Fezile Sipamla, the National Director for Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture in the Department of Correctional Services, told the gathered dignitaries and media that the department had started a programme with the Centre for the Book a while back, called Reading for Redemption. It is a big programme, run throughout the country. It encourages offenders to read, to write, to learn. The books offer them an opportunity to redeem themselves and prepare for life outside the correctional facilities.
Reading for Redemption affirms the conviction that reading changes lives. The importance of books as sources of knowledge is vital in the development of society.
To Sipamla, books are not expensive thanks to events like NBW and the donations that they receive, but they are vital in the development of the country.
Louise Grantham, representing the Publishers Association of South Africa (PASA) unpacked the cost of book production in the following panel. One of the biggest influencing factors in book pricing is economies of scale. Basic mathematics shows that if more people bought and read books, and more books were printed, the individual unit price of books would come down dramatically.
It is a chicken before the egg situation where in order to get more people reading, the books need to be accessible, and in order for the books to become more cost effective we need a reading population.
Professor Nxalati Golele, a founding member of PANSALB and an Indigenous Language Editor & Expert took the opportunity to highlight the need for more indigenous language titles in our country. To grow a reading nation, we need to publish good quality books in the language of our people, starting at foundation phase and moving upward. She highlighted the importance of editing and its importance in ensuring good quality books South Africans can be proud of.
A very suave Siphiwo Mahala spoke for authors in saying that it is not possible for Authors to write full time. The royalties are not enough to live on. Perhaps if more people read, they would be. Even well known authors like Zakes Mda have to work full time because of limited book sales.
Booksellers are also hard pressed, with their market decreasing all the time. In efforts to reduce the cost of books, the education department is looking at direct supply, cutting these experts out of the equation. In the general trade sector, books, largely imported, are becoming ever more expensive as the Rand plummets to new lows. Booksellers would welcome more locally published titles at better prices to better service the growing black middle class.
Martin Bothma, an Economic, Market and Socio-Economic Research and Analytics consultant, dashed our hopes that the removal of VAT would be a panacea, by showing that although originally the decrease in costs would benefit those that need it, the benefit would be lost within 18 months.
The studies they have done reflect 70% of respondents as saying that they have given up reading as they have given up hope of a brighter future, of moving forward. The majority of reading is actually done via second hand newspapers and magazines.
Yes, he says, books are too expensive.
So how can we bring the costs down?
Are libraries a solution? Do they purchase and stock local authors and most importantly books in Indigenous languages?
Nikki Crowster from the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) says that libraries are doing what they can. This year, government will build 23 new libraries and upgrade 55 existing libraries.
Megan Beckett, CEO of Siyavula Education a technology company that focuses on building integrated learning experiences, draws on the benefits of open content and adaptive practice for mastery in Maths and Science. The cost of production still exists, but this company has done a lot to produce free and open content for our schools through Creative Commons licensing. They have 13 open titles in all formats, zero rated access, 10 million printed books, 16 million page views per year, they have even gone so far as to make a deal with Vodacom to zero rate their website so it does not cost their visitors data when browsing their content.
Siyavula was started within the Shuttleworth Foundation and now gets funding from Silicon Valley. Do we then have to rely on donors to bring the cost of books down? Or will growing a reading culture allow us as South Africans, to help ourselves?
Ambassador Aaron Moloisi gave his vote towards the end of the debate, saying that it was a book that made him the man he is today. “I really cannot put a price on that.”
Keynote speaker, the Gauteng MEC for Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation, Ms. Faith Mazibuko, spoke on the importance of reading to build future leaders of our country. The MEC lauded the themes for this years NBW Campaign, #BUY_A_BOOK and #READ_A_BOOK as being perfectly appropriate to create a reading movement nationwide and thereby develop a reading culture.
Elitha van der Sandt wrapped up proceedings “By encouraging people to buy books and more importantly to read local books, particularly amongst our youth, we believe a significant impact can be made in terms of up-skilling our youth and empowering them to achieve higher levels of education. Increasing the number of book buyers and readers also leads to significant increases in economic contribution, and increased demand can have a very positive impact on the cost of a book.”
Are books expensive? Is food expensive? How much does a night out with friends cost? How much do you spend on a dinner party at home? A children’s birthday party? Presents? How much does your DSTV subscription cost?
How many books could you buy with that money? One a month? Two? One for each member of your family per month?
Are books really expensive?