"The first step is to keep the book industry alive" – an interview with Mark Gevisser

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Photo: Canva

In an open letter to the president sent on 27 April 2020, a case for the buying, selling and reading of books as an essential service is pleaded. Remona Voges spoke to one of the organisers, Mark Gevisser.

Who is the driving force behind this plea?

A group of authors and academics who are deeply concerned about the future of our book industry.

What does the law currently state about the sale and distribution of printed books? At which level (currently) will bookshops be opened and the distribution of books resume?

At Level 4, only educational books are allowed to be traded. At Level 3, all books can be traded. 

There is no specific mention of bookshops, but my assumption is that bookshops will be allowed to reopen at Level 3 as long as they enforce hygiene and social distancing rules.

Why is it so important that all books (not just educational ones) are available in printed format within the South African context, especially during the national lockdown?

The pandemic has put into sharp relief the digital divide. For a long time to come, e-books will not be an option for most South Africans, and for this reason the paper publishing industry must stay alive. Reading is one of the few art-forms that can be practiced at a social distance; it is a pastime that both encourages safe behaviour in the present and is an investment in our individual and collective future.

Can you elaborate on the importance of the circulation of books, not only for individuals, but for the South African book industry as a whole?

The book industry was vulnerable even before the pandemic. We as a country are at great risk of losing not only our booksellers, but our publishers too. We are concerned about the jobs that will be lost, as well as the loss of vital cultural and intellectual space. This space will not be easily regained once the COVID-19 crisis is over. 

The plea is not for bookshops to be open for business, but rather for all books to be available for online purchase and delivery. Will this include the spread and delivery of books to vulnerable people and communities who don’t necessarily have direct access to online stores or funds to make book purchases?

The first step is to keep the book industry alive: to save jobs and preserve the space in which books provide information to South Africans. That is the main task of this initiative. But we state in our letter that we understand that many people don’t have access to books, or resources to enable them to buy books. Given how this pandemic and the lockdown throws our inequality into such stark relief, I would hope that everyone who loves books will work together to figure out ways to make them more accessible.

How can the reading community get involved in the process?

The first step is to sign the petition, which is live at https://pensouthafrica.co.za/an-urgent-appeal-for-the-sale-of-books-during-lockdown-stage-4/.

The next step is to be involved in initiatives that help to circulate books.

Read the letter here:

An open letter regarding the buying, selling and reading of books as an essential service


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