Crunch time for South African publishing

rhino_royal-ontario-museum_CC-BY-SAIt’s rare that a national industry is confronted with a single threat to its future. That just happened to South African publishing. A few days ago, the South African Department of Basic Education released a policy document, for public comment, that explains how the DBE would like to handle textbooks going forward. (If you’re in publishing, read it, here’s the PDF. Instructions for official public responses here.)

The document has big, important ideals, and contains many smart ideas. The emphasis is on making sure every child has textbooks, and no one can fault that. There are many ways to help make that happen: the department must make its textbook money go further, the distribution of textbooks must be simpler, and schools must try to reuse all of their textbooks from year to year. The document addresses these issues and more. The issues have inherent challenges and complexities, and it’s clear the authors have thought about them.

But the document contains one, huge, glaring misadventure: the DBE wants to buy a single textbook in each subject for the whole country. For example, every grade 10 child in the country will use exactly the same maths textbook. The same history textbook. The same life-orientation textbook. Whether they’re at a high-end school in suburban Joburg or a rural school in the Northern Cape.

The theory is that, this way, the DBE will find economies of scale that will reduce the cost of textbooks and their distribution, and that this will help them achieve universal textbook coverage.

It’s very difficult to respond to this theory seriously, because it’s flawed to the point of absurdity. Even if the DBE did save money this way, it wouldn’t save much, and the damage done would be far more costly in the long term:

  • Teachers would no longer choose the textbooks they want to use. They’d be less interested in a textbook prescribed for them centrally, and wouldn’t be able to pick a textbook that suits their particular class.
  • Right now, we have a few dozen educational publishers, dominated by about five big ones (Pearson, Oxford, Macmillan, Via Africa, Cambridge). Within two or three years, publishers who don’t get to sell their textbooks would go out of business. Publishers I’ve spoken to reckon there would be space for three or four publishers, and only if they have owners with deep pockets to help them weather years with no government sales.
  • Private schools, which are growing rapidly, would continue to buy whatever textbooks they choose. They’d benefit from choice and diversity, and have the ear of those publishers that survive. This would further increase the gap between the quality and perceived quality of state and private schools. Gaps like that create self-reinforcing vicious cycles.
  • Given the make-or-break high stakes involved, the process for choosing only one textbook would be even more prone to corruption than the current system. In the current system, the DBE chooses eight books per subject, a number that is already the result of a massive concession made by the publishing industry a couple of years ago. Before that, any number of textbooks might have been approved for sales to schools.
  • We’re only beginning to figure out how best to create and distribute digital textbooks. To evolve great systems, we need a diverse environment, a constant churn of solutions adapt-or-dying, funded by risk-taking angel investors. A one-textbook policy would kill that process in an instant and set digital textbooks back years.
  • Promising initiatives to create open textbooks (like Siyavula’s) could all but disappear. Open textbooks rely on philanthropic sponsors to cover their development costs, and sponsors would be wary of funding textbooks that might never be used in state schools.

No doubt there will be much public comment on these issues. Signs are ominous that it might not make much difference: a senior DBE leader told a group of publishers recently that their position on procurement (which includes buying one textbook per subject) is very unlikely to change. We could have guessed that: weeks before the proposed policy was made public, the Minister had already announced it in her budget speech as given:

2014/15 has been targeted as the year by which the sector will be moving towards one textbook, per learner, per subject.

In South Africa, the vast majority of publishing revenue comes from the government purchase of textbooks. This revenue cross-subsidises the less lucrative publishing of fiction, children’s books, and reference books like dictionaries and atlases. As I’ve mentioned, it funds much of the experimenting around digital textbooks and online learning. And educational publishing – despite many weaknesses in this regard – supplies most of our country’s book-publishing skills. As a country we’ll pay a terrible price if our educational publishing sector shrinks.

That said, the DBE is not the root of the problem. They are simply reaching for the biggest hammer they can find to solve a long-standing problem: the gross under-supply of textbooks to poor students, and the perception that books in South Africa are too expensive and exclusive. Even if it’s the wrong hammer on the wrong nail, as the publishing industry we have to take a long, hard look at the part we’ve played getting to this point.

The spectre of state publishing and a single-textbook system has been around for many years – certainly for the twenty years I’ve worked in publishing – and always in response to these same basic problems. And yet publishing companies have not changed anything substantial about their publishing models or processes in those twenty years. As educational publishers, we’ve repeatedly fallen back on our unshakable belief that we’re already producing the best possible books for the lowest possible price. And each time that the state has threatened to force our hand, we’ve persuaded them to let us keep doing things the same way. There have been tweaks to the system, but the basic model has never changed. What if we’ve been wrong the whole time?

So perhaps the chicken has finally roosted. We’ve scraped through our tests, but now it’s exam time and we have just hours to prove ourselves. Can we find different ways to do things, or do we tell our editors, writers, designers, marketers and salespeople to find other jobs? Whatever happens, we have a lot of honest, open talking to do.

