Textbook deal will ruin local publishing

2012-02-20 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 said.

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

For example, the department said, it had slashed the prices of workbooks — produced by commercial publishers and sold for between R60 and R90 in bookstores — to R13, including delivery, by producing them itself.

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

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

Department of Basic Education 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 over the last two years take a much more active role in textbook supply, traditionally done by provinces.

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 to 9 as well as the Shuttleworth deal.

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

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

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

The Publishers’ Association said the development would 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 …”

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 said teachers ordered books that worked for their pupils, not on the basis of price.

The association also said it did 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 about 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”.

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

But publishers said “anecdotal evidence” showed that few of the department’s workbooks were being used as they were wrong for the pupils or supplied in the wrong language.

The association speculated that Soobrayan’s price references excluded other costs publishers incurred to produce books, including overheads, discounts to booksellers and VAT.

It denied publishers were profiteering, citing 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 weren’t levied on books.

• investigations@media24.com

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