Government urged to transform educational publishing sector

The government is increasingly being asked to lead the transformation of the educational publishing sector. Primary and secondary book publishing is still largely dominated by a few large multinational publishers.

These publishers have been producing textbooks and related study materials for the Department of Basic Education for many years. The textbook sector is estimated at over R2 billion per year.

The educational book market is the backbone of the publishing industry in the country. The publishing industry accounted for around R3.5 billion in revenue in 2019. Educational books account for around 60% of industry revenue, due to the large school population.

But it is the dominance of multinationals in the local publishing of educational books that is worrying and the Department of Basic Education is the biggest purchaser of educational books.

Former Wits University Student Representative Council Chairman Mpendulu Mfeka blames the Department of Basic Education for the current situation. He says the government should use its power to transform the sector.

“You can’t have one publisher having a monopoly on textbooks across SA for over 2 million learners. The government should create an entity responsible for publishing textbooks.

Barriers to market entry

High barriers to entry make it difficult for new publishers to enter. RFPs are often expensive for emerging publishers.

“The DBE (Department of Education) has a process where they review all textbooks from publishers, what books they are going to license. I think it’s eight textbooks per subject, per level. It’s risky for publishers, especially small publishers, to develop the material, the cost of doing it. If they don’t succeed, it’s difficult for small publishers. Big publishers can take that risk and break it down by topic, by level. There’s a way the approval process can limit diversity in the field,” says education expert Mary Metcalf.

The SA Publishers Association (PASA), which represents most local publishers, shares the same sentiment.

“To play a role in this industry, you need to be able to build up capital to support yourself, for example, if you’re a startup in education, you need to have funds to develop hardware for a year or two that you don’t get back until the education department puts out a tender to evaluate the new material, you have to be lucky enough to be included,” says the director Executive of PASA Mpuka Radinku.

Lack of processing

PASA is also concerned about the lack of transformation of the sector. The association is working on the industry transformation master plan. But others argue the plan is largely driven by fear, as the Department of Basic Education continues to investigate the state-sponsored publication of textbooks.

However, the Publishers Association says state-owned publishing will not be sustainable.

“What the industry provides is a sustainable model that can be used by education authorities and any other sector of society to ensure the sector continues to contribute to the growth of education and culture,” says Radinku.

Anelile Gibixego is a self-published author. Gibixego tried to enter school publishing without success.

“It’s difficult to enter the course, we don’t know how to get there. The National Library will register your book but no tracking. Basic education has the power to sustain black writers.

The biggest players in the industry

British multinational publishing Pearson Group is one of the largest players in the country’s educational publishing industry. The company has a 35% market share in the educational and educational publishing market.

Other big players are Macmillan and Oxford University Press, each with a 13% market share.

The Pearson Group in Africa says its foreign participation has no bearing on the content it creates for the local market.

“Although we are part of the Pearson group which is global, all of our employees are all subject matter experts who we use are local, we work with local South Africans to create local content, we don’t import it and let’s not bring it to South Africa. If you look at all our panels of authors, topics, reviewers, freelancers, they are all South African,” says Dr Benadette Aineamani of Pearson Africa.

Shortage of black authors

The other challenge is the lack of black authors for educational books.

“In 2019, we held an author training workshop, targeting black authors to align existing authors with digital trends for five days. We also gave them a six-month online training. In 2021, we have integrated 77 participants, aspiring authors, we trained them for two weeks, some won cash prizes and joined our database of authors.

The Ministry of Basic Education was not available for comment.

SABC Economics Editor-in-Chief Tshepo Mongoai says educational materials continue to dominate the market:

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