Poster for CTBF2011

Poster for CTBF2011 (c) Cape Town Book Fair

“Have you heard that they have cancelled the Cape Town Book Fair 2011?” – was a question not many people were asking in the week ending January 23. And when the story finally broke, through the good works of our formidable colleagues at BOOK Southern Africa, the internet newspaper for books in South Africa, the reaction from within the publishing community was not much more than a shrug. This must sit oddly with whoever waxed lyrical at the end of the 2010 edition of the fair:

“pleased” Exhibitors Promise To Return To Book Fair
Aug 2, 2010

Exhibitors pronounced the Cape Town Book Fair a great success on the closing day of the fair yesterday. Sales were better than expected, they had made valuable contacts in Africa and internationally and they would return next year, many of the publishers and authors said.

Well, it looks as if exhibitors were not quite as elated as the happy hack in the press office, despite star turns such as Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka attending the fair.

In South Africa, some publishers greeted the news with obvious relief, hoping for a new approach to marketing books to their readership. In the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, nobody noticed – because hardly anybody had noticed the existence of a book fair in Cape Town anyhow. And in the wider world of publishing, it seems it is hardly worth quipping at one more failed venture for  the big guys who run the Frankfurt behemoth, for Cape Town is – or, was – a joint venture run by the Frankfurt Book Fair and PASA, the Publishers Association of South Africa (which, at the time of writing, still proudly invites publishers to attend CTBF2011 on its website).

The rather mealy-mouthed letter sent out the PASA membership is a document of a failed venture, if ever there was one:

Dear Members

Thank you for your support, your contribution to the deliberation at the two workshops and the recommendations. The council will have to meet again in the future when we start working on redesigning the fair. I think the fair has a critical role to play in our industry and we have to get it right so that it can serve the interests of the shareholders and the broad book sector.

There is significant confusion in the sector about Cape Town Book Fair and the event this year. Just to re-cap on the process that we have followed this year before I update you on where we are- Following the non-participation of key publishers in last years’ book fair, Frankfurt Book Fair asked me to establish if South African publishers wanted us to continue with the book fair. Preliminary enquiries did not clearly indicate what the position was among publishers. We decided to have open stakeholder workshops on the book fair. Two were held in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The findings of the workshops were presented to EXCO, GENCO, Frankfurt and members. GENCO could not take a decision on the basis of the results of the workshop. We decided to establish a representative Council for the book fair. The council of more than 20 members representing different stakeholder meetings met on the 3rd of December to consider all the inputs. Please find herewith the recommendations of the council.

These recommendations were again presented to the shareholders, i.e. PASA, Frankfurt Book Fair and the board. In addition to the input that was received from the two workshops in Cape Town and Johannesburg, the council took into consideration the fact that by the time of its meeting, many big players at the fair had indicated that they would not be at the fair this year and that they preferred to come to the fair once every two years. There are many other operational issues that were raised in the workshops. These have been noted for the attention of CTBF staff and management in due course. The council concentrated on the broader issues.

The recommendations were presented to the Executive Committee of PASA, members of the general council, representatives of Frankfurt Book Fair and the board of CTBF. The recommendations do not sit well with Frankfurt’s objectives with Cape Town Book Fair and they are considering their options, including the termination of the relationship. While this is a ghastly development, it is difficult for us and Frankfurt Book Fair to envisage how we can continue with a book fair model that is not supported by the critical players.

Two board meetings have been held since the recommendations were circulated. The latest position is as follows:

  • There will be no book fair for 2011
  • We will work towards re-launching the book fair in 2012, taking advantage of the IPA 2012 Congress to make sure that it will be well attended.
  • We will spend the time between now and June 2012 restructuring the fair and considering our relationship with Frankfurt. This will include securing long-term sponsorship of the book fair.

We are preparing a communication to this effect to regular exhibitors and other interested parties.

The format of the fair will depend on the recommendations of the CTBF Council, our relationship and deliberations with Frankfurt and the type of funding that we will secure.

This basically means that the fat lady has sung for the project as we have come to know it, especially as there seems to be not much love left between the partners in the joint venture.

Cape Town

Cape Town (c) ehlingmedia 2004

Who is to blame? Well, everybody is: PASA, for failing to create a buzz and enthusiasm for the fair amongst its membership and within local and national government; and Frankfurt, which had dispatched a senior staff member to replace Vanessa Badroodien (the founding director of the fair, who had become first desperate and then rather bolshie pointing out obvious flaws to a board stuffed with know-it-alls) and run the ship in 2009, for misunderstanding the whole shooting match.

Frankfurt had always maintained that Cape Town was to be one more international hub for the publishing industry (even though the initial concepts emphasized the local approach). But this never happened: Yes, there was the odd national collective, sponsored as part of individual European countries’ foreign cultural activities – but these collectives generally don’t serve much purpose except spending money allocated in a ministry’s budget.

Wole Soyinka at CTBF 2010

Wole Soyinka at CTBF 2010 (c) Cape Town Book Fair 2010

Given the fact that the Cape Town Book Fair never ventured north of the Limpopo to talk to potential partners in other African countries (it would have been Frankfurt’s part to do this), it did not take much arithmetic to anticipate that African interest was going to be close to zero, which it was. Once more, the Germans went into the breach and roped in the services of Goethe Institut (which really is designed to promote German language and culture around the world) to sponsor a dozen or so publishers from Africa to come to Cape Town, which they duly did, having much fun and good shopping in the process.

A major flaw, both in terms of PR and politics, was the decision to scrap outreach programmes, which had been an integral part of the initial concept. For the first edition of the fair in 2006, Somali writer (and Cape Town resident) Nuruddin Farah and his German colleague Ilija Trojanow had already agreed to spearhead a literary program in Cape Town’s townships – a program that never came to be, mostly due to budget restraints. Given the desperate need for PASA to portray the publishing industry (which is under heavy fire for its failure to comply adequately with South Africa’s empowerment policies) as reaching out to the underprivileged majority of people in South Africa, this was a strategic blunder that changed the perception of the fair in the eyes of those who hold the strings of public purses: Not much did there come in terms of government support for a venture which one would normally see as a god-send in terms of laudable effect for the public good.

As early as 2008, during the third edition of the fair, it became apparent that something had gone wrong: plenty of feet through the doors, yes. But no sign of the book fair taking place anywhere in town. No posters or banners, hardly any news coverage – the book fair, which initially had been designed to be a huge boost for books and reading and education, creating a buzz especially with young people, took place in its hyper-modern conference centre, far away from the people, as if in a parallel universe.

2008 was also the last time I visited the Cape Town Book Fair – and here is where I have to declare an interest: having been the person who had, together with then PASA Secretary General Louise Gain, developed the idea for quite a different event since 2003, I had no urge to see the thing go under.

What is there to do? Obviously, the 2012 IPA Conference in Cape Town will provide an excuse for pouring some more money into a relaunch of the venture. But South African publishers might be better advised to look to their own resources to get the show on the road. If, as has been mooted, the South African book fair could serve the industry better if it were to be held in Johannesburg or the Gauteng region, then so be it. One might even consider a bi-annual event alternating between Gauteng and the mother city – Brazil serves as an example where the “Bienal” in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro respectively seem to work well for the industry. If somebody can be brought in who understands to tell the story to the media and to organise a proper reaching-out to the population, it might just work.

It might even be worth PASA’s time and effort to talk to some colleagues in other African countries to pool efforts for professional training. After all, the good people in Dakar, Accra, Lagos, Nairobi or even Harare might be able to help when it comes to running book fairs in detrimental conditions.

Yeah, right. Dit sal die dag wees!