11 Official languages
ZAR R - South African Rand
Pretoria (Executive), Bloemfontein (Judicial), Cape Town (Legislative)
Area (sq. miles)
$862 bn (PPP)
14% for books and eBooks
South African Book Fair is held over 3 days in September in Johannesburg.
In-depth Country Profile
For UK publishers of general books with a mature export operation, South Africa would typically lie in the top five or six territories in terms of turnover. Although the population in 2019 is estimated at 57m, steadily swelled since the apartheid era by immigration from other parts of Africa, the English-language book-buying and reading public is close in numbers to that of New Zealand where the population is less than 5m; the value of UK general book export sales to the two countries is comparable.
In contacts between authors, publishers and literary agents, the territory is allocated exclusively to the UK publisher, which means that the US publisher undertakes not to supply any competing edition into the market; though offshore wholesalers’ and offshore online retailers’ observance of that restriction is at best patchy.
The overall book market in South Africa is considerably more complex that those of its southern hemisphere counterparts Australia and New Zealand, because of its very varied linguistic and political history. Although trade book publishers in the UK rightly view it as an English-language market, and English is the dominant language of South African trade and academic publishing and bookselling, the country has eleven official languages including Afrikaans (the linguistic legacy of the early Dutch settlers), as well as a further 25 or so unofficial languages.
All the remaining official languages (and the unofficial ones) are indigenous to South Africa, and the publishing in those languages is mainly for the school curriculum, though a lively initiative within South African children’s publishing involves picture-book co-editions in all eleven languages simultaneously, intended mainly for school and municipal libraries.
Although English is spoken as a first language by only 10% of the population (behind Zulu at 23%, Xhosa at 16%, and Afrikaans at 14%), it is on the rise as a first language. It is in addition the primary language of government and of higher education, which supports its dominance in the publishing arena. English is also increasingly the dominant second language and thus the main language of business, a sphere where Afrikaans also features prominently.
Geographically the market lies 40-45% in Gauteng Provence which includes Johannesburg in the north-east; 30-35% in the Western Cape including Cape Twon; 10-15% in KwaZula-Natal including Durban in the east of the country; and the rest in the other six provinces.
The trade publishing scene has changed significantly in the 25 years since the fall of apartheid. Until the mid-1990’s publishing and bookselling were dominated by writers and readers of European origin and tastes, though the subject matter of South African writers was urgently and sometimes polemically local. Most of the market was supplied from overseas, though there were South African writers with high international reputations and sales to match, both literary and commercial. Informal ladies’ book clubs in the well-to-do districts of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban supported a healthy trade in middle-market hardback fiction, and paperback sales of commercial fiction, most prominently the saga novels of Wilbur Smith, whose books still ride high in the local bestseller lists, featured significantly in the exports of British publishers.
Although a market with some of these characteristics still lies at the core of trade publishing and bookselling, and it remains dominant, things are changing. Its readership is said to be very slowly depleted by emigration, particularly to Australia, and by a younger demographic that does not share those reading habits. The informal book clubs still exist but are fewer. As in Australia and New Zealand the principal fiction format is trade paperback, well ahead even of second-format paperback in unit sales, and the hardback market exists only by rare super seller exception.
Through the apartheid era serious non-fiction was a strong strand of South African publishing. David Philip Publishers, for example, thought of and described itself as a ‘struggle publisher’, taking serious risks to bring out books that were critical of the apartheid regime, and sometimes being prevented by state intervention. A legacy of such publishing is a thriving output of well-researched and written books on contemporary South African politics and current affairs.
The lively parallel narrative to the gradual decline in the traditional market based on a European culture is the rise of new South African voices and of a readership that is keen to hear them. In the post-apartheid quarter-century publishing imprints dedicated to those new voices have made a key impact, among them Kwela (http://www.kwela.com/Kwela), set up in 1994 at the major English and Afrikaans publishers NB; Umuzi, founded in 2006 at Random House SA (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.co.za/imprints-and-agencies); and Jacana, established in 2002 and strongly committed to giving expression to new voices (https://www.jacana.co.za).
