Harare - Books have become cheaper for cash-strapped but education-hungry Zimbabweans, yet publishers and writers are seeing their earnings evaporate due to burgeoning book piracy.
Fledgling publisher Edmund Masundire is weighing whether to release new titles under a popular series of children's books after falling victim to a roaring textbook bootlegging industry.
"We found that the bulk of our books were being sold on the streets after they were reproduced illegally by printers who supply street vendors at cheap prices," said Masundire, whose catalogue includes children's stories and folk tales.
Book piracy has become almost the norm in Zimbabwe where copies are sold at near give-away prices through a network of street vendors.
It's threatening an industry already struggling to stay afloat because of dwindling sales figures as few people can afford to buy books in a country battling to recover from nearly a decade of economic downturn and political turmoil.
Earning a living
Pirated books go for half, or even less than the cost of original versions.
"Our most popular titles are victims of book piracy," said Shepherd Murevanhema at College Press, a subsidiary of the global publishing group Macmillan.
College Press publishes the bulk of the textbooks for the national school curriculum in Zimbabwe, a country reputed for having among the best education systems in Africa.
Street vendor Shepstone Mariri operates across the road from a leading bookshop in central Harare, luring potential buyers with offers of "cheaper books".
"For me it's a way of earning a living," said Mariri.
"What I know is that it's a crime to sell pirated music CDs or DVDs," he added.
Sibongile Jele, a lecturer in publishing studies at the National University of Science and Technology, blames a lax law enforcement system for the failure to curb the tide of book piracy.
"Police only chase music disc pirates and pass street vendors who sell photocopies of textbooks," Jele said.
"The justice system treats piracy as a minor offence compared to other crimes," she said in a country where jokes insulting President Robert Mugabe can land one before the courts.
"Some schools also buy pirated books but are not prosecuted for buying stolen property," added Jele.
But police chief superintendent Ever Mlilo throws it back to the publishers, saying they have to be more active and work with authorities "to make copyright infringement more risky than it is now".
Leading Zimbabwean author Musaemura Zimunya says book-starved schools and universities are among the culprits.
"There is so much illegal photocopying and bookbinding taking place in schools and colleges," Zimunya said.
"Publishers are stuck with hordes of books in their warehouses but what the small guy, the underground baron is doing is to use the simplest technology to achieve maximum gains at the cost of publishers."
Education institutions often suffer shortages of essential textbooks and resort to making own copies of scarce books. At the worst times, 20 school children were forced to share one book.
With a combined total of more than 60 published textbooks and fiction titles to his name, award-winning Zimbabwean author Shimmer Chinodya ranks among the biggest losers.
"One out of every two teenagers in Zimbabwe is using my... English-language textbooks," Chinodya said.
"The question is who is giving these people printing plates and films to print books? Is the corruption so bad?"
Emmanuel Makadho, director of Book Love Publishers, said many publishers could go bust if nothing is done to stop illegal reproduction of books.
"If this is not stopped, many of us will be forced to close shop," said Makadho.
"There is a proliferation of people who have invested in massive colour copiers and printers for the purpose of reproducing books published by other companies."
An illicit printer was recently found with $22 000 worth of pirated copies of books.