SA’s publishers face bleak future

2012-09-24 00:00

THE national Education Department’s new textbook policy could destroy a quarter of South Africa’s publishing industry, or half of the country’s capacity to create textbooks and other materials, the Publishers’ Association of South Africa says.

But the government is sticking to its war on prices, charging that South Africa’s textbooks and other workbooks are too expensive, and it is doing all it can to drive prices down in an industry worth between R1,1 billion and R1,8 billion a year.

As examples, it says it has slashed the prices of workbooks — produced by commercial publishers and sold for between R60 and R90 in bookstores — to R13, including delivery to classrooms, by producing them itself.

It has also done a deal with the Shuttleworth Foundation to produce maths and science textbooks for Grades 10-12 for R33 — more than R100 cheaper than the nearest commercial book and which, the state says, is of better quality.

The Publishers’ Association — a group of 182 publishing houses — is fighting back in the face of the department’s new, centralised school textbook procurement regime, which effectively draws a line in the sand with publishers.

Basic Education Department director-general Bobby Soobrayan told Media24 Investigations that “in South Africa, we pay far, far too much for books; that’s confirmed”.

The national department’s war on textbook prices has seen it take a much more active role in textbook procurement, traditionally done by provinces, over the last two years.

It has taken over the selection and approval of textbooks to be used in South Africa’s 26 000-odd schools and has introduced its own workbooks for Grades 1-9, as well as the Shuttleworth deal.

Soobrayan says he is keen to enter into similar deals whereby authors hand over copyright to the department.

The department’s new textbook catalogue, from which schools pick their textbooks, contains far fewer titles than previous provincial catalogues.

Soobrayan said the government is determined that textbook procurement will be “efficient, allows us to get the best possible price in the market currently, with the highest quality”.

The Publishers’ Association says the moves will devastate local publishing.

“Based on the first year of this system, it is estimated that roughly half the educational publishing industry will disappear as a result, most of them the smaller black independent publishers, which affects transformation and skills development in the industry,” the association said.

The department is slashing the number of books for each subject. Soobrayan said it was inefficient to have too large a choice of textbooks for one subject, as it led to duplication in textbook orders, and schools tended to order the most expensive available textbooks — “not because it has proven, inherent pedagogical value, but because of how it was marketed”.

The Publishers’ Association says teachers order books that work for their pupils, not on the basis of price.

It also says it does “not believe that a small team of people can effectively select a very small range of books, let alone produce single workbooks, that meet the needs of approximately 12 million schoolchildren, 26 000 schools and 350 000 teachers — who have differing languages, differing levels of language proficiency, differing abilities, and differing access to resources”.

However, Soobrayan pointed to how the department drove down the costs of workbooks as an example of what could be done.

But publishers say “anecdotal evidence” shows that few of the department’s workbooks are being used as they were wrong for the pupils or supplied in the wrong language. The association speculates that Soobrayan’s price references exclude other costs publishers incur to produce books, including their overheads, discounts to booksellers and VAT.

The association denied that publishers were profiteering from textbooks, quoting a 2006 study by the South African Book Development Council on book pricing, which found “little evidence of excess profit-taking at any point in the book value chain”. It also pointed out that textbooks would be far cheaper if 14% VAT was not levied on books.

Of 88 countries surveyed last year by the International Publishers’ Association, 76 applied exemptions or limited exemptions from sales tax on books.

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