There’s a joke that does the rounds in publishing circles: ‘How do you make a small fortune in book publishing? You start with a very big one.’

The point, at least in South Africa, is that one doesn’t sign up for a career in book publishing to get rich. It’s a small industry filled with individuals who are passionate about authors and the books that they write.

It’s also an industry that, in the past five years, has gotten smaller as it’s struggled in a tough economy with an ever-weakening Rand and no government support.  

I’m often asked the question, why are books so expensive?

To which I counter with another question – in comparison to what? To a cellphone contract, a DSTV subscription, a tank of petrol, a night out on the town? These are all more expensive than a book yet many people are happy to spend a lot of money on them.

Here are a few points that go some way to explain how books are priced.

•    More than half the books you find on the shelves of your local bookshop are imported from the UK or the US. The Rand is very weak against these currencies which has had a dramatic impact on the price of imported books. There is nothing South African publishers can do about this.

•    Ebooks have had a serious impact on the local industry. All imported books once arrived at our ports, moved through our warehouses, into bookshops and, finally, into your hands. Now a multitude of them instead fly direct from Amazon onto your Kindle, cutting out the South African industry entirely. Not all books, of course, but the effect was akin to losing a limb. The wound is cauterized and we continue, but now we have fewer books to make the wheels of our industry go round. And that puts pressure on pricing.

•    The market for locally published books is tiny. A South African novel that sells 2000 copies is considered a bestseller, so we have to print few copies to avoid ending up with unsold stock. This pushes up the unit cost per book dramatically. By way of example, printing 1 000 copies of a book might cost R60 per copy. Print 100 000 and the cost per copy drops to R15. But books that sell that quantity come around, at best, once or twice in a publisher’s lifetime. The Real Meal Revolution is an example of this, and a bestseller like this one subsidizes all those books that sell 1000 copies at best.

•    Making a book is not a simple endeavour. Each one is different and requires love and attention – and money. Authors work tirelessly, often for years, over a manuscript, while the publisher has to cover the cost of editing, design, printing, warehousing and distribution, marketing and publicity.

Bookshops have to make a living too, so the price you see on a book includes their mark-up. And of course don’t forget VAT.

I sometimes wish I could publish just one book a year. Everyone would buy it, because there’d be no alternatives, and I could print millions of copies and sell them at R60 each.

But where’s the fun in that? And where’s the choice? Books reflect the complexity and depth of a society. Readers have an abundance of choice because that’s what they want.

Every year publishers here and abroad publish tens of thousands of new books. It is not an easy or inexpensive undertaking to create and publish millions of words and images, jacket covers and blurbs, author tours and festivals. I think it’s worth the trouble.   

So what would make books more affordable?

-    The Rand strengthens against the pound and dollar (ha, ha!).

-    The government dispenses with VAT on books. The industry has run a campaign on this with no success.

-    The government recognises that books are an essential part of the cultural life of our nation and supports the industry through grants and other dispensations. This happens in many other countries, but not here.

-    The reading public buy more books and in doing so drive down the unit cost of printing.

There’s no sign of these happening any time soon, but I urge you to carry on buying books and to enjoy the unique pleasure of reading.

Without you, the reader, there will be no books.

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