'I believe we have curated something very special' An interview with the CEO of the SA Book Council

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Elitha van der Sandt is the chief executive officer of the South African Book Development Council that runs the SA Book Fair. (Supplied)
Elitha van der Sandt is the chief executive officer of the South African Book Development Council that runs the SA Book Fair. (Supplied)
  • The South African Book Fair will take place virtually from 11 to 13 September 2020.
  • Under the South African Book Development Council, the fair looks to be a sustainable business model for the country's book industry.
  • Leading up to the three-day event, Arts24 talks to the SABDC's chief executive officer about the virtual fair.

Chief executive officer of the South African Book Development Council (SABDC), Elitha van der Sandt, is working on her doctoral studies on book development in South Africa.

As chief executive officer, Van der Sandt spearheads the strategic development of South Africa's book sector. As a part of the strategy to develop the book industry, the South African Book Fair exists to act as an export platform for continental and international showcasing engagement and trade. 

Although she has a BCom qualification, Van der Sandt opted to work in the health, education and land reform sectors.

Shortly thereafter she joined the SABDC, helping to develop it from the Print Industries Cluster Council (PICC) to the SABDC that it is today. Before taking up the chief executive officer role, Van der Sandt served on a number of ministerial task teams that saw her negotiating international partnerships to develop the country's literary landscape.

Under her leadership, the SABDC implemented the Draft National Book Policy (2005), the first National Reading Survey in 2007 as well as the Draft National Book Development Plan (2009). In 2010, she implemented National Book Week to mitigate the 2007 studies that found that only 14% of South Africans read books and that 58% of the country's households did not own leisure reading books.

Recognising the importance of the book (or the absence thereof) in the lives of all South Africans, Arts24 spoke to Van der Sandt about the state of the country's book industry during the Covid-19 pandemic as well as this year's upcoming SA Book Fair. 

I know that unlike other book fairs, the South African Book Fair looks to be a sustainable business model. As part of building a reflective and representative African literary culture, 26 beneficiaries have been selected to exhibit at this year's fair. A  further 13 beneficiaries will join them for the training that is part of the comprehensive SMME skills development initiative made possible by the Fibre Processing and Manufacturing SETA, which funds the SABF enterprise development programme. Can you tell me what this means and how it is achieved?

The SABF is a national fair and has the mandate to represent South Africa at other national fairs internationally. Its mandate is to equitably grow the South African market both for those economically active in the sector - thereby ensuring that creators, such as authors, illustrators and others, are representative of the country - while increasing access to a more representative audience as well.

These aims are supported and complemented by other book development programmes implemented by the SABDC, which include an Enterprise Development Programme, establishing a Book Export Council (to be implemented in 2021), Indigenous Languages Publishing and National Book Week. The primary aim of this integrated strategy is increasing access to books, which includes ownership, skills development, employment, competitiveness, distribution of bookshops and libraries, market analysis, appropriate and relevant content, to list a few.

The first SA Book Fair was held in 2006 under the name Cape Town Book Fair. Then, in 2015, it moved to Johannesburg before the SABDC took ownership of it in 2016. What has taking over the SA Book Fair resulted in? In other words, what changes needed to be made to better the fair?

Taking ownership of the book fair means that it was incorporated into the SABDC's integrated strategy as detailed above. Changing an industry in a country like South Africa requires a range of complex interventions. The SABF is an important platform to make the industry known to South Africa, and to draw attention to the important role it plays. At the same time, it allows this industry to get to know South Africa better, serve a bigger demographic than it usually interacts with and to get to know the new talent.

Large gatherings are still prohibited under Level 2 of the lockdown so for the first time, the three-day fair is happening online. In what ways is the virtual fair limiting?

Without a doubt, the energy and festive environment the fair manages to create during the event. Human interaction and engagement trumps digital. We look forward to being together in one room again - to witness the joy and emotion when we are moved by what an author said or the look on a child's face. We will, however, all be present at the virtual fair, as authors from across the world tune in and chat to readers from virtually anywhere and exhibitors and booksellers sell books.

Does it cost more or less the same to put together a virtual book fair as a physical one?

The costs are different. A range of very technical skills now replace some of the other costs such as travel etc. Higher-level skills are required to support this digital transition, both in terms of planning and actual on the day implementation. However, the advantage of digital is that the fair can live longer, with a very good video library now being built.

Apart from the limits, what opportunities has a virtual space presented the SA Book Fair the ?

Definitely, reaching beyond the geographical location of Gauteng. All South Africans will now be able to join us and experience the SABF. We'll definitely take this forward next year, offering a hybrid between physical and virtual.

When I heard that other African countries cancelled their book fairs, I initiated a Pan African Book Fair collaboration and we'll share our platform with countries who are able to exhibit. I am also pleased to say that the Nigerian International Book Fair is now going ahead virtually and that the SABF will be participating in this virtual space, as well as the Nairobi International Book Fair. As African countries, we have committed to supporting each other and creating Pan African markets for our writers. The pandemic has led to speeding up this process and we'll continue to work to establish strong relations and trade amongst ourselves.

Readers have found a way to keep their communities going throughout the pandemic. We have had free virtual festivals, such as Zukiswa Wanner's Afrolit Sans Frontières. Why should audiences take time to log into the virtual SA Book Fair this year?

I believe we have curated something very special. Our programme speaks to the time we are in with 23 relevant sessions featuring over 80 authors and participants. We do not compete with anyone else, but welcome all kinds of festivals to promote books and writers. Our programme includes carefully curated content for children and teens as well. The whole family can attend the SABF. And of course, we have the Battle of the Book Clubs, where one book club can win the entire SABF 2020 book collection.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected cultural practitioners across the world and the book industry all the same. How is the SA Book Fair looking to address this and offer a form of relief to some of the cogs in the book industry machine?

By shining a spotlight on our industry, books and writers. The SABF has created a platform for the promotion of authors and their books, as well as new talent, SMMEs and independent businesses and booksellers. The SABF is able to draw in a much bigger, diverse audience than any one company or author can on their own.

Beyond bringing people together in conversation and creating a hub for buying into and promoting literature, what purpose do you see book fairs serving in the South African context?

Bringing in new audiences, being a diverse cultural expression that's representative of South Africa, making books central to living. It's not only literature: it is information and knowledge for dealing with life - aka self-help - creating a diverse, locally owned industry.

Lastly, what are some of the challenges that you encountered while preparing for this year's leg of the SA Book Fair?

We had no idea what we were doing, we just knew that we had to do it. So every day was about being open to learning fast, being humble and finding like-minded companies to work with. What I know is that the vision, the dream, never changes. It is only the journey that might take a delicious detour.

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