Why You’re Paying So Much For Books In South Africa

Walk into any bookstore and expect to pay anything from R150 to R1500 for book. But why are books so expensive, or are they not that expensive in comparison to other things? We asked publishers.

Are books expensive in South Africa?

“The first thing I would like to say is when one asks why books are so expensive is: in comparison to what?” publishing director of Jonathan Ball Publishers Jeremy Boraine said. “Many things are expensive,” he added.

In comparison to the amount of money people spend on cell phones, or entertainment, or eating out at a restaurant, Boraine says books are not strictly speaking expensive. “Of course, they are out of the reach of many people but many things are out of the reach of many people. Going to a movie, for example, is out of the reach for many people,” he said.

Publisher at Modjaji books Colleen Higgs shares Boraine’s sentiment. “Books are expensive, but they are fairly priced based on production and selling costs and the size of print runs,” Higgs said.

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Let’s break down the cost of books: VAT and bookstores

“Books are priced based on what they cost to produce,” Higgs said. And there are numerous costs attached to buying books.

The first cost attached to books in South Africa is VAT. “If we look at the sale of a R300 book, 15% of that is VAT, which means R45. That’s quite a chunk,” Boraine said. The book industry did run a campaign to have VAT removed from books but it was turned down by government.

Publishers sell books to booksellers at a discounted price. The discount is worked out by recommended retail price (RRP), and then booksellers get discounts based on their purchasing power, Higgs explains. “Discounts range from 30% to 48%, this comes off the RRP,” Higgs said. “For a R300 book, let’s say it’s 40%. This means they would get R120,” Boraine said.

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Publishers also sell books on the basis of Sale or Return (SOR). SOR means that any unsold stock after a set period may be returned for credit from the publisher. “Publishers have to wait up to 9 months to find out if they really sold the book. We do get paid, but if books are returned we have to pass credit notes,” Higgs said.

Going on the costs of VAT and the bookstores discount alone, that’s more than half the value of the book.

And we haven’t yet discussed printing… 

“There are two major components to making a book,” Boraine explains, “there’s the printing and everything that happens before the printing which we call pre-press”. Pre-press encompasses manuscript development, editing, proofreading, design, and layout. The cost of this can vary a lot. Most publishers outsource these services, we don’t have resources for this. In our R300 book, that would be at least 10% of the cost. If you’re printing only 500 copies, then this will be a much bigger proportion because you’ve got to spread that cost over 500 books.

Printing costs vary too. Higgs explains that because we have a relatively small market in South Africa, printing is more expensive. “It means we can’t do large print runs which bring down the unit costs,” she said.

The amount of copies publishers print also varies according to projected demand. “If you think the demand is not going to be very high and you print very few copies of a book then your unit cost is much higher,” Boraine said. For example, printing 10 000 copies of a book might be R20 a copy to print. But printing 2000 copies might be R40 a copy to print. Boraine estimates that printing costs are about 10% of the R300, so R30 a copy.

On average, how many copies of a book are printed?

If Boraine had to pluck a number out of the air, he would say that the average is around 2000 copies of a book. However, publishers print more copies of certain books if the author is famous or because the book’s on a very hot topic. For many other books, publishers print less. If it’s a first-time author that’s not well known, publishers might start printing about 500 copies.

What of marketing and promotion costs?

“Our marketing budget is a separate proportion which we spread across our entire list. Money will be allocated according to the needs of the book. For example, if an author is based in Port Elizabeth and we need to bring her to Johannesburg and Cape Town then that would include additional flight and accommodation costs. This is not necessarily costed against the book, but we still have to pay for these.

The books that we sell still have to cover our overheads. I’m not even talking about office costs, staffing costs and so forth. Let’s say we take an ad in a newspaper and advertise five of our books, and it costs R 100 000 per ad, then that’s R 20 000. Marketing is a really big expense but without it we just can’t bring the books to the attention of readers. Another marketing expense is that for every book we publish, we would allocate a number of free copies to be sent out to reviewers, festivals, readers. We have to factor in the 100 or 200 free copies, we don’t get any income from that.

Whatever is left is what the authors and the publishers earn. Authors are guaranteed a percentage of every copy of their book that we sell. It’s tough for publishers, but it’s tough for authors as well because you can’t really make a living as an author in South Africa.

How do publishing companies make money?

Boraine says many books don’t make any money, in fact the lose money. This is why publishers are dependent on bestsellers. “Publishers live or die by our bestsellers because if you have one bestseller in a year and nine books that don’t do too well then the bestseller might pay for the other books,” Boraine said. “The business model for publishing is to constantly try and find books that will exceed expectations or sell a lot of copies,” he added.

Why are books more expensive at bookstores?

Books sold at bookstores are likely to be more expensive. This is because booksellers have to rent expensive space in malls, Higgs explained. Some stores might increase the price by a percentage to cover shrinkage or theft. This explains why online sellers can offer cheaper prices than bookstores.

What are the specifics of the South African market?

Many of the books sitting on South African shelves are imported from the UK. “The difficulty,” Boraine explains, “is that as an importer, you are at the whim of the rand.” This means the more the rand devalues against the pound, the more expensive the book. But perhaps that’s a positive because, Boraine says, because South Africans might start picking up more local books which can be sold at a lower price.

South Africa is also in a technical recession, which means people have less disposable income, so they buy less books.

What are some trends for publishing in South Africa?

Boraine says there seems to be a growing interest in local, black voices. People are willing to pay to read these authors. “That can only be positive for the industry because there are new writers, new stories,” he said.

How can we make books cheaper in South Africa?

“For local books, we could have South African libraries buy large numbers of local titles that reach certain criteria,” Higgs said. Canada is one country that does this, Higgs explains, and although it is a developed wealthy country, this one of the ways that books are ‘subsidised’.

“For a small publisher like Modjaji Books, if we knew for sure that we would get a library order of 500 to 700 to 1000 copies of a title we are publishing, we would be able to reduce our cover price quite substantially,” she said.

The publishing industry is thriving

“I don’t think the publishing industry is dying at all, ” Boraine said. Ten years ago when ebooks arrived, publishers around the world were extremely worried. But world trends indicate that people prefer reading print to digital when it comes to books, he said.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons