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These pages offer occasional news items of interest to book industry practitioners, especially the book professions in Africa.

NEWS ARCHIVE

January 2018

  • Publishers, Authors and Africa’s Cultural Development: Do the African Intelligentsia and the African States Care? is the title of a keynote address delivered by Tanzanian publisher Walter Bgoya at the 3rd East African Literature and Cultural Studies Conference, held Dar es Salaam in August 2017. As a publisher who has been involved in the African book industries for forty-five years, he shares his thoughts about publishers and publishing, writers and writing, and their role in African cultural development; and thereafter reflects on this question: do the African intelligentsia and African state really care? He pays particular attention to the situation of textbook publishing in Tanzania, where conflicting approaches and interests about the development, control and delivery of educational books to schools in the country have been a feature of the Tanzania publishing industry from the very beginning. It has gone through the experience of state publishing (1966–1985), private sector publishing (1991–2012), and in 2014 it reverted yet again to state publishing. The country’s Institute of Education (TIE) has been put in charge of all aspects and all levels of textbook publishing, including commissioning, manuscript development, through to production and distribution. However, there has been public uproar about the unacceptable quality of the books produced by TIE. Members of parliament and the public, who had previously been vociferous in calling for a return to the state publishing model, are now silent and the government has not revealed the next steps to remedy the situation. According to Bgoya, a vast amount of money was squandered, millions of books were pulped, and school children have gone without textbooks. The pre-emptive policy change left publishers with published but unsold stocks and many manuscripts at different pre-printing stages. Meantime no redress to the publishers has been entertained.
    In drawing attention to this ill-fated situation Bgoya says: “My intention is to explicate the effect that such policy insecurity can have on any publishing industry that relies heavily on textbooks, which is pretty much the situation in all African countries.” Given such a situation, can African publishing survive and prosper? “When the problem of publishers’ dependence on winning textbook tenders is disconnected, the urgent question to ask is: why do our societies appear unable to support publishing industries that are not dependent for survival on supplying schoolbooks? Is there no interest in locally published works of fiction, children’s books and trade books, including social science and humanities? Or is this simply a self-fulfilling projection that has been ingested and acted upon by publishers; so focussed on textbook publishing that they do not take the risk to see if they can survive and even thrive moderately without kow-towing to state officials in charge of education. Or even possibly that there is no sufficient research to validate the assumptions made about the prospects of independent publishing.”

 

  • Two further insightful interviews have been published in the Borders Literature Online series of book trade interviews, with members of the Nigerian book professions in conversation with Olatoun Williams. One is an Interview with Nigerian publisher Bankole Olayebi of Bookcraft Ltd, a company that has published a large number of high quality titles in a diverse range of subjects, including art, biography, history, literature, politics, current affairs, as well as general trade books and large format coffee table titles. Olayebi talks about the challenges of the book industry in Nigeria, challenges which have become ever more acute in recent years. One of them is the dearth of qualified and well-trained, publishing professionals (designers, editors, proof readers, book packagers, and others) “who understand how the book business should work. It seems to me that over the years regrettably, not enough time and effort has been invested in the training of publishing professionals. The result is that today, it has become very difficult to find the right people to fill various roles; and it's not very easy to find people to train for these roles.”

    Another is a conversation with Nigerian publisher and digital entrepreneur Gbenro Adegbola of First Veritas in which he talks about his background, how he got into publishing, the digital vs. print debate, developing digital content, the need to invest in publishing training and education, the major challenges facing the Nigerian book industries, and the main threats to the industry, with the menace of piracy high up on the list. Another major hurdle, Adegbola says, is access to funding and credit: “I find that the financial industry is blissfully ignorant of what we do. They don’t understand it. They confuse it with printing and that has affected access to credit. In fairness to them, the role of the publisher is not so obvious. The understanding of what publishing constitutes how publishers make money - you find that a lot of people don’t understand it.”


