Clash over street book vendors

HARARE - Some leading writers say book publishers should work with street book vendors as part of efforts to bring the prices of books down.

Book piracy is generally regarded by publishers and writers as one of the key problems undermining the viability of the local book industry.

But Monica Cheru-Mpambawashe, the author of Chivi Sunsets and The Happy Clapper, believes publishers are even more culpable than street vendors for the problems afflicting the industry.

“Street vendors have established vibrant markets and it is high time we stop looking at them as monsters. We must bring them to the table as key stakeholders. These are not the pirates. They do not own printing machines and distribution networks. If writers work with street vendors a lot of problems will go away,” she told the Daily News, adding: “I think publishers are part of the problem. In spite of their claim that the industry is dead, most of them look prosperous.

“We see them drive around in huge cars while writers are shod in rags and worn shoes. Why are publishers so resistant to change? Because the current system is working just fine for them.”

Cheru-Mpambawashe, who is also the vice chairperson of the Zimbabwe Writers Association, is unhappy with what she thinks is an unholy alliance between publishers and book sellers.

“There is a disturbing cartel between publishers and booksellers which needs to be broken.

“At one workshop a couple of years ago, I asked why publishers could not work with the Education ministry to create an electronic book order system.

“School heads can digitally order all books in advance. Parents and schools can start paying for the next year’s books during third term in instalments.

“Because these would be pre-ordered, bulk prices can be cut down drastically. There seems to be a strange reluctance by publishers to bring book prices down.

“They talk of editing costs etc but I am yet to meet any of these so highly-paid editors that they talk so much about,” she said.

Lawrence Hoba, the author of the acclaimed collection of short stories titled The Trek and Other Stories, also put the blame squarely on publishers.

“I think street book vendors are coming in to meet a critical need in the market, namely, ‘availability at a reasonable cost’.

“The book vendors are thus an indicator of the failure in the formal market to adequately meet these critical needs. People want books to be as close to their doorsteps as possible and at prices that are in line with their own purchasing power,” Hoba said.

He added that street book vendors were simply moving in to plug a gaping hole.

“So like any other market where this does not happen, a parallel market emerges and that market simply exists to meet clients’ needs.

“I don’t blame the vendors; I blame supply side players who are not taking a serious stance towards ensuring the market is fully serviced,” said the author of The Trek and Other Stories.

Cheru-Mpambawashe and Hoba’s favourable views of street book vendors are not shared by poet-cum-novelist Tinashe Muchuri and veteran playwright and novelist Aaron Chiundura Moyo.

Muchuri, who released his debut novel Chibarabada with Bhabhu Books two years ago, believes street book vendors are criminals whose conduct is having a negative impact on both publishers and writers.

“It is theft of the authors’ property and a sad development in the book chain. No one gains from this crime as the learner is deprived of new ideas and knowledge … publishers are not motivated to publish for a loss while writers are discouraged to write,” the Chibarabada writer said, adding:

“There is need for the government to view this crime as any other property crime and to ensure that these criminals receive deterrent sentences.”

For Chiundura Moyo, the creator of the local drama, Tiriparwendo, publishers and street book vendors are sometimes two sides of the same coin.

“Some of these vendors are being fed by the publishers themselves at the writers’ expense. Whichever way you look at it, the writer is at a disadvantage.

“If the book vendor and the publishers are working together, it gives publishers a convenient excuse not to pay writers royalties,” he said.

Chiundura Moyo, however, conceded that some street book vendors prefer to work independent of both publishers and writers.

“The street book vendor is at peace working a distance away from both the writer and the publisher.

“The situation is worse for those into self-publishing because they don’t have enough money to print as many copies at a very low cost which they can supply to vendors,” the veteran writer said.

Zimbabwe Publishing House (ZPH) chief executive officer Blazio Tafireyi told the Daily News that publishers are willing to work with book vendors as long as they sell “genuine books”.

“For us, it is about which books they are selling. We welcome a situation where book vendors sell genuine books whether old or new. If they sell pirated copies, then we have problems.

“The book vendors are able to sell their books at very low prices because the material they use to photocopy is ‘stolen’ that is why they can afford to sell books at far lower than the prices offered by publishers and book sellers,” said Tafireyi.

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