Cape Town Book Fair Strives, Struggles to Nurture “Africa’s Book Garden”

In Growth Markets by Guest Contributor

By Kelvin Smith

Now in its fifth year, the Cape Town Book Fair (CTBF) — which starts this Friday, July 30, and runs through Monday, August 2 — is making progress to becoming an event for the whole African publishing world. “This year’s fair is positioning itself as an African affair,” CTBF Director Claudia Kaiser told LitNet.

Since the demise of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, Cape Town “wants to fill the gap and provide foreign as well as South African participants with the option to work with the whole of sub-Saharan Africa”. The program of events, author appearances and professional seminars still remains relatively modest compared with the old Indaba in Harare, but, for the first time (on Friday, July 30), there’s a professional day to counterbalance the proven popularity of the fair as a major public draw, and the Goethe Institut in South Africa has provided funding for some smaller publishers from other African countries to come to Cape Town.

So what does this mean for African publishing, and for the role of South Africa in relation to writers, publishers, booksellers, libraries and readers in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa? When the Fair declares that the mix of local and international publishers at the fair “makes for great exchange” because of the “global village feel”, what can the participants expect to get from the exchange and what future might this indicate for the African book world?

Authors, for a start. Wole Soyinka is set to be at the opening of the fair and will later appear in conversation with his publisher Nana Ayebia Clarke on 31st July in the Dairo Forum. Others scheduled to appear include South Africans Chris van Wyk, Marion Keim, Cynthia Jele, Odette Schoeman, Sally Anne Murray and Maya Fowler. This certainly has a village feel, still, it’s not a truly global one. Contrast this with Göteborg Book Fair in September, where you could hope to encounter sixty or more writers from throughout the whole continent.

As for international publishers, the major European publishing groups (Macmillan, Pearson, OUP, CUP, Taylor & Francis) will be represented by their South African companies, and there will be significant delegations from India, China, and Korea, anxious to sell more products and services to the South African market.

There is a delegation from Abu Dhabi — a reflection of Cape Town’s common connections (through the Frankfurt Book Fair) to the Abu Dhabi Book Fair -– and in many ways this offers more tantalizing possibilities than some of the other international visitors. Among the initiatives being brought to Cape Town from Abu Dhabi is Kalima, the translation and publication program aiming to make books from other languages available in Arabic. Africa could benefit greatly by taking in hand the translation of its literature to and from the many languages used on the continent.

In continental terms, 12 or more small African publishers will be exhibiting in Cape Town and attending the seminar program thanks to support from the Fair itself and travel grants from the Goethe Institut. This group reflects mostly first-timers, and priority has been given to “smaller and innovative publishing houses with a range of publications that are of interest to the South African, as well as the African book market.”

Still, the jury is out on whether Cape Town can truly fill the need for a pan-African book fair. Sulaiman Adebowale of Amalion Publishing in Dakar, Senegal has visited the Cape Town Book Fair in the past and echoes the views of many on the continent when he says,”The South African publishing market is still very insular. A title not directly connected to South Africa stands little chance in distribution, which is curious because despite its historical legacy, South Africa currently boasts a very cosmopolitan pan-African elite from all over Africa living and working there.” Think of Véronique Tadjo, Kole Omotoso, and the winner of this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing, Olufemi Terry.

(Incidentally, the winner of the 2010 Caine Prize, described as Africa’s leading literary award, was announced at a dinner held on 5 July at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. When Leila Aboulele won the first prize in 2000, the award was given out at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. Has Cape Town missed a trick? Especially as the Noma Award, usually awarded at an African book fair, is sadly no more.)

Ruth Makotsi is a consultant in book sector development from Kenya and Executive Secretary of East African Book Development Association (EABDA). She is also the author of children’s readers and books on publishing and the book trade in Africa. She has not been back to the CTBF since the inaugural fair in 2006. She also feels that African publishing was sidelined in those early days. “There was a feeling then that the book fair was not representative of the continent’s publishing because of the limited presence of publishers from the rest of Africa” she says, going on to comment that there was “also the feeling that the events around the book fair did not address continental or global trends in publishing. Seminars, book talks, etc were mostly focused on the South African book sector.” She is however encouraged to learn that those concerns are being addressed and hopes that this year’s CTBF will succeed in bringing back the “Africa’s book garden” ambience that ZIBF had created.

Digitization a Topic of Discussion

The fair is inevitably dedicating seminar time to the question of digital publishing, and Arthur Attwell of Electric Book Works will chair a session with Terry Morris (Pan Macmillan), Mark Seabrook (New Holland) and Carsten Schwab (S. Fischer Verlag). This is fine, but what about hearing from some of the e-publishing initiatives in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and elsewhere on the continent?

One of the key people in bridging the gap between publishing in South Africa, the African continent and publishing in the rest of the world is Brian Wafawarowa. Now Executive Director of Publishers’ Association of South Africa (PASA), Brian was previously Chairman of the African Publishers Network (APNET) and is now on the executive board of the International Publisher’s Association (IPA).  Largely due to his efforts, the IPA will hold its four-yearly Congress in Cape Town in June 2012 -– the first time in Africa. This could be a major opportunity for publishing in the whole of Africa to exert some global muscle, but PASA and APNET will have to start working together seriously now if African views can be presented forcefully to this global publishing meeting in two years time.

Given the timing of this year’s Cape Town Book Fair, it is impossible to avoid some football comparisons. While the World Cup brought South Africa to the world’s attention, it probably didn’t do as much for African soccer/football as the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola earlier this year. Also, let’s reflect on the fact that most African football stars play outside Africa. It’s where they can make their money and their fame. A few come back to make a serious contribution to the game in their own countries. Many do not. And yet they can generate a loyalty from fans in cities, towns and villages throughout the continent. Can writers who choose to live away do more to develop a readership at home, even if the financial rewards may be quite limited? Can some way be found to link Cape Town more closely to book fairs in other African countries? Can African writers help more in this effort?”

In 2006 many of us expressed the hope that Cape Town Book Fair would bring the publishing worlds of South Africa into much closer connection with publishing in the rest of the continent: that it would play a significant role in, as Henry Chakava had urged a new generation of African publishers to do in 2004, putting African publishing firmly “on the world map”. In Cape Town in 2005 I raised the question of whether the CTBF was “planned as a market or as a festival? Or both?” I now think it should have a greater pan-African ambition. Let’s hope that when this year’s event closes on August 2nd the Fair’s role in shaping the future will be more defined.

Kelvin Smith writes and talks on publishing and cultural policy in Europe and Africa. He runs the website (includes SABDET archive). He also champions local food — mostly North Sea herring and Suffolk ham.

DISCUSS: Can One Book Fair Serve All of Africa?

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.