These pages offer occasional news items of interest to book industry practitioners, especially the book professions in Africa.
In “Fifty Years On: A Conversation with Professor Eldred Durosimi Jones, Founding Editor, African Literature Today”, issue no. 37, 2019 of that journal, the Sierra Leonean scholar Professor Eldred Jones recalls the role African Literature Today. A Journal of Explanatory Criticism (ALT),the journal he founded, played in the evolution and stimulation of a wave of African literary studies and criticism since the mid-20th century. Sadly, Eldred Jones passed away on 21 March 2020 at the age of 95. He was a wonderfully warm person, as well as an intellectual giant, who will be greatly missed.
The journal had its roots in a modestly produced newsletter Bulletin of the Association for African Literature in English,first published in 1964 by the Department of English at Fourah Bay College, the University of Sierra Leone. After that, in 1968, it became a twice-yearly (later annual) journal published by Heinemann Educational Books in the UK and Africana Publishing Company in New York, and quickly established itself as one of the leading forums for the examination of African literatures. Subsequently it was published by James Currey (now part of Boydell & Brewer), each annual issue bringing together articles under a thematic theme. Eldred and the late Marjorie Jones, together with Professor Eustace Palmer, were the editors until ALT 23. In 2003 the Nigerian scholar Professor Ernest Emenyonu took over as editor, and a total of 37 issues have been published to date. Most back issues are still available in print. Each issue continues to cover single topics or thematic collections, but also includes an extensive book review section, and is attracting contributions from literary scholars and critics from all over the world. ALT is the oldest surviving journal in the world on African literature, and has now charted the growth of African writing for over half a century.
The guest essay preceding the 2019 literature review Publishing & the Book in Africa is contributed by Justin Cox, CEO of African Books Collective Ltd (ABC), the worldwide marketing and distribution organization for books from Africa that is celebrating its 30th year of trading in 2020. Founded, owned and governed by a group of African publishers, its participants are now over 170 autonomous and independent African publishers who share a common ethos of publishing from within African cultures, asserting Africa’s voice within Africa and internationally.
Entitled ‘African Books Collective: 30 Years of Providing Visibility for African Books in the Global Market Place’, the essay describes ABC’s foundation and governance, its history and its funding, as well as its very wide range of marketing activities. Initially supported by a number of donor agencies in its early years, a major remodelling of ABC took place in 2007, when it became self-financing and moved to a largely digital model at the same time. Print-on-demand is now a cornerstone in ABC’s workflow and service to participating publishers. As part of the transition process the entire ABC list was digitised, which included a backlist reaching back to the 1980s. As a result, there are now 1,000+ ‘new’ African-published books that have a presence on the Web, and are just a click away. As Justin Cox says, “African Books Collective is an example of an African owned and governed organization that has successfully transitioned from a donor-dependent NGO to a self-sustaining and independent social enterprise.”
Edit Africa – Réflexion et information sur le monde du livre africain, hosted by Raphaël Thierry, is an information-rich resource and platform for dossiers, news, reports, articles, analysis, and links about African publishing generally, and the francophone African book world more particularly. He has now also added a series of podcasts, EditAfrica Sessions. In his introductory comments Thierry says this represents a new format for him to express personal reflections: “I will deal with various issues such as African publishing’s relationship with international book markets, the history of publishing in Africa, institutional dynamics, and more.” At this time the broadcasts are in French with introductory texts in both French and English. Full transcripts may be added at a later time. The EditAfrica Sessions are broadcast and freely accessible (and downloadable) on diverse platforms.
Podcast Session no. 1: Introductory Session 13:56mins. In French.
Podcast Session no. 2: IPA’s Seminar in Nairobi: Of Transformational Events and African Publishing Industry’s Sustainability 22:51mins. In French. Introductory Text in English for Session no 2.
An interesting recent posting by Samuel Isaac in UnCensored – an independent, self-funded platform “whose goal is to tell the stories that commercial media ignore” – The History of Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa, Including the Most Notable Literary Works Written by African Authors about African History from the 2nd Century BC to the 19th Century AD traces the history of the written word, and early African literary culture, in Sub-Saharan Africa. It covers African literary works from Chad to Tanzania and from Senegal to Ethiopia, dating back to between the 9th and 7th Century BC, with the oldest inscriptions of the ancient South Arabian script, and including scripts from across the sub-region. In his concluding comments the author states “Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the world’s oldest literary cultures, yet despite evidence to the contrary, the myth of non-literate African societies persists. Part of the blame rests on colonial racial anthropologists who created that image. The other factor are the European armies that destroyed the libraries that held these manuscripts starting with the Portuguese in Kilwa and the Swahili coast, the French in Segu and the British in Asante. The other group that shoulders much of the blame are historians who chose to exclude these manuscripts and instead preferred non-African sources. … In recent times however, this phenomenon has been changing with more historians including these African writers in their books, and the digitisation of many of these manuscripts will hopefully see a paradigm shift in how African history is written and interpreted.”
