In 2016, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) conducted a literacy study in which fifty countries participated. The main goal for the PIRLS studies is “to provide the best policy-relevant information about how to improve teaching and learning and to help young students become accomplished and self-sufficient readers.”

South Africa scored last in the study, making it the country, out of the fifty, with the lowest reading culture.

This is a country with over 40 publishing houses and over 100 booksellers (including distributors). This is a country that boasts of a population of 57 million with a fiction best seller list of 3000 copies and 5000 copies for non-fiction titles. It is an absolute shame that a country with such a population, with an established publishing and bookselling industry, would have such low figures for bestsellers.

The lack of reading culture in South Africa is a well-known phenomenon and there has been much discourse around it in the media and in the public at large. A growing number of literature bodies have come up with initiatives to encourage children to read books and for parents to read to their children so we can raise reading culture in the country.

The problem, it seems, is that South Africans do not read books because they do not understand or realise the importance of reading books. And the solution, it seems, is to grow an awareness of reading for us to grow the reading culture and for us to start seeing the publishing and bookselling industry booming.

I would, however, argue differently: South Africans know and realise the importance of reading books. The problem is not that people do not know the importance of reading books and the problem is not that we have citizens who do not like to read books. The problem is that we have a publishing and bookselling industry in our country that does not pay attention to the needs of its citizens to get them to start reading. The nature and rules of consumerism do not apply in this industry and we are shocked that people do not buy books and that people do not read what is published.

Why do people buy what they buy on a daily basis? Fear of missing out, to be liked, to show love or to feel loved, to make their lives easier, etc. However, people also consume what they can relate to, what they can identify with and what validates them. Phillips, J (2012) states that “People care about themselves first, second, third and up to infinity. People are naturally selfish; including me, including you! If you want customers to buy what you have to sell, here is what you need to do: forget about what you want or don’t want, and focus on giving them what they want and getting rid of what they don’t want!”

So, are we as South African publishers and booksellers giving people what they want?

The 2016 Nielsen study shows that 10.5 million books were sold in South Africa in 2015. Eighty percent of these books are non-fiction; and out of the 10.5 million, only 2.5 million were fiction. It is important to note that not all the books sold were South African published or authored. Of the 2.5 million fiction books sold in 2015, only 550 000 were South African titles and of this 550 000, 450 000 were in Afrikaans which then leaves 100 000 copies sold in South African in 2015 written in English and the rest of nine indigenous languages.

In essence then, of the 10.5million books sold in South Africa in 2015, only 23% was South African published, and fiction, and only 0.95% was written in English and the other nine indigenous languages. Clearly, we are not giving our people what they want; we are not writing what they want and we are not writing in the languages they want, otherwise we would not be facing a lack of reading culture in our country.

The history of publishing in South Africa shows that black people in the country greatly consume books that had a western influence. These books represented a certain group of people. A black child could not find his/her identity, experiences, neighborhood and his/her everyday thoughts in the books. Kantey, M (1989:vi) states that, “By 1842 Cape Town had nine presses, seven newspapers and six bookshops (Randall 1983: 105), while the first fully-fledged South African publishing house was started in 1854 by Jan Carel Juta (Donker, 1983: 30). Yet the majority of books continued to be imported from Europe, especially Britain, Holland and Germany, and these importations reflected the colonial view of the times.”

This then shows that we have to fight the impact of colonialism and apartheid in literature and in the publishing world. This, however, cannot only be done by having African writers and content. It has to be done by having literature in all of our indigenous languages and giving it the same respect that the English and Afrikaans literature gets. If we give an English or Afrikaans book a launch just after it has been released, we also need to do launches for books in indigenous languages. If we put together fancy marketing strategies for an English or Afrikaans book, we need to do the same for books in indigenous languages. If we make books in English or Afrikaans trend, we need to make books in indigenous languages trend. We cannot continue to say that Black people do not read when we put minimal effort into literature in their languages.

Another way in which we can increase the rate of reading culture in South Africa is by making books affordable.  Statistics South Africa (2017) states that there were “…over 30,4 million South Africans living in poverty in 2015”. This then means that of the 57 million people we have in South Africa, 30.4 million cannot afford to buy books. We are then working with 27 million people who can buy books. In this 27 million people, the majority are Black people who speak mostly indigenous languages; languages that are accounted for in the 100 000 copies of English and indigenous languages fiction books sold in the country. This then means that the majority of books being published in South Africa are not for the country’s biggest population. The only time writers who write in indigenous languages get something back for their work is when their work is prescribed for schools as set works.

How do we then make books affordable? By taking the books to the right hands instead of the wrong hands. If we say that we publish in Africa, we publish African authors and content, and we publish in African languages; why is it then that we can only find bookstores in urban areas and not in rural areas and townships? Where do the majority of African people live? They are in the townships and rural areas, and not in the suburbs. The question remains then, who are we truly publishing for?

Sifiso Publishers is embarking on a journey to partner with book clubs and different organisations in the rural areas and townships who will act as distributors of books. This will cut out the high percentage of discount in bookstores, which will lower the cost of books and give back to society. If we say we are publishing in Africa, we need to get books to all parts of Africa, even those parts we do not deem “modern” because, they, too, are deserving of their stories and they too read book!

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