Cape Town Book Fair Attracts Crowds, Questions Role

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

SOUTH AFRICA: “Sustainability of the Fair is a challenge, if you measure it against what it intends to be as a trade event, then we have significant challenges ahead of us,”  said Vanessa Badroodien, director of the Cape Town Book Fair, which has been running since June 13, and ends today. “It’s simply hard for publishers to justify a search and discover trip to South Africa. And if you’re talking about African publishers, when you look at coming to South Africa, for most it’s more expensive than traveling to Europe.”

The Fair was launched four years ago with an open ended partnership with the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Publishers Association of South Africa (PASA).  It was intended to serve as a replacement for the all but defunct Zimbabwe Book Fair, which had a long-standing reputation as the premier book trade event in sub-Saharan Africa but fell into disarray as Zimbabwe was subsumed by economic crisis. Unfortunately, in the intervening years, the Cape Town Book Fair appears to have found little traction as a comparable trade event.

“While we were seen as the de facto replacement for Zimbabwe, what was not taken into account either by us or those who had the aspirations, is that Zimbabwe’s show was a sponsor and donor driven event,” said Badroodien, “The World Bank paid for almost everyone to come and we all know how the donor dynamic has changed with the economic crisis of recent years.”

The Cape Town Fair continues to try and cater to the trade by opening earlier than for visitors, but “local publishers are essentially split down the middle as to whether we need this or not,” said Badroodien.

To help make it easier for publishers who wanted to come to Cape Town, this year the Goethe Institute sponsored a dozen individuals including The Forum for Social Studies of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Bookcraft Publishers of Ibadan, Nigeria and Crossover Publishing of Accra, Ghana, among others.

Despite lukewarm enthusiasm for trade interaction, the Cape Town Book Fair has developed into a highly regarded consumer event, attracting some 50,000 people each year to the relatively modest, 12,000 sq.-meter Cape Town International Conference Centre to shop at publishers’ and booksellers stands.

This year, 250 exhibitors took stands, with the key anchors remaining the large international – mostly UK-based – publishing houses that dominate South African Publishing; including Penguin, Random House, Pan Macmillan, Scholastic, and Elsevier. Some 60 author events and panel discussions filled the four day agenda, including the launch of Love Lies, the latest chick-lit novel from UK bestseller Adele Parks, and John van de Ruit’s Spud: Learning to Fly, the third in his Spud series which has set South African sales records with well over 50,000 copies sold.

Also popular was the appearance of Andre Brink, who was one of a number of readers on-hand to read from a new collection of stories Touch, edited by Karina Magdalena Szczurek, with funds going to benefit AIDS treatment.

As for the future of the Fair, Badroodien is blunt. “If there is belt tightening in the UK at the big houses, it’s going to be felt down the line in South Africa and at the fair,” she said, “As consumer event, which it wasn’t primarily intended to be, the challenges are different – there are costs of reaching the public, and the public always demands more and more. All and all, it’s not an easy path ahead. I see a future for a book fair in South Africa. I’m just not sure what clear objective it will fulfill,” adding, “At the very least we have demonstrated one thing: The market here is hungry for literature.”

CONTACT: Vanessa Badroodien directly.

HIGHLIGHTS: Of the Fair are on its official blog.

SHOP: Exclusive Books for the latest South African English-language titles.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.