Pen South Africa’s Celebrating SA’s Vibrant Women Publishers is a series of profiles and conversations with three of South Africa’s “most vibrant women publishers”, who have each made a unique and valuable contribution to the South African publishing industry: They are Alison Lowry, formerly with OUP South Africa, Lowry Publishers, and Penguin Books SA in later years, before she became an independent publishing consultant, editor and writer; Thabiso Mahlape, founder of BlackBird Books, the imprint, incubated by Jacana Media, that provides a platform and a publishing home to both new voices and the existing generation of black writers and narratives; and author and journalist Zukiswa Wanner, the co-founder (with Nomavuso Vokwana) of Paivapo Publishers the imprint, established in 2018, that stemmed from a desire to create greater access to literatures from Africa and its diasporas.
- More on eminent African women publishers: Celebrated Publisher Bibi Bakare-Yusuf Discusses African Literature is an interview with the co-founder and publishing director of one of Africa’s leading independent publishing houses, Cassava Republic Press. In this conversation with Tina Adomako, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf talks about the challenges facing African literature, bringing African writing to an African audience, female authors, the need for more writing and publishing in African languages, and the market for African literature in local languages: “All the things we’ve learnt from colonial times and the colonial experience need to be expressed differently. If we continue to write only in colonial languages, it almost fossilises our own languages. They stay put and don’t move on. … we need to address the matter of our own languages in order to survive into the next century.”
Note: see also Cassava Republic Press to Start African Language Imprint with $20,000 African Publishing Innovation Fund Grant.
I Can’t Attach the Word “Iconic” to Baobab Trees and Sunsets’—Sarah Ladipo Manyika Chats to Jennifer Malec about African Publishing, Toni Morrison and Writing Older Women is a wide-ranging ‘chat’ between Johannesburg Review of Books Editor Jennifer Malec and Sarah Ladipo Manyika, the celebrated British-Nigerian writer and professor of literature, during which she talks about her work, her motivation for writing, her fellow writers, and book prizes; and also, among other topics, about the importance of having an African publisher—which gives her the freedom to write stories that might not necessarily appeal to what the West has come to expect from an African author, or from a story with African characters. “So my second book”, she says, “is the story of an older woman who is not the typical immigrant or refugee or anything like that, she’s quite a bourgeois character, and she’s not young, she’s in her seventies. It’s not the kind of story the West has come to expect of an African character, whereas my publishers were like, yeah, bring it on. It’s also not the ‘right’ length, novellas are traditionally—and I don’t really understand this—not easy to sell. But Cassava Republic Press were like, no, we love that. And as we’re talking, I’m looking at the book covers and there’s no baobab tree, there’s no sunset.”
Sarah Ladipo Manyika believes Cassava Republic Press and some other African presses, are having a positive knock-on effect, “because I’m now looking at covers and seeing fewer sunsets. And there’s nothing wrong with sunsets, right, but I’m just using that as an analogy for how there’s been little imagination, or there’s been lots of stereotyping or troping of how to represent anything relating to Africa on the page. … When I was trying to publish in England and America, I kept hearing that. … I wanted to read a different kind of story. I was reading stories about war, and lots of male characters, and again, nothing wrong with those stories. I’m not dismissing those stories, but I wanted a different kind of story. And again, this was within the kind of Western perception of stories, all of this is generalisation, I’m not saying everyone thought like this, but there’s definitely this line of thinking that a love story just was not marketable. But then again that’s thinking about a particular audience. When I was writing this book I didn’t want it just to be the West or even the West at all. So, it was very important for me to have the book out with a Nigerian publisher.”
Note: for another interesting earlier (2018) interview with Sarah Ladipo Manyika, see also this conversation with Raphael Thierry in Warscapes.
It is good to see that more and more theses and dissertations on various aspects of publishing and book development in Africa are now being published, and an increasing number are available freely accessible on either digital depositories at university institutions or on other platforms. The latest is Assessment of Project Management Processes in Scholarly Book Publishing in Ghana, a BA (Publishing Studies) thesis by Ernest Oppong, submitted to the Department of Construction Technology and Management at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, in November 2019. The study “aims to explore project management processes in enhancing the traditional processes of scholarly book publishing in Ghana and addresses three objectives: to establish traditional processes of scholarly book publishing; to identify inherent barriers; and to develop project management methodology to mitigate against barriers in the processes. … The three objectives were achieved through narrative and content analysis of interview results from fourteen scholarly publishers.”
