Shame on African publishers!

African publishing is still in its infancy, producing only about 3% of the world’s total of books. As most of what is published is in the field of education, which is of limited interest outside of the continent, Africa has little to offer the world in the way of published material.

Poverty and political instability on the continent have resulted in a limited culture of reading in most African countries. Literacy levels are low and many of those who can read, and wish to, cannot afford to buy books. Save for a few countries, of which South Africa is one, educational publishing is entirely driven by donor funding and World Bank programmes, so it is not surprising that most African books are published abroad.

But what is South Africa’s excuse? The country has one of the biggest and most stable book sectors in Africa. The industry is far less dependent than the rest of the continent on school and academic publishing, which accounts for little more than 60% compared to about 95% elsewhere on the continent. The education sector is not dependent on donor funding but on state expenditure, which amounts to R2-billion a year. The book infrastructure, including retail and distribution, is more advanced than in other parts of the continent, but it is difficult for books produced for one country’s curriculum to be used in another country.

South Africa’s position as the economic hub of Africa brings advantages, including banking, information and communication technology, publishing and production technology and a significant skills pool. Despite this, issues of equity in the industry — especially the lack of service and connection with the majority of the population — remain a challenge that does not facilitate growth.

When I read African literature at the University of the Witwatersrand the syllabus included the works of writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Buchi Emecheta and Mariama Ba, all published under the imprint of the now defunct Heinemann African Writers Series. Harcourt Education, which bought Heinemann International, has discontinued the series, licensing 15 titles to Penguin, to be branded, promoted and sold under the imprint of Penguin Classics. The literature that formed the core of this series was written by Africans, published in the former colonial power, the United Kingdom, and then returned to the African continent for local consumption at exorbitant prices — the familiar pathetic story of the post-colony?

We are not documenting our own stories and history; instead, we are allowing the former colonial master to do so on our behalf and then to resell it to us. Shame on us African publishers!

Why are our university and technikon syllabi so reliant on imported books and knowledge? Simply because we continue to fail our children by not producing our own indigenous knowledge systems. Another reason why we send our work abroad is because we believe that American or British publishers are more prestigious and the author will receive greater international recognition.

Why should our intellectual property be siphoned off to Europe when we have our own publishing houses? Some academics maintain that to gain recognition at their institutions they are expected to publish with overseas publishers.

Is this the case? Do our universities consider overseas publishers more prestigious than local ones? Yes, of course they do; the question is ”Why?”. Why do they regard African publishers as mediocre?

Co-publishing agreements are one way in which work can be exposed to overseas readers while still being available at home. Most of our academics, however, do not know what co-publishing entails. Who is to blame? It is incumbent on publishers to run information sessions at universities on the nitty-gritty of book publishing.

Publishers need to demystify the processes involved in book publishing by running workshops with inexperienced potential authors on aspects such as how to create an effective book proposal, how a book is produced, the human chain involved and the processes of editing, book designing, typesetting and so on.

Among the reasons why African academics send their research output abroad, one academic told me, is the fact that most African publishers do not publish research that cannot be turned into a textbook. Another reason is that African­ publishing is too reliant on the academic and schools market because of the absence of a book-buying and reading culture among the majority of the population. In South Africa, statistics on reading and buying differ, but it is generally estimated that between 2% and 5% (mostly whites) of the South African population regularly buy books, a situation that does not make for a viable book publishing industry.

Because of the tiny market publishers have to make do with small print runs, which make books expensive and lead the public to assume that publishers are wealthy and abusive. Publishers need to make the public aware that we invest millions in books and that authors invest their intellectual property.

Another South African problem is that students and lecturers generally do not respect intellectual property. Students imbibe a culture of entitlement to intellectual property. They do not buy books (in fact, they hardly read), so photocopying is rampant. Lecturers are also not beyond reproach. Many do not find it morally reprehensible to photocopy books and hand them out to students. This habit, clearly, has a damaging impact on local publishers.

One of the major reasons why intellectual property is not respected is that South African publishing operates under a cloud of secrecy. It is a faceless industry. No wonder the public regards us as self-serving capitalists. Statistics on the industry are hard to come by. Very few publishers publish their annual reports, ostensibly in fear of divulging sensitive information to competitors. But unless we come out of our cocoons and start engaging with the society in which we operate we will forever remain tainted by suspicions of self-interest and will continue to lose our knowledge to overseas publishers.

The publishing industry is pivotal to the realisation of the African Renaissance. If the government can pass a transformation charter for the financial sector, why not a similar charter for the publishing industry?

Solani Ngobeni is an academic publisher and the South African finalist in the 2007 International Young Publisher of the Year Award

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