African Publishing from the Outside

Article excerpt

Presentation at African Publishing and Writing: A one-day conference at the British Library Conference Centre 17 October 2005.

In his acceptance speech for the lsl ZIBF Award for Life-Long Contribution to the African Book Industry in Harare on 2nd August 2004, Henry Chakava made these comments, succinctly encapsulating a confident and optimistic view of a future direction for African publishing.

African publishing has come of age, and the challenge facing us now is to democratize the book so as to make it available, accessible and affordable to all our people. These are the challenges I must now place before our new generation of publishers. You must build on the foundations we have established, take advantage of the liberalized marketplace, and harness the emerging technologies to put African publishing squarely on the world map. (Chakava 2004)

I want to spend this short time looking at how African publishers do and can interact in different ways with the global book community to "put African publishing squarely in the world map." - recognising that this is a world map where publishing is always trying to reconcile its two faces of culture and commerce.

In this short presentation I will look at:

* Africa as a book market

* Africa as a book producer

* Ways that African publishing may arrive squarely on the world map

It is important to recognise that UK publishers mostly see Africa as a market. At the margins of world book trade, Africa is seen sometimes a lucrative but frequently troublesome supplementary market, sometimes a haven of piracy and poor payment practices and sometimes as the source of an occasional literary jewel, which will then, like most of the jewels of Africa, be extracted from the continent to adorn the catalogue of one of the prestigious publishing houses in London, New York or Paris.

As we can see from the 2004 statistics, only one African country is a significant market for UK publishers:

South Africa (8th) at £44.9m is more significant to UK publishers than Japan (9th - £42.5m), Canada (13th - £26.4m) or India (19th - £17.7m)

But as far as other African markets go, they are of limited significance (except for some - mostly educational - publishers)

Slovenia (33rd - £7.4m +35.6%) and Czech Republic (34th - £6.4M +43.7%) are more important to UK publishers than Nigeria

UK publishers' Sales to Spain (£49.9m) are double that to all of sub-Saharan Africa (excl. South Africa) - £24.8m

When we try to examine book production in Africa, statistics are very hard to come by, so we must fall back on the general observations that, in most of sub-Saharan Africa, publishing is confined to educational books, with a high proportion of publishing being connected with contracts funded by IGOs, bilateral funding and NGOs, with limited adult and children's trade production, very little academic and professional publishing output.

In this brief presentation, I want to focus on trade books, and the possibilities for increasing not just the participation of African publishers in the "world map" of publishing, but also to suggest some ways in which African publishers can increase their influence on the way in which that "world map" is drawn.

Let's look at literature. On "the outside" African literature can be seen in a number of ways:

The Classics (mostly in Heinemann African Writers Series)- Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Miriama Ba, Mia Couto - and the World Writers - the Nobel group - Gordimer, Coetzee, Soyinka and Mahfouz

More Recent Authors - Helon Habila, Yvonne Vera, Véronique Tadjo, K Sello Duiker, Phaswane Mpe

If we search Google for "African bestseller" you get another group, mostly white authors - the "Heart of Darkness" legacy.

We have to look quite hard to find popular fiction - although with crime fiction one of the healthiest genres in most of the world, there must surely be some potential interest in Africa crime fiction which is currently unfulfilled. …