Whither Zim's book sector?

WHEN some of us were growing up, it was possible to walk into a bookstore perhaps once a month scouting for any new books on the market. My major interest was on creative works — fiction to be particular.

Probably I should also mention that the bulk of the books on my shelf today were acquired in this way. However, today there are so many barriers that compromise the Zimbabwean book lover’s situation.

The book sector, for long the pride of the country with Longman, College Press, Mambo Press, Zimbabwe Publishing House, Baobab Books among others, representing a thriving book publishing sector. Earlier, the Literature Bureau used to churn out books — especially in the major local languages of Shona and Ndebele — in large numbers, finding significant readership within the country.

The early years after independence saw a boom in creative writing with authors like Dambudzo Marechera, Charles and David Mungoshi, Barbara Nkala, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Yvonne Vera, Virginia Phiri, Chenjerai Hove, Musaemura Zimunya, Shimmer Chinodya among a host of others.
Writers then used to get royalties for their works and if they were lucky to have their works selected as set books, they realised fatter pay cheques.
However, this has not been possible today owing to the scourge of piracy.

There is, for starters, a combination of the lack of disposable income as well as a scarcity of books in formal bookshops. Anyone who respects the creator of the work would want to deal with the formal bookshop. Sadly, in the few cases that the book is available there, it will be exorbitantly priced, almost out of the reach of many ordinary citizens.

The streets offer the same books at less than half the price you would find in a formal bookshop and becomes the source for most parents who may want to purchase a book for their child.
Most of these books would have found their way onto the streets through unscrupulous violators of copyright, photocopying books wholesome for resale. More often than not, these are poor quality books, which they photocopy en masse for resale in schools and to individuals. 

Several pleas to have piracy curbed have not produced the desired result, resulting in the virtual death of the book publishing sector. Similar developments have also rocked the music sector, leaving recording companies like the Zimbabwe Music Corporation (ZMC), Record and Tape Promotions (RTP), Ngaavongwe among others, going under.

Expressing his disgust at the environment into which they release their books, writer and University of Zimbabwe academic Memory Chirere writes in a weekly publication: “A real industry works as a long flowing chain. You put in something in the beginning and get something out the other end. 

“Now these guys paid nothing to be able to stand by the street corner with all these books. They employed no single editor. They paid no royalties to the author. These guys ploughed back nothing to the process of making the book. There is no book industry to talk about in Zimbabwe. Industry is a bigger word than what we are doing.”

Recounting an experience when he visited a cluster of five rural Advanced Level schools who had invited him to talk about his book they were studying, Chirere said he was surprised to see that they had photocopied books.

“When five Advanced Level schools in the outlying districts invited me to discuss my book which they were studying, we sat in a huge room. I made a quick survey and noted that I, the foolish author, had the original copy! Even the teacher sitting next to me, the fellow who had invited me, had a photocopy.”

Somehow, Chirere seems to agree with a marketing executive with one book publisher who refused to be named.”

He said: “Enforcement is our biggest problem when it comes to piracy. Schools are our biggest clients as book publishers and booksellers. However, most of them flout copyright unknowingly. They are duped into buying photocopied books thinking they are original copies. Getting them prosecuted in such circumstances becomes very difficult.”

Chirere suggests all stakeholders must play their part, arguing that “authors, publishers, booksellers, readers to enforcement agents, we now need to be adequately interested in copyright. Intellectual property, I continued, is different from other forms of property as it needs careful investigation and clear evidence for an arrest to be effected”.

“The police do not just arrest. That Zimbabwe ratified copyright treaties like WIFO (World Intellectual Freedom Organisation) does not mean that the police can now arrest offenders.

“First, the ratified treaty must be subjected to Parliament before it can become a law that empowers the police to take action,” the respected writer said.
Musaemura Zimunya, a renowned poet and academic based at the Midlands State University said things changed in the last two decades.

“I refer to the last two decades meaning the period after 2000. There are many reasons for this ‘death’ of the book sector, one of which is the meltdown in the Zimbabwean economy… For a very long time, the ministry of Education used to contribute significantly towards children’s books at schools but that has since stopped as government prioritises other issues. 

“The Government of National Unity seems to have given some respite though and significantly, the book itself had started to rise…. The only impediment was book piracy because it continued to steal not only the rights of the authors but also those of the publishers who were now failing to make money from the sale of books. The writers themselves do not benefit from the sale of their books by these piracy barons. Meanwhile the prices of books that are available from booksellers are prohibitive … the onslaught has been unrelenting against the creator, publisher, distributor, virtually the whole chain.”

Zimunya added that the emergence of technology was a benefit to us all but has negatively affected the book sector. “There are people who buy these big printers and churn out books. Also the advent of the phone has greatly affected the book sector. Students, even at university, do not want to read the book.

Overall, we have a totally illiterate educated mass of people who have no interest in the book. As a result, the book has died. Cry the beloved book,” writer of the anthology Country Dawns and City lights said. 

The Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) among other bodies, has been seized with issues to do with the book sector. One of the topics up for discussion at this year’s edition ZIBF — scheduled to run from July 29 to August 2 — is intellectual property, copyright and piracy.

Running under the theme “Footprints of the Book: Milestones and Opportunities”, this year’s two-day Indaba Conference is not the first to tackle copyright and related issues but the problem has continued.

It remains to be seen whether the ZIBF and other bodies will register successes in their fight against piracy, but for now the creator of the work remains a victim of piracy chain that has people who think they do not have any legal restrictions to their activities so to say, according to Zimunya. 

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