Pick n Read in South Africa

<p>In a recent piece on <i>The Bookseller</i>, Graeme Neill <a href="http://www.thebookseller.com/in-depth/feature/58753-tescos-giant-strides... that UK supermarket chain Tesco aims to double book sales to &pound;200m within three years</a>. Tesco has a 6% share of the UK book market by value and 10% by volume, which puts it close to over&ndash;taking Borders and becoming the UK's fourth-largest bookseller behind Waterstone's, WH Smith and Amazon.</p>
<p>In view of the aim to boost a book-reading culture in South Africa, I wondered what would happen if South Africa's national supermarket chain Pick n Pay started stocking books. After all, if one of the challenges in boosting book reading is to get people to actually go into a bookstore, then why not instead stock books in a supermarket, where people have to go. The books wouldn't have to be great literature &ndash; they could be general mass market fiction, but it would be a start. And maybe Pick n Pay could sell them at a cheaper price than our national bookstore chain Exclusive Books.</p>
<p>But then I realised I was assuming consumers could actually afford to buy books, even at a reduced price. With12 months of rising interest rates and skyrocketing food prices,&nbsp; many people are being careful about what groceries they are putting in their shopping baskets, let alone anything else.</p>
<p>Furthermore, a recent report by the University of South Africa showed that about 70% of South Africans are earning only about R1,000 a month, and only about 2.2% are earning more than R16,000 a month. To give non-South African readers an idea of what this means, just the other day I bought six items at the local supermarket and it came to R100. By contrast, a new book at Exclusive Books easily costs about R150-R200 and even at the many independent second-hand bookstores, the cheapest books are about R30-R40. So for about 70% of South Africans, buying books is out of the question.</p>
<p>But of course we do have the public libraries &ndash; no effect on income there, apart from a minimal annual membership fee. But public libraries haven't been without their problems.</p>
<p>After about 10 years of failing to provide funding to public libraries, the government at the beginning of last year finally allocated a R1-billion grant, to be spent over three years. The purpose of the grant is to help libraries upgrade facilities and to buy books, since many of them are severely understocked. The first tranche &ndash; R180-million &ndash; was given to the provincial arts and culture departments for the 2007-2008 financial year, which ended in March.</p>
<p>By the end of October last year, however, the extent of underspending in the nine provinces was disappointing. According to statistics published on <a href="http://www.dac.gov.za/media_releases/171Jan2008.html" target="_blank">the arts and culture department's website</a>, Gauteng had spent only 26% of its budget, KwaZulu-Natal 34%, Mpumalanga 26% and Northern Cape 28%.&nbsp; The worst offenders were Eastern Cape (9%), Limpopo (9%) and North West (5%). Western Cape had spent 48% of its budget, but this was used to appoint library staff.</p>
<p>While figures for the full financial year have yet to be released, this has not been an impressive start and we can only hope the situation will improve. Just this month the arts and culture department announced it had spent R300-million on a new building for the National Library of South Africa in Pretoria. The new building will be able to seat 1 300 people at any one time and is 10 times bigger than the existing library.</p>