Cape Town Book Fair

Amid all of South Africa’s football hysteria, it might have been easy to overlook the Cape Town Book Fair.  There was certainly less vuvuzela-blowing and celebrity-spotters had to be content with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who opened the four day event, but the fifth anniversary of the fair sowed seeds of digital change which could change Africa’s literary and educational landscape.

Exhibitors, 273 in total, included publishers from several other African countries, and – despite the odd European publisher – the focus was on location-specific issues. For instance very few people in South Africa have access to computers and although there is almost 100% mobile phone penetration, most are what could be called ‘dumb phones’ (as opposed to smart phones).  So one question many publishers had was: is it possible to provide eBooks that can be read on these basic phones, and if so how?

The digital publishing forum was packed, and there was standing room only for those who hadn’t got there early.  The panel, which included representatives from Pan Macmillan, New Holland Publishers and S. Fischer Verlage, talked about their digital experiences.  The audience was interested in the basics: how PDFs can be turned into ePub files; where should they start with eBooks.  XML was conspicuous by its absence.  There was though also a discussion of issues that even the most digitally-advanced publishers still haven’t figured out: what’s the right figure for eBook royalties; and, fundamentally, how do we make money out of digital?

African publishers, though, are also pondering a bigger question: should they focus on providing cheap books to the poor rural swathes of their countries, or pour resources into the top-end digital products which they can only sell to a few?  In a country where there’s only one library per 32,000 people*, creating a killer iPad app is probably not quite such a pressing priority as it is further West.

Something to mull over as MPS gears up for the crush of Frankfurt.

Pearson introduces fair goers to an interactive whiteboard.

*As per Van Helden, P. and Lor, P. 2002. Public community libraries inventory of South Africa: PACLISA final report. Pretoria: National Library of South Africa.

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