 

  • The African Literary Hustle in Blind Field journal is provocative article by Sarah Brouillette, an Associate Professor of English at Carleton University in Canada, whose research interests include economic and political circumstances that underpin and influence the production, circulation and reception of contemporary literature and culture. And that includes African literature, and how that literature circulates in Western markets. In this long, and arguably somewhat contentious essay, she asserts that “the recent renaissance in African literature has had little do with development of viable literary readerships in Africa, and viably capitalized production facilities. The post-independence quest to develop literary readerships and publishing and printing trades faced massive hurdles; it was nearly stopped by IMF and World Bank structural adjustment and trade liberalization in the 1990s, and has now been all but abandoned. The field of contemporary Anglophone African literature relies instead on private donors, mainly but not exclusively American, supporting a transnational coterie of editors, writers, prize judges, event organizers, and workshop instructors. The literary works that arise from this milieu of course tend to be targeted at British and American markets.”

    She then follows this with a short section entitled ‘Aspects of the History of Literary Publishing in Africa’, quoting from some of the recent literature. We have witnessed, she says, an African literary revival, or “literary hustle”, and there is now a thriving African literary community across key cities. However, they are “a coterie, often working with donor support for their publications and workshops, and able to build upon the connections and synergies that exist within any small relatively wealthy group of cultural producers and consumers – journalists, musicians, academics, and so on. Writers who belong to this particular coterie are published abroad, supported by US creative writing and English department professorships, and by US- and UK-based literary agencies.” As a result, “while there is a small readership in these urban centres, it isn’t that important that there be local readers. These writers have bypassed the problem of the absent African reader. There is donor funding to support the activity of writing, to award prizes to authors, and to facilitate access to US and other foreign markets.”


 


 


 

  • The ‘Opinions’ pages of African Books Collective’s subsite Read African Books, continue to grow and include two recent interviews conducted by Stephanie Kitchen of the International African Institute:

    The first is an Interview with Francis Nyamnjoh, Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon in which he talks about the mission and activities of the Langaa Research and Publishing Common Initiative Group (Langaa RPCIG) . He also describes Langaa’s commissioning strategy and how they market and distribute their books within Africa and internationally; Langaa’s readership worldwide, their writing workshop programmes, what they see as their most important challenges, and what does he think is needed to strengthen research, publishing and distribution systems for general and academic publishers in the African continent? “We need to be curious and ask questions. We need to read and write. We need to encourage reading and writing. We need to promote Langaa, a desire for knowledge. We need to value knowledge generation in Africa and from African perspectives. We need to support African publishers.”

    The second interview is with Francois van Schalkwyk of African Minds who heads the South African open access, not-for-profit publisher African Minds, and also the co-author of an important new investigation The African University Press. In this interview he sets out the background to this project, describes the case studies of a number of African university presses that formed part of the report, as well as the publishing practices of academics at these institutions. He also talks about the barriers to achieving a higher rate of open access publishing on the continent, and the steps that are needed to address these: “The expectation of universities for their presses to be profitable in nascent markets, and not giving consideration to the reputational benefits that a non-market-oriented publishing model could yield, is certainly one such barrier.” Another is academic authors’ expectation of receiving royalty payments from the sale of their books, and university presses in Africa “cannot reconcile open access and the perceived loss of sales income with the royalty expectations of their authors”, he says. “Beyond these specific barriers, and I am sure there are others, I think there is a general lack of understanding and confidence to experiment when it comes to open access publishing.”

    On the topic of institutional repositories Van Schalkwyk states “My concern is that repositories are being seen as a silver bullet when in reality they are part of a broader publishing ecosystem; an ecosystem that consists of institutional repositories, libraries, academic authors, indexing agencies, publishers (both university presses and others), and service providers. I think there are many repositories gathering dust because they were seen as a panacea to making a university’s research output more visible and accessible.”


