Book publishers are quick to argue that book piracy is threatening a sector that is already struggling to stay afloat because of declining sales, which the sector attributes to a market still in the throes of recovering from a decade of economic downturn.
The irony of this position is that while publishers have become adept at offering excuses, they apparently are not alive to opportunities that manifest themselves in the growth of book piracy.
Where is the sector demonstrating creativity and strategic thinking in responding to the rise in book piracy?
The answer does not lie solely in law enforcement agencies clamping down on pirated copies and those driving it. This apparently seems to be the view of the sector.
How is it possible that thousands of schoolchildren requiring new textbooks do not constitute a viable market for local publishers?
Where is the leadership from book publishers when an effective response has been crying out for years?
The Herald reported this week that the price for a set of seven textbooks for primary school children ranges between $1 400 and $1 800 at most bookshops, yet the same set of pirated books is estimated at between $229 and $344.
Someone needs to wake up and identify an opportunity presented by the above price differentials.
The numbers of schoolchildren needing new textbooks is significantly large enough these years to sustain moderately priced textbooks than it was years ago when local publishers were “thriving”.
But it is telling that Parliament can conduct heated deliberations on “MaShurugwis”, declare them a threat to the economy, identify them as criminals and mobilise all the law enforcement agencies to deal decisively with illegal mining activities and the growing brutal violence that is daily claiming lives, yet apparently ignore the flagrant infringement of copyright by book pirates.
Book piracy has led to the collapse of companies that used to provide employment for hundreds of people and their families.
Publishing companies contribute to the fiscus via taxes, yet the only responsibility book pirate operators have is to themselves, even though authors whose books are being photocopied live in dire financial hardships and do not benefit from the piracy.
Of equal interest is that law enforcement agencies can raid street music piracy vendors, illegal money changers, illicit or counterfeit beer sellers and foreign currency dealers, but appear totally disinterested in acting against book piracy vendors.
Piracy is an offence. It is outright premeditated theft. Period.
In terms of the Copyright Act, photocopying and selling someone’s work is an offence.
But how is it possible, that someone running a printer in some backyard operation is able to reproduce a whole book and make money out of it, while publishers who have the materials for original textbooks are apparently unable to do exactly what the book pirate operators are doing?
How is it possible they have not investigated and determined the economics of book piracy and come up with a response that sounds the death knell for book piracy?
The book publishing sector has failed spectacularly for decades with the absence of a coherent response to the threat to both its survival and viability.
The audacity of book piracy vendors can be remarkable — some have taken to staking out their “stalls” outside registered booksellers, hoping to benefit from the flow of traffic visiting official bookshops.
The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education is a major beneficiary of copyright infringement, by apparently condoning the use of photocopied books in schools.
However, the ministry finds itself in an invidious position; how does it campaign for a clampdown on book piracy when publishers appear to and demonstrate reluctance in responding to the space that is being occupied by drivers of book piracy.
How does it intervene on behalf of legitimate publishers without appearing to support book publishers at the expense of learners?
Book publishers can drive out book piracy operators by being more strategic in their response and playing the game.
The issue is not going to resolve itself while publishers moan about the loss of business to book piracy.
Publishers also need to move from an apparently “take-it-or-leave-it” unhelpfully arrogant stance.
The local publishing sector needs to explore how it is possible that next door in South Africa, there are new book launches weekly, while here launches are far between and considerably fewer.
Local publishers like to argue that there is a deficit of a “reading culture” in the country yet, for example, if one studied the project that is being spearheaded by writer Ignatius Tirivangani Mabasa, through his animated stories and “Dende reNgano” series for children, these represent vast opportunities for publishers to diversify into audio books.
Young people spend considerable time on their devices, which means they are reading.
There is definitely an opportunity for local publishers to repackage their work into e-readers, like Kindle and Amazon, or monetising audience.