In his summary of the findings the author states that Ghanaian scholarly publishers adopt similar traditional processes for the publication of scholarly books as those prevalent elsewhere: However, “the scholarly publishing landscape [in Ghana] is bedevilled with some barriers inherent in the traditional processes. They include acquisition of substandard manuscripts; limited number of manuscripts and outrageous charges by commissioned scholarly authors, and their insistence on immediate advance payment, are barriers inherent in the acquisition of manuscripts. High cost and delay of peer review, difficulty in getting experts to review the work, high volume of the manuscript and lack of control over contents are barriers associated with the assessment of manuscripts. The editorial development of scholarly works are challenged with limited scholarly editors, lack [of] understanding of editorial development by some authors and over-confidence of the quality of work to the extent of disallowing corrections by the publisher/editor and lack of effective communication among the project team: editors and author. The marketing, distribution and sales of scholarly books in Ghana are challenged with poor marketing of scholarly books leading to poor sales and the emergence of systemic problems or lack of synergy among scholarly publishers, authors and lecturers; unidentified target readership; the expensive nature of intensive marketing/selling strategies of scholarly books in Ghana; lack of interest by most bookshops/ booksellers to take stocks of scholarly books.” Other problems include illegal photocopying and selling of content extracted from scholarly works. The author sets out a number of recommendations, and possible strategies, how to address these numerous challenges.
Kigelia, designed by Mark Jamra and Neil Patel, is a large typeface family that contains the most prominent writing systems in Africa, each system comprising 10 fonts in 5 weights. The system is named after the Kigelia Africana, a tree which occurs throughout tropical Africa from Eritrea and Chad to northern South Africa, and west to Senegal and Namibia. It is described as containing “a typographic richness and technical functionality previously unavailable for several languages on the African continent.” The scripts are Adlam, Arabic, Cyrillic, Ge’ez, Greek, Latin (IPA & ARA), N’ko, Osmanya, Tifinagh, and Vai. It is a type system that can handle multilingual tasks, and is also designed with mobile devices in mind. The developers say that they hope the use of Kigelia “will help promote literacy and commerce in Africa, as well as the creation of rich and relevant local content, which is essential to increasing the availability of important resources online.” More details are set out in an attractive 54 page colour booklet Kigelia. A Typeface for Africa, which can be obtained for the cost of packing and shipping.
In the October-December 2019 issue of Bookmark. Magazine of the South African Booksellers Association, the magazine’s editors offer some reflections on The South African Book Fair: A New Era. The Fair has had a somewhat chequered history. It was first held annually as the Cape Town Book Fair from 2006 to 2010, hosted by the Publishers Association of South Africa (PASA) in collaboration with the Frankfurt Book Fair, and held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CITCC). It was conceived as a major international book trade gathering to rival Frankfurt and London, and as a leading venue for rights trading and negotiations. While attendance figures were very high, the prospects of selling rights to international publishers failed to materialize for the most part.
Exactly what could have been, will never be known, the authors say: “When Kindle and the financial crisis hit, the book trade worldwide and locally faced calamitous decline in the face of e-book mania and the disappearance of middle-class spending power. The high costs of exhibiting at the fair, coupled with waning international interest, gradually turned the event into an annual headache for publishers. The original vision now relegated to being a pipe dream, the trade struggled to define the nature of the fair as it veered more and more towards a public event, with less and less reason for exhibitors to participate.” After five years, the PASA–Frankfurt partnership was dissolved, and a hiatus was announced for 2011. In 2012 and 2014, the fair returned to the CITCC as the South African Book Fair, this time with PASA as sole owners. However, faced with a continued decline in numbers, PASA decided to alternate the fair between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Following a somewhat rocky period of uncertainty (and no fair in 2013 and 2016) ownership of the fair was eventually transferred to the South African Book Development Council to host the fair as from 2017. Finally, in September 2019, the SA Book Fair “found its home in the hearts of Johannesburg’s readers and writers. Symbolically positioned at Constitution Hill, it managed to cross the divide between old and new, and offer the public something authentic. Importantly, it also laid the groundwork for resurrecting the vision of its founders: a trade portal into the burgeoning African book market.”
Top 50 African Literature Blogs & Websites to Follow in 2020 is a useful, regularly updated ‘league table’ of the top 50 best blogs, podcasts, and websites (in English) devoted African literature, some of them also including occasional articles and postings on aspects of publishing of African literature, and author-publisher relations. Information provided for each blog or website includes a short ‘About Blog’ description of content and coverage, location/country, link, frequency, social media/social engagement followers, email contact, plus a link to ‘View latest post’.
In a recent article in Publishers Weekly, New Agency Promotes African Writers for Youth, Gillian Engberg reports about a new literary agency that aims to expand contemporary African fiction for young people through individual mentoring and global partnerships. Launched in 2019 by two long-time children’s publishing professionals, Deborah Ahenkorah in Ghana and Sarah Odedina in the UK, Accord Literary is a partnership that seeks to mentor, develop and encourage writers based in Africa writing books for young readers: “Our mission” they say, “is to find original and unique voices and get their books into the hands of readers around the world.” Ahenkorah and Odedina are using open submission calls to encourage participation by writers from across the African continent. Currently they are open for submissions for novels written for young readers aged between 8 and 16 years old. Both founders draw on complementary backgrounds for this new venture. Ahenkorah is well known for her activities as the publisher of African Bureau Stories, focused on African writers for children, and she also established the Golden Baobab Prize, a literary award granted to children’s book authors and illustrators from Africa. Odedina is a former publishing director at Bloomsbury Children’s Books who oversaw the publication of the Harry Potter books in the UK, and is now editor-at-large for Pushkin Press.