 

  • In a thoughtful and eloquent address given at the opening of the South African Book Fair on 8 September 2017 The State of a Reading/Writing Nation Zakes Mda – the award-winning South African novelist, playwright, and poet – describes the state of the book and the culture of reading in South Africa today, and also offers some astute observations about the new digital environment, social media, pulp fiction, and informal reading circles and book clubs. Reading in all languages must be respected and, he says, “it saddens me that today literature in indigenous African languages is so marginalized that we can only conceive of a culture of reading in English. This is not because books in indigenous languages do not exist. Every year new books are published in most of the languages of South Africa, in addition to the classics in languages such as isiXhosa, Sesotho and isiZulu that have had a literary tradition dating from the 1800s. The problem lies with book distribution rather than the book publishing sector. You may go to any of our major bookstores chains today, say Exclusive Books or CNA, and ask for the latest Sesotho novel by Nhlanhla Maake, a Setswana novel by Sabata-Mpho Mokae or an isiXhosa novel by Ncedile Saule, and the likelihood is that you will not find it in stock. It is a Catch 22 situation because the bookstores will tell you they don’t stock such novels because no one buys them, but the readers will tell you they don’t buy them because they are not in stock. This is a cumulative result of the marginalization of indigenous languages in South Africa today in all spheres of life.”

    He is also critical of the sharp decline in editorial standards in publishing in South Africa. “Poor editing is the bane of South African books generally, even so-called quality fiction and non-fiction by reputed publishers … Publishers in South Africa are letting reader and writer down, and disrespecting them. Such shoddiness will be the death of the book.”

    Mda ends his address by emphasizing that cultures reproduce themselves. “A reading culture once cultivated produces more readers and more readers produce more writers, who then in turn produce more readers. It all begins with a seed.”


 

  • Johann Mouton, who is director at The Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at Stellenbosch University, in a paper entitled Scholarly Publishing in SA: The Qualitative Imperative, reflects on the growth in scholarly publishing in South Africa over the last 25 years, and how this has been influenced by the subsidy system of South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training (DoHET). In his presentation, focusing on the “qualitative challenge”, he acknowledges that concerns over the quality of scientific outputs and unethical publishing practices have emerged and increased. He gives several reasons for concern over the journals where South African academics publish most frequently, including the persistence of questionable publication practices and predatory journals. However, while agreeing that there are problems that could and should be addressed, the author feels strongly that it would be irresponsible to consider a total scrapping of the scientific publishing system in South Africa, since the funding from this system is a lifeline for science in South Africa. He says “it is important to emphasize that the digitization of publishing and the advent of OA journals and books are in and by themselves progressive forces. These ‘movements’ have greatly increased access to knowledge, improved participation in and even the democratization of publishing through more transparent peer-review processes. However, as is often the case, they also contain(ed) in themselves the potential for misuse and abuse by unscrupulous publishers, editors and other actors who are intent only on profiting from these through whatever means of deception and misrepresentation.”

    In another recent paper by Johann Mouton, co-authored with Astrid Valentine and published in the South African Journal of Science, The Extent of South African Authored Articles in Predatory Journals, the authors present a critical examination of so-called predatory publishing in academic circles in South Africa, and which confirms that predatory publishing is not only present, but also becoming increasingly common. The study highlights the challenges and dangers that arise from predatory publishing, including how this could compromise the careers of young scholars and scientists, as well as posing a threat to peer review. In the final analysis, the authors say, “it is clear that predatory publishing poses a serious challenge to science in South Africa. If it continues to increase at the rate of growth seen in the past 5 years, predatory publishing may well become accepted practice in some disciplines and at some universities. Not only will it affect the very fabric of the science system (our confidence in the peer-review system), but it will also undermine the trust and confidence of the general public in science and its products.” The authors conclude with some suggestions about predatory publishing and its pervasive consequence for our trust in science, and how this should be addressed by the major stakeholders in the South African higher education system.


 

  • In an interesting CP-Africa Interview, Ofili Okechukwu and the OkadaBooks Story, Bimbola Segun-Amao talks to Nigerian entrepreneur Okechukwu Ofili, founder of Okadabooks, an e-distribution start-up that has developed a popular publishing/reading app for Android mobiles or tablets and other platforms. It takes its name from the Okada motorcycle taxis, commonly used in Nigeria and in other parts of West Africa used to overcome traffic congestion. Okadabooks says it “seeks to bypass the traffic in the Nigerian book publishing industry by making it easy to publish books, making it cheap to buy books, but more importantly making it fun to read books on mobile devices ….We created the platform primarily to give up and coming authors published or unpublished an avenue to get their works distributed and monetized as early as possible …. It’s a fast, simple and fun way to read books without ever leaving your couch!” Okada thus seeks to harness the power of the mobile phone to make it easier and cheaper for Nigerians to read.

