What Publishers Do (1 of 2)

A few months ago, the Publishers’ Association of South Africa drafted a document that sets out the different sectors in the South African publishing industry and explains the main functions of publishers across these sectors. It also looks at the relationship between publishers and authors.

While the majority of  publishers’ functions correspond across the industry, some are particular to a specific publishing sector. As such, a short differentiation of the various sectors in the greater South African publishing industry is the point of departure.

The main functions of publishers will follow in a separate post.

The content is reproduced here with permission of the PASA Legal Affairs Committee.

The Sectors

Most people will be familiar with books published for a general audience, the books one typically would find in retail bookshops. These books are published by the sector of the publishing industry that is commonly called the “trade” sector. There are other sectors too: Educational, TVET, Academic and Scholarly. This section deals with publishing practices in the other sectors first before coming back to the trade sector.


Educational publishing refers to the publication of learning and teaching materials that are aimed at the school curriculum from pre-school to Grade 12. The core of educational publishing is usually a textbook, with its accompanying teacher’s guide, which are available mostly in printed format but are increasingly also published in digital formats. Educational publishing also encompasses a range of other materials that are required to support the curriculum, such as reading schemes, literature, dictionaries, atlases and wall charts.

Publishers respond to tenders or calls for new books by the Department of Basic Education, and are regulated by a stipulated curriculum.

Copyright assignment often occurs in respect of works such as educational and academic textbooks. For works of this kind it is likely that the publisher did the research for the project, identified, approached and briefed an author or authors to write it, and managed the writing process.

Copyright assignment is often applicable where a book has multiple authors, as it allows the publisher easily to manage the intellectual property of the team of authors. The assignment of copyright also enables publishers to respond immediately to requests for content without the administrative delays of requesting permission from authors. This ensures content can be reused for the financial and reputational benefit of the authors.

Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET)

This sector produces textbooks for students at the TVET colleges in South Africa, which offer technical or vocational training. It thus has similarities to the academic sector, but the procurement and distribution model is completely different as the TVET system is more centralised.

There are 50 public TVET colleges, each with several campuses, as well as numerous private TVET colleges across the country. The TVET sector produces books – overwhelmingly in print – for two different levels: the National Certificate (Vocational), or NCV, and the National Accredited Technical Diploma (NATED). All textbooks for the TVET colleges are produced in South Africa.

The core of TVET publishing is usually a textbook, with its accompanying lecturer’s guide, which is in most instances available in print and digital formats. Published educational and TVET works rarely come from self-promotion by authors. For syllabus driven works, educational and TVET publishers play the more creative role in responding to the syllabus, carrying out research and then commissioning authors to write for them.

Although there is no universal rule, publishers of works for the TVET market normally pay royalties to the authors from the sales of the works they write.


The academic publishing sector is geared towards publishing textbooks for the university and university of technology markets. Print remains the format of preference, although all academic publishers have invested in new technologies and new digital products. The relatively small size of the academic market in South Africa results in strong competition for influential authors at key institutions. Publishers draw authors from the higher education sector or research institutes who are active researchers and educators in their field of scholarship.

The involvement of commercial publishers in academic publishing activities is important due to the excellence of quality that results from a competitive market place, as well as academic freedom. Profits that result from such publishing activities ensure that their activities remain sustainable, and that content development may continue alongside the requisite investment in learning technology, distribution channels and platforms.

The South African market is very small, therefore publishers try to produce a book that meets the requirements of a number of institutions, while maintaining a fit with the differences in curricula that are evident.

