Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 28, November 2001 


People's Book Centres: a new South African initiative

Bridget Impey
Bridget Impey is an independent publishing consultant based in Cape Town, South Africa. 21 671 4790 (tel), email:

A proposal is being developed in South Africa that will develop capacity in communities and create new jobs through adding value to the work being done by South African librarians to encourage reading and develop a book culture. It sets out a strategy for working in partnership with libraries to support reading promotion initiatives and to extend them into new areas. In particular, it seeks to popularise the concept of owning and buying books, as well as reading them.

Who will benefit? In the first instance it will be the members of the book clubs who will come to share in the pleasure of reading, who will have access to books at affordable prices, who will find their lives enriched through book-related social activity. Librarians will gain through increased usage of their libraries. In the ripple effect, publishers will gain through new opportunities to sell their products, and eventually other booksellers will gain new customers who have acquired the book buying habit.

The proposal looks at how one could set up a number of 'people's book centres'. These will be located within libraries and will work within the communities served by those libraries. They will promote book owning through the concept of book clubs. They will also be encouraged to develop the commercial side of the business by selling textbooks into local schools. The proposal is not aimed at replicating traditional retail bookstores. But the people's book centres will need to become self-sustainable and it will be necessary to develop a commercial angle while they are developing and growing in this emerging market. A number of innovative ideas, many of which involve working closely with local and international publishers, will offer ways of reducing the recommended retail selling price of books to the community.

The managers of the people's book centres will be drawn from the local communities and will receive on-going training in the setting up, promotion and facilitation of book clubs and reading circles. These book clubs will cater for the needs of a wide range of people in the community and will reflect different interest groups: book clubs might be set up focusing on business and entrepreneurial skills, self-improvement, health and well-being, cooking, crafts, hobbies, sport, religion, health and fitness, travel, women's or men's interests, or children's story-telling. Learners' book clubs linked to local schools are likely to have a special place within the centres. The people's book centres will encourage all these ways of expanding reading and book buying.

The book clubs will operate on similar principles to traditional book clubs: members meet once a month, and pool resources to buy books which will be shared, discussed and enjoyed within the group. Eventually, the books will become the property of individual group members. The exact 'rules' of each book club will differ from community to community depending on local circumstances and buying power.

The installation of computers will provide not only access to the internet and e-mail facilities - a kind of Internet café - but also added value to the book clubs by providing links to publishers' websites, Oprah Book Choice discussion groups, and other on-line forums.

The proposal is to test the feasibility of the people's book centre strategy with a pilot project of three centres situated in disadvantaged community areas of Cape Town set up by March 2002. These will be assessed after 12 months, and drawing on what has been learnt we will move on to establish three more centres in the Western Cape. After year two the pilot project will move into the next phase: the development of further centres in other parts of the country, in both urban and rural areas.

The centres will be 'franchised', although the franchisees will not be required to make a capital investment in the centre. Rather, they will take ownership of the franchise operation as the business becomes profitable. A franchise will ensure that the business operations adhere to certain standards, and will give the operation greater buying power. The `head office' or franchiser will provide training, mentoring and ongoing support.

We need to develop and grow the book market in South Africa - the primary target of this project aims to benefit both the publishing and bookselling sectors. At the same time the project has other advantages; it will enable previously disadvantaged people to assert their rights in the world of retail bookselling and will uplift and strengthen previously neglected communities through capacity building and job creation. For further information, or to obtain a copy of the proposal, please contact either:

Bridget Impey: Tel (0) 21 671 4790;

Lavona George: Tel (0) 21 7974235; or

Margaret Ling: Tel (0) 20 8348 8463 Fax (0) 20 8348 4403

[end]  [BPN, no 28, 2001, pp 4-5.]

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