A new market has grown up amongst the black professional class, people who aspire to forge a better quality of life, in particular for their children. The focus here is on soft business, health, self-improvement and spiritual well-being, along with contemporary South African politics and current affairs. Biographies of black celebrities such as TV presenters and sportspeople are selling in significant numbers, while Children’s book sales are also boosted by this growing market.
Publishers have long wishes to gain access to a black market beyond this middle class, one rooted in the townships. Excitingly, this seems at long last to be happening. In December 2019 the fourth edition of the ABANTU (the Zulu word for ‘people’) book festival took place in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, showcasing and celebrating black writers, writing and other forms of storytelling from South Africa, the rest of Africa, and the African diaspora. The festival is truly international, bringing in writers from Europe and the US as well as other African countries. It has its own bookstore where excellent sales were reported, as well as a dedicated publishing house. Abantu Books offers UK publishers of writers with African origins and connections a real opportunity to engage: https://abantubooks.co.za
A range of self-published black writers is emerging, among them Dudu Busani-Dube, whose Hlomu romantic stories of township life are selling in impressive numbers.
This developing market is spawning its own informal book clubs: one based in Soweto is said to have 250 members who meet in a marquee and whose range of reading overlaps intriguingly with that of the longer-established white-readership clubs, having for example included the work of Danielle Steel.
The experienced book-broadcaster Jenny Crwys-Williams presents a two-hour Saturday morning show on the radio station Kaya FM, half of which is devoted to books, with a dominant emphasis on black writers.
Publishing and book distribution in South Africa are together making a livelier and increasingly vibrant sector, even if it has many challenges, which include an economy that has been static for five years, as well as pricing in the context of a weak currency. For educational publishers the real possibility of a new copyright bill being passed into law presents an extreme threat to their existence and to that of the high-quality materials they produce. If signed by the President of South Africa this bill would waive normal copyright requirements for materials used in schools, thus depriving authors of the livelihood their writing provides and their publishers of the income which sustains their entire business.
Academic publishing and bookselling have been heavily damaged in 2019 by a government decision to provide higher education book allowances in cash instead of in a book-specific voucher or card. The students have predictably diverted the money into non-book purchases and family support, with serious consequences for the book industry and for their own education.
The major presence in physical book distribution in South Africa is Booksite Afrika, based outside Cape Town. Booksite distributes for a wide range of publishers including Penguin Random House, Pan Macmillan, Cambridge University Press, Jacana and the academic/legal publisher Juta. http://www.booksite.co.za
The industry body for publishers is the Publishers Association of South Africa (PASA) based in Cape Town. PASA has 140 members, of which 100 are publishers and the others distributors, publishing departments of organisations, and NGOs. Its website contains detailed information on the publishing sector in the country: http://www.publishsa.co.za
General book retailing in South Africa is dominated by four major players (statistics are provided to subscribers by Nielsen Bookscan):
Exclusive Books is closest to the UK’s Waterstone’s in style, stock profile and marketing activity, and currently has 43 branches, with the likely addition of one more in 2020, and a market share for general books of +/- 40%. A new store in Windhoek, Namibia is proving highly successful. The emphasis is on in-store expertise, and buying is devolved to the stores, with centrally coordinated marketing and promotional programmes. The Fanatics loyalty programme contains 400,000 email addresses, of which c.50% are active or ‘warm’. Exclusive has 3500 informal book clubs registered, of which one third (each with 3 to 8 members) have taken up the chain’s book club discount card. https://www.exclusivebooks.co.za includes its online book offering.
Bargain Books founded in 1998 as a seller of bargain books and remainders has grown to over 80 stores, re positioned itself as a successful middle market mainstream chain selling at a discount, and now commands a market share of +/- 20%. In 2010 it acquired the Cape Town based seven store chain Wordsworth, with a profile close to that of Exclusive Books. https://www.bargainbooks.co.za
CNA, the closest equivalent to WH Smith in the UK, with 168 branches, dominated bookselling in South Africa until the 1990s. Since then its market share has steadily declined with the rise of Exclusive Books and Bargain Books, and CNA now positions itself as the country’s leading stationers, also selling electronics, gifts and computer games as well as a selection of mostly frontlist general books. Education is also prominent in-store, with prominence given to study guides. Its general book market share stands at +/- 10%. https://www.cna.co.za includes its online book offering BookHub.
