Cape Town Book Fair: London's loss was Cape Town's gain

The Cape Town Book Fair, now in its fifth year, drew book lovers from across the continent.

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    Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu chat at this year's Cape Town Book Fair.
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This should have been South African publishing's big breakout year at the London Book Fair. The nation's booksellers and authors were expected to have a coveted role as the 2010 market focus.

Instead, volcanic ash meant that – far from being the darlings – South Africans didn't even make it to this spring's party. The missed opportunity for writers to make a splash on the international scene did not seem to have any silver lining. This weekend, however, it was evident that London's loss was largely the Cape Town Book Fair's gain.

Unlike London, the Cape Town event has normally been open to the public, offering author readings, a cornucopia of titles for sale, and a unique atmosphere of book lovers. Some 18,000 people visited this past weekend.

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Cape Town readers enjoyed brushing shoulders with such notables as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu (he's the editor of a new children's bible), American novelist Jodi Picoult, and Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. The latter two were launching the local editions of their most recent books, which were published previously in the US.

Soyinka spoke with a smile about the continuing strength of Nigeria's culture of reading and the centrality of Yoruba culture in his writing. "That doesn't mean I'm not at home with Italian pasta and American jazz," he says. "I'm made up of all these things I consume culturally."

In this, its fifth year, a day for the trade lent some heft and new direction to the program.

"Lots of people came here to sell books," says Claudia Keiser, the fair's director. "Our intention is to provide a platform for people to talk business and hear new info about the industry."

British publishing companies are entrenched in South Africa. Their clout and existing infrastructure make it far simpler and less expensive to import books from the United Kingdom than from most African countries. Bookstores tend to be dominated by offerings from the developed world, with an “Africana” section off to the side.

At the trade day, a dozen African countries were highlighted, with discussions ranging from the popularity of Nigeria’s book clubs to Uganda’s rebuilding of its industry post-Idi Amin.

In South Africa, as across the continent, educational publishing – and the lucrative government contracts that fuel it – dominate the industry. With 11 official languages, that means that schoolchildren actually have access to texts in their home language. Under apartheid, children were compelled to study in English and Afrikaans, regardless of their mother tongue.

However, books for adults in languages other than English (and, to a much lesser extent, Afrikaans) remain few and far between.

"Hopefully this [growth in children's multilingual publishing] will have a trickle-up effect into adult books," says Ben Williams, who edits the social networking site Book SA for the literary community. New technology, such as print-on-demand books and stories sent entirely via text message, bring the potential for such a shift much closer.

Retail prices of traditional books are higher than in the US, and, when the difference in wages is factored in, book ownership is out of reach for the masses. To be sure, creating a culture of literacy takes time. It has more barriers and less backing than, say, a culture of soccer.

But a vibrant Cape Town book fair is certainly at least one step in the right direction.

Rebecca Weber has occasionally reported for the Monitor from South Africa.

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