19 thoughts on “Crunch time for South African publishing

  1. Brilliant article, Arthur. As a publishing industry, we did not solve: distribution of ordered textbooks to schools (the Eastern Cape system that was devised by PASA worked the best); helping our biggest customer understand the industry.

  2. The publishing industry has been raking in the big bucks by publishing as many as 14 different Maths textbooks while the education system suffers. A school teachers learners from text book A and the exam is set from textbook B or C or D etc . ONE TEXTBOOK per subject is a great Idea and all teachers support this move.

    • Using your example, how can 14 different Maths textbooks rake in big bucks for the publishing industry? 14 textbooks means there is huge competition for Publishers to sell their product and to sell less because of the competition. How can the education system suffer from having choice among 14 books that made it on the list? The book list is made up of books that meet the DBE requirements for content – choice for books from this list is made by the educators with regard to, for example, budget, language level, illustrations, examples used to cover content required, degree of teacher guidance, layout, colour and any other subjective reason they prefer one book to another. Giving no choice actually will make ONE publisher rake in the big bucks and make the education system suffer. Whether you teach from textbook A, B, C or D purchased off the book list, the expected content should have been covered. I do not believe a national exam is set from a particular textbook. The learners need to be able to transfer their knowledge to the exam questions. Critical thinking and generalization of knowledge should be skills taught to the learners in order to apply what they have learned and they can only apply their knowledge if they REALLY understand the content taught. Teaching from one textbook and having an exam set from that textbook is not what education is about. We will be teaching parrots. I do not believe it true that all teachers want one textbook as there is no opinion poll recording all teachers’ feelings and find it hard to believe that any one teacher knows every other teacher in the country and their feelings on this subject. Freedom of choice is part of our constitution and this whole deplorable idea is unconstitutional and moving towards a lesser education system.

  3. Great article. One textbook per subject will further increase the chasm between those who become real readers and those who don’t – literate people are characterised by their critical and ongoing engagement with lots and lots of reading material… it further entrenches the already dominating idea that all the knowledge and information you need to pass an exam is going to be spooned up and probably learned by rote. Teachers opportunities to become self selecting, interesting, knowledgable and engaged educators slips further away as does meaningful education for children.

  4. I can only imagine the tumult that will ensue from this proposed ‘one textbook, per learner, per subject’ policy.

    I expect that the selection and tendering process will be well monitored, but this specific aspect of the proposed policy verges on the side of monopoly and is anti-competitive. Though the policy states that it will allow for the participation of “other stakeholders” and the development of the material “may be undertaken by commercial companies”, when the stakes are this high, companies run the risk of bowing under the pressure and a system akin to state publishing will ensue.

    The proposed system will benefit only the few multinationals who have the experience, clout and budgets to exploit it. Despite what the draft policy says, I do not see any scope for entrepreneurship or small enterprise development, which are crucial to the growth of the country and the publishing industry.

    I don’t worry about the multinationals and large publishing houses (apart from the fact that there will be a constant cycle of lay-offs and temporary recruitment). But I fear that small to medium companies in this sector will die off if they cannot diversify and find new products for new markets.

    Going forward, publishers who have the skills, know-how and passion for the book should start turning their focus towards new and exciting publishing ventures. Ventures that do not rely on the whim of a single customer (like the DBE), but which reach out to the masses, and can turn South Africa into a reading nation. A youth that takes an active role in its own education through the consumption of diverse, high quality supplementary material and alternative sources of information cannot be indoctrinated or left behind.

    The DRAFT NATIONAL POLICY FOR THE PROVISION AND MANAGEMENT OF LEARNING AND TEACHING SUPPORT MATERIAL (LTSM) is 100% correct in this statement at least: “All learners and teachers should be information literate and independent lifelong-learners and readers.”

    I agree with Arthur Attwell that it is time to talk about alternative ways of doing things. While the big boys have all their resources set on gaining these huge tenders, shouldn’t we be looking at the cracks and filling the gaps?

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  7. Wise comment on a radical but flawed solution to a global problem: a decent textbook for ALL students on ALL subjects. Unfortunately tendering competitively to acquire a temporary monopoly can only benefit those with the resources to be able to lose and survive, which must mean publishers with more diverse portfolios, not the specialists and niche players. Corruption aside, there is still the lure of the prize of total market domination to keep the major players in the game. The alternative is an open market that works, which means addressing the DBE objectives, but proposing alternative, possibly radical, disruptive, but more effective solutions, within the same allocation of resources. Does the industry have the answer, or the means to develop it? (I speak as an individual, not on behalf of any organisation.)

  8. I know I’m a bit late to the party, but thanks for a very insightful article! It does seem like an oversimplified and rather top-down solution that will stifle creativity and initiative at the classroom level. I don’t think the “one size fits all” approach ever really works out in practice.

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  11. Hello Arthur. I have been trying to find out if what i heard through the grapevine is true.. that this policy has been pushed through for GrR in 2016 and that MacMillan won this tender. Can you confirm this for me?

    • Hi Colleen. I haven’t heard about that outcome myself, but it is true that the policy has been in place for the most recent round of submissions. If I find out more, I’ll post it here.

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