Takealot is South Africa’s leading online retailer of a wide product range including books, having merged with the first online book-retailer Kalahari in 2014. The company is now over 90% owned by Naspers, the South Africa based global media, internet and entertainment company. Its general book market share is +/- 10% – 15%.
Local online retailing is increasing significantly as a proportion of the total market, other players including Loot. Find more here on Loot here: https://www.loot.co.za/welcome
A small but lively independent sector makes up the remainder of the market (excluding non-book-trade). There are said to be as many as 57 outlets of one sort or another selling books in central Johannesburg, including dynamic Bridge Books. Find out more on Bridge Books here: https://bridgebooks.co.za
The notable Cape Town independent The Book Lounge can claim a political and social presence as well as a cultural one, with a year-round programme of events strongly reinforced by its annual Open Book literary festival (see below). Find out more here: https://booklounge.co.za
The main player in the academic bookselling sector is Van Schaik’s, a long-established (1912) firm with 72 stores, of which 64 are in South Africa, and the rest in Namibia, Botswana and Swaziland. Of that total 48 stores are on campus, 14 are off-campus but linked to universities, and 10 are high street stores. Van Schaik’s is having to diversify its retail offering to students in response to the damaging government decision to offer student book allowances in cash as opposed to vouchers (see above). Van Schaik publishing is now separately owned. https://www.vanschaik.com includes the online bookstore.
Protea Book Stores are part of a Pretoria-based group which also includes publishing and distribution (see distributor profile). The 14 stores focus mainly on academic books with some general trade, and they include second-hand sections. www.proteaboekwinkel.com
Adams University Books is a chain of eleven shops based in Durban but with branches in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Established in 1865, the original shop was a general bookseller and stationer, but the expanded family business now caters mainly for the academic and educational markets, with stationery and some general books. www.adamsbooks.co.za
The South African Booksellers Association (SABA) supports and promotes the interests of its members, and provides information on the bookselling sector. https://www.sabooksellers.com
Offshore Online Bookselling in South Africa
The major overseas online retailers have had a much lower impact (estimates put it at 5% of the total market) on the South African market than on those in Australia and New Zealand, for two main reasons: first, the South African postal service is notoriously unreliable, so that deliveries cannot be guaranteed; and secondly, sales tax is levied on all incoming consignments of R100 in value or more, as against an Australian threshold which effectively exempts books.
As is the case in other international markets, ebooks and audiobooks published outside South Africa are controlled by their originating publishers. Some of these publishers have arrangements with ebook and audiobook sellers to provide data on international sales by territory and even by title. In late 2019 the international surge in audiobook sales is not reported as affecting the South Africa market, though a territory in which long distances are driven and in which a lack of public transport infrastructure increases reliance on car travel would seem to offer an opportunity.
As well as Abantu Books (see above), two other festivals are prominent in South Africa:
Open Book will celebrate its 10th year in September 2020 under the direction of bookseller Mervyn Sloman, boss and owner of The Book Lounge. An edgy, urban, multicultural event, but also an international one, Open Book has charted, reflected and even helped shape the changing literary, political and social culture of South Africa over the decade. https://openbookfestival.co.za.
Franschhoek Literary Festival was established in 2007 and takes place each May in the heart of the Cape winelands. Like Open Book it features international writers as well as mostly South African ones. In UK literary festival terms it would be fair to say that while Open Book might parallel Edinburgh, Franschhoek more resembles Hay-on-Wye: https://www.flf.co.za
Accessing the South African Market for UK Consumer Publishers
The political and economic uncertainty of the apartheid years and after have deterred some of the major consumer publishers from investing in their own South African operations: HarperCollins (of which the predecessor’s presence was once very strong in South Africa), Hachette and Simon & Schuster are all represented by a third party, Jonathan Ball publishers (see distributor profile). Penguin and Random House maintained their local associate companies and combined them in the international merger that created PRH in 2013-14; while Pan Macmillan, established in 1990 in South Africa, also maintains its market presence. Both these companies publish in South Africa for the local market, represent the lists of their principals, and carry a small range of significant third-party agencies.
Several independent distributors are profiled below, with interesting possibilities for overseas publisher SMEs.
If an exporting publisher’s list does not fit the profile of a South African distributor, alternative options exist as per the general guidelines within this toolkit.