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BPN Newsletter Issue No 20, Autumn 1997 


Academic book production and distribution in Africa

An international seminar at the Christian Michelsen Institute, 10-11 April 1997

Eve Horwitz Gray

Eve Horwitz Gray is director of Juta Academic Publishers, PO Box 14373, Kenwyn 7790, South Africa. Fax +27 21 797 0121; e-mail:

This conference was the result of co-operation between the Norwegian Library Association, the Norwegian Non-Fiction Writers and Translators Association, and the Christian Michelsen Institute. It was attended by publishers and academics from Africa and the north, and by representatives of the various Scandinavian aid agencies.

Opening the conference, Kari Nordheim-Larsen, the Norwegian minister of development aid, stressed the importance of investment in higher education as a means of delivering economic development and democratic freedom. While Norway would be concentrating its aid efforts on basic education, she said, it would not abandon its support for higher education or for African publication of African academic books.

In a conference balanced between pessimistic evaluations of the potential for survival in the African academic book industry, and a more optimistic vision of a future which might include electronic publishing and joint ventures between African publishers, key sessions focused on the roles of both publishers and scholars in trying to wrest the initiative in African studies back into Africa.

Suggesting strategies for the survival of independent African publishers in the face of national monopolies and transnational corporations, Walter Bgoya (Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, Tanzania) pointed out that independence did not only reside in editorial freedom, but had to be underpinned by financial independence. He saw state monopolies as less of a threat than transnational corporations, as long as governments did not legislate other publishers out of the markets. He suggested that transnationals, on the other hand, were almost in a conspiracy with the governments of some African countries to marginalise independent publishing.

In a situation in which many smaller African publishers survived by doing two or three jobs, Bgoya suggested that support should be offered in the form of financial packages through which African publishers could access adequate funds at reasonable interest rates. He called for an improvement of the quality of African books in terms of editing, design and production, if African publishers were to compete successfully with transnational companies. Training programmes such as those being run by APNET were of crucial importance in delivering improved quality, but the deteriorating situation of African education sometimes made it difficult to identify trainable candidates. In the final analysis, hope for independent African publishing might lie in leapfrogging the technology gap to take advantage of the benefits of electronic publishing.

Where Walter Bgoya suggested that African publishers might enter into joint ventures with progressive transnationals as a strategy for survival, Eve Horwitz Gray (Juta Academic Publishing) argued for a re-evaluation of the relationship between the South African publishing industry and the rest of the African publishing industry. The South African publishing industry could provide some solutions to the problems of African academic publishing, in the form of strong African partners with commercial and professional strength to provide the basis for a revitalisation of the African information industry. The post-apartheid era was forcing a process of transformation and Africanisation on the South African industry. Experience had shown that joint ventures between companies need not rely on financial equity, but could be structured around the contribution of one partner's local expertise and knowledge of the market.

Robert Molteno (Zed Books) painted a pessimistic picture of African scholarly publishing squeezed from two directions: by a decline in interest in area studies in countries in the north, and by depressing tendencies in the university sector, such as declining library budgets, increasing student impoverishment and low academic salaries. In the face of such obstacles, he suggested a highly professional, carefully evaluated approach to co-publication and co-production as a means of sustaining African scholarly publishing. If African publishers are to sell rights to northern publishers, then the titles have to contain first-rate scholarship, at the cutting edge of new thinking; will have to be geared towards modes of argument which are acceptable in the north; preferably have a potential student market; and show high quality editorial and production standards. Molteno warned against a too-easy inclination to ignore Africa's diversity and refer to the continent in discussions of this kind as if it were a homogeneous whole. There were no simple or easy solutions to the problems facing the academic publishing industry in different parts of Africa, and whatever solutions were found would have to be appropriate to local circumstances. He drew attention to two examples in which aid had made a constructive impact in facilitating co-publishing: the Soros Foundation in Eastern Europe, and Obor in South-East Asia and in Kenya.

Woeli Dekutsey (Woeli Publishing Services, Ghana) argued that writers draw a good deal of inspiration from well-meaning publishers. African publishers need to offer their authors excellence in editing, designing and producing books, as well as innovative marketing to reach the widest world markets for African titles. He suggested that a considerable boost could be given to the African publishing industry if national libraries were to buy a set number of all books published by local publishers.

