Making it past the post

The dysfunctional South African postal service has badly affected everyone in the publishing business – as Noseweek subscribers hardly need reminding. The years of wildcat strikes may be over, but the damage they wreaked remains: those Post Office clients that had the option, have left in droves, never to return.

As its cash flows have dried up, so has the PO’s ability to sustain itself, let alone innovate and adapt. Those extraordinary high-speed machines that sorted hundreds of thousands of items a day are all broken beyond repair. If you can believe it, staff are back to hand-sorting into pigeonhole racks set up among the wreckage. Post, once collected twice a day, is now collected only twice a week, because most of the post office trucks have been repossessed by the rental companies that are owed months of rent. Which explains why it takes 10 days to deliver a letter in the same city. If it’s delivered at all.

Now Media24 (owned by Naspers) has cited this as the main reason why it is shutting down Leisure Books/Leserskring, the country’s largest book club.

Leisure Books has for decades supplied its members with the latest books, CDs, DVDs and ebooks at significantly reduced prices because of the bulk orders it has been able to place in advance.

But this month it is running a sale of its stock before closing on March 31. And there is “informed speculation” that Media24’s book distribution division, On the Dot, could be next in line for closure.

“I have it on good authority that the staff will shortly be presented with retrenchment proposals,” said Noseweek’s source, from an independent publishing house. 

Small independent publishers are reeling from the news of the Leisure Books closure. Suspicion runs deep that the reason Naspers is disinvesting in its print media is to plough money into its increasing investments in digital media and enterprises in other countries such as China and Brazil, where it’s been aggressively expanding.

“Our losses are going to be severe,” one of these publishers told Noseweek. “The email sent to all Leisure Books’ suppliers said they’d still pay for books for which purchase orders had already been issued, but they failed to mention that they wouldn’t be paying for any of the books they commissioned publishers to publish, but which have not yet been invoiced and delivered.

“Our print-runs for all the titles we completed last year and had printed at the beginning of this year, were based on commitments made by Leisure Books that will now simply not be honoured. And we are but one of many,” the source said.

In addition, Leisure Books will be flooding the market with all their unsold stock. “They have given publishers the option to buy back stock, but we are simply not in a position to do so. They themselves have little to lose, so I guess they don’t mind shutting down the whole book publishing industry in South Africa,” the source said.

Leisure Books/Leserskring was established in 1980 by Koos Human, co-founder of Human & Rousseau Publishers, and over the years it has distributed almost 28 million books to its members by post. But non-delivery, late delivery and delivery to wrong addresses have increasingly undermined its functioning and profitability.

Communications head Anika Ebrahim told Noseweek: “The business model for book clubs is no longer sustainable in the South African market.”

But there were no closure plans – yet – for On the Dot, Ebrahim said. “A distribution network will have to be maintained for as long as our printed products remain viable and our e-commerce division requires such services.”

Noseweek is not planning to decamp to China or Brazil. An independent, critical press has an ever-more vital role to play in keeping hope alive in South Africa. But we, too, have been badly damaged by the Post Office. The large number of repeat mailings and special deliveries (at our expense), the cancellations because of non-delivery and the endless crisis management, have drained our limited resources that should be spent on innovation and rejuvenation.

We may soon have to raise our subscription rate to cover higher delivery costs, perhaps on a voluntary basis.

We need to build a war chest to face the litigating likes of Lennie the Liquidator.

Be patient for a while longer. Renew your subscription. Or sign up if you haven’t yet done so. We need the help and support of our loyal readers now more than ever before.

Stay with us and we’ll be here to stay.

 The Editor

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