Not a closed book just yet

02 September 2013 - 02:49 By YOLISA MKELE
File photo.
File photo.
Image: Gallo Images/Thinkstock

South Africans are rapidly losing their taste for books. This is according to recent data, which shows a sharp decline in the sales of printed books.

Four major publishing houses confirmed that print book sales were waning.

According to Elitha van der Sandt, CEO of the South African Book Development Council, there are only 500000 regular book-readers left in the country.

Steve Connolly, managing director at Random House Struik, said total sales, excluding school textbooks and academic titles amounted to R1.58-billion in 2012, R1.59-billion in 2011 and R1.62-billion in 2010.

"There is clearly a downward trend here, and 2012 would have seen a steeper downward curve without the contribution of Fifty Shades of Grey,"said Connolly.

He said, as a result of the decline, it now takes significantly fewer sales for books to become "bestsellers".

"Selling 10000 books usually means that a title will be a bestseller. Yet 15 years ago a bestseller would have sold about double that, but there are about three times as many books out there," said Terry Morris, managing director of Pan Macmillan South Africa.

A bestseller is determined by sales over a six-month period.

The decline in print sales, said the publishers, was driven by the growing popularity of e-books and a weaker rand, which made books more expensive.

"Books are pretty expensive and that can be restrictive. The main factor [behind the decrease] is digital. People are reading more and paying less," said Eugene Ashton, sales director of Jonathen Ball Publishers.

Connolly said that in order to save bookshops publishers and booksellers need to band together.

"If we want bookshops in South Africa to survive, publishers need to work closely with them. There will always be a place for the creative independent bookseller here," he said.

One such place is Love Books in Melville. Co-owner Kate Rogan said her business was growing in spite of the popularity of digital books.

"Online sales have had an impact, particularly with back-list paperback sales. But, since our business has shown growth in the last year, I don't yet see it as a major threat just yet."

The SABDC and the Arts and Culture Department are promoting a culture of reading. Today the two launch National Book Week as part of the effort.

According to the SABDC, 14% of South Africans are active readers and only 5% of parents read to their children.