Helge Rønning (Norwegian Non-Fiction Writers' and Translators' Association) made the connection between the support for books and support for democratic procedures. He said that aid organisations manifest a strange lack of thinking in failing to connect aid to books with the course they take in economic policy. As a result, they propose policies that they would not countenance in their own countries. Because it is easier for aid agencies to give big money to states, rather than to individual smaller projects, aid often reduces the possibility of independence. He argued that cultural policy in donor countries should be based on subsidies, and therefore not subject to control. An example would be the purchase of one thousand copies of books bought into libraries both in Africa and in Nordic countries. He suggested a subsidy for monographs; incentives for writers to work in publishing schemes; support for small specialised publishers; and support for writers and for libraries.

Kingo Mchombu (University of Namibia) argued that support for effective national bibliographies in African countries would go a long way towards stimulating African book trade. Currently, national bibliographies tended to be out-of-date, or non-existent. Information about African books was therefore difficult to obtain and this hindered the capacity of international libraries to order African books. Appropriate technology was a necessary part of this process, and software programs such as the Unesco database software, CDS-ISIS makes it easier to organise bibliographic information and publish up-to-date bibliographies.

Margaret Ling (Zimbabwe International Book Fair) and Mary Jay (African Books Collective) both cited success stories in the expansion of the African book trade. The ZIBF is prospering and is steadily becoming not only a source of growth in the distribution and rights trading of African books, but also the focus of a number of key discussions and interactions in its Indabas and forum discussions.

The African Books Collective now markets and distributes the English-language titles of 50 African publishers to countries outside Africa. ABC also addresses the problem of intra-African trade through the Intra-African Book Support Scheme, together with Book Aid International. ABC's task is rendered difficult by the lack of knowledge or interest among booksellers and librarians in both scholarly works or literature from Africa. But ABC has grown steadily and, despite a difficult market, is succeeding in getting African books into markets in the north.

An important discussion at the conference centred around the role of the African intellectual and the African diaspora. Terence Ranger (Southern African Book Development Trust) argued cogently for recognition of the fact that African scholarship was necessarily controlled by African institutions, as any credible African scholar needed to work in Africa, where the archives and resources for scholarship were to be found. What African scholars and institutions needed to do was not exclude overseas scholars, but be in command of research and harness what is valuable in overseas research. He argued that a good model for African research would be: funded by the north, controlled by an African institution, published in Africa and in the north, and favouring the development of young scholars. Scholars should avoid publishing only with prestigious northern publishers, in which case the publication of their research would be too expensive ever to return to Africa; rather, they should seek collaborative co-publication ventures.

Paul Zeleza (University of Illinois), analysing the different kinds of research institutes in Africa, argued that African universities had retained an essentially utilitarian ethos inherited from colonial regimes and transmuted into a focus on developmentalism. As a result, research was narrowly confined within national boundaries and privileged utilitarian models. The regional and continental research institutes, on the other hand, such as SAPES and CODESRIA, have become central players on the African research landscape. Whatever problems and challenges that confront them, and they have faced many, Zeleza argued, these organisations have become oases of intellectual production, probity, and inspiring possibilities.

Zeleza insisted that the brain drain of African scholars was an intellectual reality that had to be acknowledged and used. He urged African scholars and publishers to exploit this community; in return, the latter should mainstream African scholarship and publications in the north. African scholars in the north should publish in Africa-based journals and monographs series, not for some misguided nationalist sentiment, but out of the firm conviction that nobody else but ourselves will develop vibrant and valued African scholarly communities, after which genuinely equitable and meaningful intellectual relations between Africa and the rest of the world can grow.

As ways of funding projects that could invigorate African scholarship, Zeleza mentioned innovative and effective exchange programmes; not only between universities, but including the research institutes; and the co-publication of research by Africa-based and United States-based scholars. This would serve to establish intense and sustained intellectual conversations between the two scholarly communities. The revitalisation of African universities was essential, with the restoration of adequate funding levels and a reorientation of funding to favour research. Independent research institutes needed to diversify their funding sources. Africa scholars in northern universities needed to support and promote African research and production through the establishment of active collaborative linkages.

In general, the conference concluded that, in spite of considerable difficulties in the African academic book trade and in the face of a number of negative factors in the international context, there was nevertheless a mood of optimism among the delegates that suggested some confidence in the capacity of the continent, with appropriate intervention from aid funders, to surmount these difficulties in order to create a stronger African academic publishing presence. [end] [BPN, no 20, 1997, p. 5-7]

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