    In this conversation Okechukwu talks about the Okada story, how it started and was funded, the e-technology they use, the number of books they offer and their authors, their current challenges on various fronts, the business lessons they have learnt so far, and also offers some sound advice for fresh tech entrepreneurs: He says that it is easy to get a bit of media coverage in Nigeria, and “so you may believe your idea is great, not realizing it is not. So don’t judge yourself by vanity metrics. Judge by quality and impact metrics, like traction, revenue and growth.”


 


 

  • The Canadian organization CODE has published a wide-ranging report by Espen Stranger-Johannessen Africa Language and Literacy. A Landscape Review of Language and Literacy Research in African Contexts that addresses key issues based on recent research on language and literacy education in the African context, including teacher education, and outlines key findings and recommendations for research and practice based on a review of the literature. It also includes a discussion (sub-section 3.3) about ‘Publishing in African Languages’. Part I of the report reviews focal areas of research and is based on academic articles and reports. Part II presents case studies of policies and teacher education, with a focus on 21st century skills, from six countries associated with CODE’s work in Africa: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania. These case studies provide valuable insight into the key issues discussed in Part I of the report.

  • In a section entitled ‘Literacy Materials and Publishing’, the report states “Print literacy materials, such as textbooks and storybooks, are key to helping students develop high levels of literacy. Yet there are often few textbooks and storybooks in African schools, particularly in African languages. Increasing the number of books available to students is important, but teachers’ use of textbooks and storybooks in the classroom is also key, as making books available does not necessarily mean they will be utilized effectively. The publishing industry faces challenges from low demand and import of books from abroad.” Publishing in African languages is only financially viable if there is a market for those books, either in the form of government guarantees or incentives, or other ways in which publishers can be confident that there is a market for their books.

    On the aspect of ICT and digital resources, the report says that ICT is often seen as a promising contribution to education in Africa and elsewhere, but there are high costs and technical and implementation challenges associated with introducing digital devices to schools. “ICT is more than devices for end-users, however. Open educational resources are important for sharing and creating materials, particularly in African languages.”


 

  • A thoughtful article by South African novelist and short-story writer Henrietta Rose Innes, The Tremors Through South African Literature recently appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. It takes the reader through her experience as a writer in the post-apartheid era since the late 1990s, “when South African writing still felt isolated from the rest of the continent and the world”, but “a handful of venerable literary magazines with tiny circulations existed, and a small number of publishers valiantly focused on local work.” That included Kwela Books, an imprint tasked with publishing new and diverse voices in the post-apartheid era. Thereafter, round about the mid-2000s, “something else started to happen: genre fiction erupted. Suddenly it was acceptable for local writers to take to crime.” Along with this shift, the author says, came greater visibility for local literary fiction. Book clubs that previously would only read international prize-winners started paying attention to home-grown authors. Prizes, festivals and creative writing courses multiplied. These creative writing programmes in particular succeeded in promoting a slew of talented new writers, and new publishing activities.

  • Nonetheless, “times remain tough in publishing, in South Africa as in the world. Sales of literary fiction are sparse and growing sparser.” Right now the major tremors running through the South African literary world have to do with race. “Race is, as always in South Africa, the issue, and through all the country’s changes, the publishing establishment has remained stubbornly white-dominated. In conjunction with the past two years’ fierce student activism for the ‘decolonization’ of universities, a movement to ‘decolonize’ literature has taken root.” A new festival, the Abantu Books Festival, specifically for black writers and readers, was founded last year by the author Thando Mgqolozana, and took place for the second time in December 2017, in Soweto. Blackbird Books, likewise, is a new publishing imprint founded in 2015 for exclusively black writing. Most significantly though, there is a cohort of younger writers who have taken their places on the literary stage: “These transformations are turbulent, hopeful, at times confrontational, at times euphoric – and long overdue. South African writers may take a decade or two to process our radical shifts, but we get there in the end.”