Discard the odd and publish in Africa

Last week I was invited as a panellist to the International Publishers’ Association (IPA) seminar in Nairobi, Kenya. Present were 40 African publishers’ associations and the theme was Africa Rising: Realising Africa’s Potential as a Global Publishing Leader in the 21st Century. I admit that I raised my eyebrow at the lofty-sounding theme because I believe we can and should do better. There were times during the seminar that I was downright sceptical, and yet there were moments too of immense hope.

An inaugural IPA seminar was held last year in Lagos, Nigeria, which set up a working group of key stakeholders in the African publishing industry. In addition to giving the IPA some visibility as a parent body on the continent, participants at the Lagos seminar set up the Lagos action plan with three priority areas: national book policies, copyright protection and national statistics.

I understand the purpose of the latter two points, but the national book policies appear more than a little weird to me.

Earlier this week, South Africa’s National Book Week @NBW_SA tweeted: “Our CEO is travelling to Kenya this week to represent the South African book sector and to lobby for a national book policy to be implemented in SA. Increasing access to books and promoting reading is near impossible to achieve in the absence of a book policy.”

I like the chief executive of the South African Book Development Council, but I failed to see the logic of her going to Kenya to lobby for a national book policy in South Africa. Should she not be lobbying for that in South Africa? More so, why is she going after the Kenya IPA seminar, when some of the very few South African publishing industry players have already returned home from it? I, and I think many others, would be keen to hear back from the council on the reasons for lobbying in Kenya for a South African book policy.

The Publishers’ Association of South Africa represented South Africa in Lagos last year and in Nairobi this year. In conversation with at least two other South Africans who were at the Nairobi seminar, it became clear that this was the first time that we were hearing about the Lagos action plan. How exactly did they disseminate this information and to who? I am aware, having only recently become a publisher and applied to join the South African publishers’ association, that perhaps this information may have been sent to its members alone. If this is the case, therein lies the folly. Should such key action plans not be shared widely with all industry players, including writers, who create content and often promote it, readers, librarians and booksellers?

That said, despite what seem to be glaring failures by our national bodies in literature, there were some worthwhile lessons from the IPA seminar in Kenya.

The Women in Publishing dinner, hosted by IPA vice-president Bodour Al Qasimi, brought together industry players from across the continent — and that will potentially create some wonderful synergies in the literary industry. From making books more accessible digitally to publishing more books for the youth, an often ignored yet important market, it appeared that the sisters are holding up more than half the sky in the publishing industry on the continent.

But perhaps my biggest takeaway was an alcohol analogy by a Ghanaian publisher. Responding to a panellist’s complaint that there was no money in trade publishing and therefore he put his energy in text book publishing, the Ghanaian responded: “Tusker was not always available as a beer. Yet East African Breweries created a market for their beer in the most remote of places. Why don’t we imagine a similar market can and should be created for literature?”

In the end I concluded that the realisation of Africa’s potential as a global publishing leader will depend on whether we genuinely want to take away some of the good shared and discard that which is not working well. But, as long as we continue using the same blueprint as has been used for many years before, we will continue mourning the high illiteracy rates and low returns in the book market. We can and should do better.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
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