Books: Pages for the people

By Frank Bures in Nairobi

Posted on Monday, 21 September 2009 00:00

More people than ever before are reading novels and history books, and

not just as textbooks, encouraging local publishers to get into an

expanding market

Bibi Bakare-Yusuf and some friends were leaving a café in Abuja, Nigeria, but when they went to get into their car, two thieves grabbed the keys and drove off.

When they arrived at the police station to report the crime, they were, as is so often the case, not treated well. The first officer they encountered told them they had to buy paper for the report. They were told to wait. No one seemed to care until one of her friends spoke up.

“Do you know who she is?” a woman said of Bakare-Yusuf. “She is a publisher. She brought Helon Habila to Nigeria!” Normally, this would be a good way to get laughed out of a Nigerian police station. But the deputy controller overheard, and came over to tell her he had been at Habila’s reading.

Soon, other policemen who had read the book gathered around and started asking questions too. Then the women were ushered into an air-conditioned room and their treatment vastly improved. Only, instead of talking about carjacking, the policemen wanted to discuss fiction.

It was a rare display of the power of literature in Africa, which produces less than 2% of the world’s books, and where the continent’s 800-odd publishers face challenges unknown to those in the West: bad roads, terrible printers and a readership with little money to spend on luxuries like books. In recent years a new generation of publishers like Bakare-Yusuf have been emerging, harnessing both technology and the global economy to put out books in a way that they never have been before. Since starting Cassava Republic Press in 2005, Bakare-Yusuf has sold several thousand books, both reprinting books first published abroad, as well as printing original work. They are printed in India and are priced to sell.

“When I got into the university environment,” says Bakare-Yusuf, who came back to Nigeria from the UK as an academic, “I found that all these new African writers who were popular in the West, many of the students had never heard of them. The lecturers had never heard of them. They were still teaching the classic Heinemann African Writers Series, or books that had been written by the lecturers.”?

Literary infrastructure?

Publishers to watch

• Langaa – Cameroon ?

?• StoryMoja – Kenya

• Chimurenga – South Africa ?

• Farafina Books – Nigeria ?

• Ama Books –

Zimbabwe ?

• Cassava Republic Press –


?• Kwani? – Kenya

• Woeli

Publishing – Ghana?

?For more information see: ?

• African

Books Collective?

Access to books has long been a problem in Africa, where costs are high, literacy low, and the history of the publishing industry somewhat checkered. Since Africa’s first major novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, came out in 1958, the industry has come a long way.

It has not been a smooth road. The years after independence saw a boom in publishing that lasted through the 1970s, followed by a bust in the 1980s – a decade during which researcher Hans Zell called Africa “largely a bookless society”.

Much of the continent is still fairly bookless, but the 1990s witnessed a growth spurt in publishing and the industry “has been growing in leaps and bounds since”, according to Henry Chakava, chairman of East African Educational Publishers.

Today, the industry is worth some $46m in Kenya and $641m in South Africa. “The market is growing,” says Tanzanian publisher Walter Bgoya, of Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, who has been in the business for 37 years. “There is no doubt about that.”?

There are certainly more publishers than there used to be, including 115 in South Africa alone. But even the 8,000 or so South African books published each year remains small compared to the US and European markets. Around 200,000 books are published every year in the UK alone. “The point we’re always making,” says Mary Jay, CEO of the African Books Collective and secretary of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, “is that publishing is like agriculture or anything else. It’s another economic activity in which Africa is hampered by the same development factors. And yet it’s not on the agenda with international donors, and very few countries in Africa have national book policies.” ?

Yet despite being lightly capitalised and having small returns, some of the newer publishers are managing to do well. “This year has been very, very good,” says Billy Kahora, of Kwani? Books of Kenya. “We’ve been selling out most of our books, and we’ve sold about 15,000 copies of the [Kwani? literary] journal. And for selling fiction, those kinds of figures are quite incredible. There is definitely a market, but the question is whether the market is sustainable. The big, big markets are in the schools.”?

According to one UNESCO estimate, 95% of all the books published in Africa are textbooks, and the print runs there are much higher. John Mwazemba, publishing manager for Macmillan Kenya Publishers, says that first runs for textbooks are generally 5,000 to 10,000 copies and they can sell up to 200,000. Most new enterprises start with runs of 1,000 copies, printed in India or China, then reprinted as necessary, although some are experimenting with print on demand or delivering books directly to mobile phones.

As a whole, the industry showed impressive growth until last year. In 2007, book sales increased by 15.9% in South Africa. But now with the global recession, the cost of paper has risen 45%, and shipping is up 25%, according to Jessica Grave, editor of the South African trade magazine Bookmark.

Young voices?

“Things are very tight for publishers right now,” says Mwazemba, “In fact, it’s like Kenya and the rest of Africa are just feeling the effects of the global crisis… But it won’t stifle the young voices. In fact, the crisis has, surprisingly, led to creativity and differentiation.”?

The desire for new stories remains strong. In July, Kenyan publisher StoryMoja hosted the first annual StoryMoja Hay Festival in Nairboi in conjunction with the Hay Festival in the UK, and nearly every country now has an annual book fair. In September 2010, South Africa will have its first ever National Book Week.

While publishers have to make ends meet, the book business is also about something more. “Sometimes you see your books in some village, all tattered up, all read,” says Bakare-Yusuf, “and that brings some consolation. It’s moments like that, or when you can get a policeman reading text that critiques the whole machinery that they represent – and they’re enjoying it – that I feel grateful and happy that I am doing this.”

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