The information age and African publishing
The emergence and proliferation of electronic communications in the industrialised world in recent years have both fascinated and bewildered observers from developing countries. In an address in 1994, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, Professor A B O Oyediran, pondered the prediction that electronic publishing would soon displace book publishing in its conventional form as the major medium for the storage and dissemination of information in the industrialised nations. Where would it leave the developing countries that are far from fully understanding the technology required and whose infrastructure can barely sustain such development?
In contemplating the implications of these developments it is first necessary to survey the present state of publishing in these regions of the world, using Nigeria as a case study.
Hans Zell, a long-time observer of African publishing, notes in the introduction to the Handbook of Good Practice in Journals Publishing (1996) that `the past decade or two has seen a sharp decline of both African literary and cultural journals as well as academic serials'. This also rings true in assessing Nigeria's book publishing industry. There has been a steep downturn in both the quantity and quality of book publishing. Whereas a decade or two ago, the major Nigerian book publishing houses produced print-runs in the tens and hundreds of thousands of copies, today it is not unusual that print-runs of titles even with an assured demand from the local markets are no more than a few thousand copies.
As regards quality, publishers have resorted to the use of low-grade materials (e.g. newsprint instead of high grammage wood-free paper) in book production while editorial and design proficiency have declined drastically due to inadequate training facilities. There are now many instances of books published in the country, even those produced by some of the major publishing houses, where pages are not straight and are smudged with large blobs of ink. Uneven print density and print images, barely legible half-tones, poor finishing/binding and various other production flaws are now common in Nigeria. The majority of books produced in the country do not meet internationally acceptable standards in physical and visual quality, or in the quality of content.
Some of the reasons for this diminishing performance of traditional publishing in Nigeria, as in most other parts of the continent are not hard to find. The recent recession of most national economies in Africa has had devastating effects on local publishing industries. Publishers' production and running costs have skyrocketed while sales and earnings have plunged to unprecedented depths. In Nigeria, the constant devaluation of the naira in the last two decades has meant that the production costs and the retail price of books and journals have become astronomical. The purchasing power of the majority of consumers has fallen sharply as inflation has galloped far ahead of personal incomes. Other factors have contributed to the downturn of the book publishing industry in Africa, including difficult trading conditions, severe infrastructural problems, the predominantly insecure base of most publishers and the inadequate institutional support provided by governments.
Inadequate infrastructure probably constitutes the single most salient obstacle to the growth of electronic publishing in Nigeria (as for many developing countries). The inadequate state of both electricity generation and supply and telecommunications services in the country all but preclude Nigeria from full participation in this new form of publishing. Power cuts are rampant in all urban centres, and several non-metropolitan areas lack electricity supply
entirely. Telephone lines are dead for months or function only sporadically. Without these key elements not only does electronic publishing remain beyond the reach of Nigerians but so also will the hope of Nigeria ever fully getting on the `Information Super Highway'.
It is difficult to visualise Nigeria's economic and infrastructural inadequacies being remedied in the immediate future. In view of this it is a relief to read Zell's view that the global domination of electronic publishing may not occur (at least, not as soon as some are predicting) to further alienate Third World countries like Nigeria from the mainstream of the world's intellectual discourse and development. Zell has noted that the `death of the book in its conventional form has been predicted many times over the last two or three decades [but] the book is still going strong and has managed to survive alongside the electronic products....The traditional print format may still hold considerable advantages over electronic format as the dominant information medium, in the immediate future at least.'
Assuming, or perhaps hoping, that the traditional print format will remain dominant for some time to come, the logical course for Nigeria, and all other developing countries which presently lack the infrastructure and economic power to sustain electronic publishing, is to develop fully their conventional book production. Only then will electronic publishing be worth considering on any wide scale.
There is plenty of room for improvement in traditional book publishing. The publishing industries need to take full advantage of the most current technologies for origination and print production which have been developed over the last few years and which are being updated regularly. Desk-top publishing has revolutionised the book production process. Editing, formatting, provision of diagrams and illustrations and all other facets of the origination process can now be done on the computer with an array of variations available.
Many of the established publishing houses in Nigeria including the University Press plc (formerly Oxford University Press), Longman Nigeria plc, Heinemann Educational Books Nigeria plc, Evans Brothers (Nigeria Publishers) Ltd have in the last couple of years begun acquiring the necessary computer hardware and software as well as training staff to enable them to benefit from these new methodologies in print origination and production. Indigenous publishers must be encouraged to do likewise.
In time Nigeria's economy and infrastructure, and those of other developing countries, should gradually develop to the level required to sustain full-fledged electronic communications and thereafter electronic publishing. In the meantime, governments and policymakers in these countries should be putting in place an environment to enable their local book publishing industries recover from the recession.
The present anxieties of some observers in developing countries over the proliferation of electronic communications and electronic publishing in the industrialised world should not drive them into blindly pursuing goals for which they are ill equipped. Given the socio-economic and infrastructural problems in Third World countries, the book will certainly not be displaced by the electronic medium in these regions any time soon. The priority for now should be to develop fully the production process of local traditional publishing industries to increase the provision and availability of books in order to uplift reading cultures and eradicate mass illiteracy. Only this way will these countries be able to facilitate the educational and intellectual development of their diverse peoples as the world enters into a new century and a new millennium, which undoubtedly will be the Information Age. [end] [BPN, no 21, 1997, p. 12]
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