  • The lead author or general editor will take the role of the initial reviewer of content, and many author teams review each other’s chapters.
  • Publishers use plagiarism checking software like iThenticate to check for any IP problems that need to be rectified.
  • Publishers find external reviewers to provide input and feedback, and changes may be recommended ahead of publication.
  • In many disciplines, a technical editor is employed to check calculations, questions and information that needs to be checked by a subject matter expert.
  • The book is edited for language and pedagogy, and several iterations of the typeset (designed) page proofs are checked by the author team and by proofreaders.
  • Artwork is created and third-party copyright permissions are checked and paid for.
  • Publishers also invest in the additional multimedia assets that are included in ebooks to make these interactive.
  • References are checked and an index is produced.
  • Publishers commission and invest in additional material that support lecturers and students including substantial investment in questions and solutions to assist in teaching and learning.
  • The support material is distributed via electronic platforms that require substantial investment and ongoing maintenance and support. These include digital platforms like eBook reader applications and content management systems, learning management systems and other educational technologies like adaptive learning.


The scholarly publishing in South Africa consists largely of four university presses and a few independent presses linked to research organisations. Their main objective is to contribute to dissemination of research in book form, and in some cases by way of journal articles, written by local academics. The scholarly market in South Africa remains small, but enjoys a good reputation both nationally and internationally.

The scholarly publishing sector positions itself globally in terms of readership, as most of the publishing houses sell, distribute and disseminate their books and journals worldwide or seek for their books and journals to have a global impact. To enable international dissemination, scholarly publishers need to keep up with technological developments (XML based publishing, ORCIDs for authors, ONIX metadata, etc) at large costs to small organisations.

In the case of book authors, international impact is at least as important as the payment of royalties, which payments are relatively small due to the constraints of high publishing costs in a very small market.

For authors publishing in the scholarly sector, benefits of publication are linked to academic prestige and reputational factors. Publication is key to academic progression for individual authors. In scholarly journals, there is typically no demand by authors for royalties; the author wants professionally edited, peer-reviewed and globally discoverable publication of his or her research.

Publishers manage the peer-review process. This plays an important role when universities claim DHET subsidies on behalf of their authors, as the DHET relies on publishers’ evidence and confirmation that peer review was done to an acceptable international ‘best practice’ standard. DHET subsidies are paid to universities, who all have different policies regarding how much is kept in central funds and how much is distributed to faculties and eventually to the academic authors themselves.

Generally, peer-review across the sector is of a world-class standard, which enables the South African sector to compete effectively with scholarly and academic publishers from across the world. Academic journal authors have the choice to publish in publications which are available on a subscription basis and also in publications where the cost of publication is paid by the author or a funder upfront and then published under an Open Access licence. Publishers publish both subscription journals and Open Access journals, and even some books are being published on an Open Access basis.

The business model for recovering publishers’ significant editorial, production, marketing and online costs is different for subscription and Open Access models – under the subscription model, their costs are recovered by sales of the journals, whereas in Open Access publishing, the cost is recovered from the upfront author publication charge.

Most scholarly presses have diversified their publishing lists to cater for wider readerships. They may also publish textbooks for the academic market, or “cross-over” general non-fiction books that sell predominantly to a general trade market. As such, they need to invest in marketing and promotion to the local audience as well.


The trade publishing sector publishes books for a general audience. Trade books include fiction, nonfiction and books for children and young adults, and are typically the books one would find on shelves in book stores, and on bestseller lists. For local trade publishers, the domestic market remains the most important source of income. Trade publishers frequently publish new editions of books in print and digital simultaneously, especially in fiction, but print sales heavily outweigh digital sales.

The majority of trade books are sold through bookseller chains. The library market has shrunk considerably in recent years, and attempts to reach markets through other channels, such as online retailers or direct sales, have still not fully come to fruition.

Trade publishers go to great effort with sales and marketing. They send out catalogues or provide metadata to online retailers, but they also have dedicated sales staff, who inform booksellers about new titles and suggest titles to acquire. Similarly, a marketing team is employed and a dedicated publicist is assigned to generate maximum publicity for each published book. Tasks include sending out review copies, creating promotional items, social media marketing, and arranging author tours.

Authors of trade books have a wider readership and tend to have a higher profile and media reach. Trade publishers therefore have a heightened reputational risk – they would suffer serious damage if they mistreated their authors.

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