Richard Charkin: ‘Where the Lion Feeds’

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While at the sales conference of Jonathan Ball Publishers, Richard Charkin sizes up features of the South African book market.

Image: Zebra on Walkersons Private Estate near Dullstroom. Image: Richard Charkin

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

An Educational Book Market Double the Size of the Trade
I have spent a week in a multilingual country with 60 million inhabitants, many races, terrific political instability, and a huge gap between rich and poor.

This could have been describing my home, the United Kingdom, but it was South Africa. I was invited to travel there by Jonathan Ball Publishers, the largest sales, marketing, and distribution partner of a distinguished roster of international publishers: HarperCollins, Bloomsbury, Simon & Schuster, Faber, Thames & Hudson, Hachette, and many others, large and small.

I was principally there for Ball Publishers’ sales conference held in Walkersons Private Estate near Dullstroom on the very high veld. The estate is brilliantly run by Alex Band and Fiona Scott-Berning.

Anyway, to business. Last year saw retail book sales of 7.6 million units generating 1.8 billion ZAR or South African Rand (US$98.1 million, £76,9 million) with an average unit selling price of ZAR234 (US$12.75, £9.99).

However, that’s a one-eyed view of the market, as it takes no account of the country’s large educational book market—double the size of the trade market and more than 60 percent of total publishing revenue: In the educational sector, books are supplied largely outside the retail trade.

South Africa is blessed by diversity.

  • Eighty percent of revenue is generated by titles in English, 10 percent in Afrikaans, and the rest spread across African languages—isiZulu, Setswana, isiXhosa, and others.
  • Sixty-five percent of publishing employees are defined as Black, and that’s below the national average. Seventy-five percent of the country’s publishing employees are female, which is way ahead of the national average, of course.

Mervyn Sloman

Outside of government and state purchases of textbooks, the distribution of books is dominated by chain booksellers, notably the excellent Exclusive Books, founded by the Joseph family and now with 40 stores. However, independent booksellers still can flourish. For instance, The Book Lounge, owned by the redoubtable Mervyn Sloman, in Cape Town, hosted the African launch of my own memoir, My Back Pages (Marble Hill, 2023).

The challenge for South Africa’s booksellers is, as everywhere, how to adapt to the arrival of Amazon, which opened in May. There’s little doubt that it will succeed with its usual cocktail of great prices, great range, and great service levels. But, again as everywhere, the local book trade will respond with innovation and bespoke customer care and knowledge. The result will be an increase in overall market and entrepreneurship.

Local Politics, Imported Bestsellers

Richard Charkin, left, with hosts Fiona Scott-Berning and Alex Band at Walkersons Private Estate. Image: Walkersons

As in the UK right now, politics dominated most conversations.

The African National Congress (ANC) held absolute power from 1994 until this year’s elections. As with nearly every one-party state, the ANC government became ever more corrupt, placing people into every position of power and responsibility. The result has been increasing incompetence and the decline of public facilities—power, transport, etc.—and the eventual removal of that absolute power by a coalition government of national unity.

Who knows whether South Africa has found the best solution to its governance, but it cannot be worse than before and at least democracy has found a voice.

Back to publishing. While much of the market is dominated by the same authors making the bestseller lists around the world—Prince Harry, Stephen King, Colleen Hoover and the rest—there’s a thriving local industry. Unsurprisingly, sport and politics dominate local trade lists in both English and Afrikaans. However, despite economic and political difficulties, there’s a robust academic and K-12 textbook sector serving the needs of a young, rapidly urbanizing, and education-hungry population.

Highlights of the trip included a talk on South African politics by the News24 journalist Pieter du Toit; for a better analysis than my weak effort, go to his articles and books. And there was a presentation of the life story of the multitalented actor and playwright Ian Roberts, who also sings not unlike an African Jacques Brel.

However, I’m still carrying one of the results of the trip: an additional 2kg caused by the truly excellent food and wine.

My recommendations for publishers are:

  • South Africa is a very important brick in the world publishing wall, not to be underestimated
  • Ignore all the negative predictions, this is a vibrant country with a vibrant future
  • Ignore the politics, it will sort itself out in time
  • With the rand being weak, South Africa is among some of the best possible places for a great vacation—coupled with business, of course

Books selling at Walkersons Private Estate in South Africa include Richard Charkin’s ‘My Back Pages.’ Image: Richard Charkin

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here. Richard Charkin’s opinions are his own, of course, and not necessarily reflective of those of Publishing Perspectives. More of our coverage of publishing and Africa is here.

About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the international advisory board of Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin has an MA in natural sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a supernumerary fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’ In the June 2024 King's Birthday Honors, Charkin was made a member of the Order of the British Empire, OBE, for his "services to publishing and literature."

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