Disappointment. That's my guess on what most people who attended this year's Cape Town Book Fair over the weekend must have felt. A pale shadow of its former glory.
It's logical to blame the down-sizing on the fact that SA is a cash-strapped country. Gill Marcus, the Reserve Bank governor, has acknowledged that the global economic crisis is not only continuing but is getting worse - even if the members of Numsa didn't bother to listen.
So, everything this year was contained in one exhibition hall, instead of the vibrant variety that filled three in 2010. Finance may well have been the reason that such eminent publishing houses as Random House Struik, Penguin, Oxford University Press, NB Publishers (which includes both Tafelberg and Human & Rousseau) and Jacana were not exhibiting this year. A grievous gap.
To anyone who looked around and paused to wonder, it was fairly clear that the emphasis was on educational publishing - well represented by Pearson/Maskew Miller Longman, Juta, Shuter & Shooter, Cambridge, Via Afrika. And there were many overseas printing and publishing firms vying for our business - from India, Korea, China. One children's book publisher assured me that colour printing in Singapore cost half what it does in SA, even including the shipping and port charges.
It seems to have become far more of a trade fair than a book adventure for the general public. There were some good buys at Bargain Books, but no ordinary bookshop in sight; and a programme of talks and author signings, though few well-known names. What was not openly displayed was the gnawing anxiety that our gallant government is hell-bent (and has been since 1994) on taking over the publication of all school textbooks.
Such a decision could, in the words of Sydwell Molosi (president of the SA Booksellers' Association) "destroy a quarter of the publishing industry and it could be the end of the road for many booksellers".
Can a country with such a low level of literacy move towards even fewer bookshops?
School textbooks make up 54 percent of many SA publishers' annual turnover. Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe have tried state publishing. In each case it collapsed.
And look at the workbooks already being published by central education sources - generally considered to be of poor quality and poorly produced, even if they manage to arrive on time.
I raised this matter with several educational publishers. The feeling was that the government would make such a mess of it that the business would come back to our present publishers anyway.
"The public want quality," said one. Another pointed out that educational matter made available viae-books could fill the gap created by poor (or absent) teachers. …