National Book Policy
Ansu Momoh is the APNET representative for Sierra Leone and works for the Textbook Project, Institute of Education, Freetown, Sierra Leone.
A national book policy is a plan or course of action directed at a sound approach towards the development of books and the promotion of a healthy national book industry.
The system of book provision in a country has many linked parts. For the `book chain' to work, all the parts must function. The function of authorship is to conceptualise the idea in written form; publishing reshapes it into a more readable form, targeted at a particular readership. Next the printer manufactures bound books for distribution and marketing through various sales outlets, most commonly the bookshop. Also important are libraries and the development of reading.
At every stage of the process the new book accumulates additional costs. Despite its cost, the book is valuable only when it is read widely. Therefore the part of the book chain that takes the book to the reader must be firmly established.
The priority of a national book policy must be to enhance the working of the whole book chain even at its most basic level. From that point, book development starts.
For a long-term national book policy to be effective it is absolutely necessary that government and private sectors concerned with any part of the book chain are involved in and encouraged to be committed to the policy design. The policy itself `must be conceived as a continuous, evolving and flexible process to be modified and improved when necessary'. The crux of the matter is that a book policy must, as Paul Brickhill has written, `be responsive to new situations and sensitive to changes'. Finally a national book policy must have the support of government.
In his essay `Perspectives of Privatization in African Publishing', published in The Challenge of the Market: Privatization and Publishing in Africa (Bellagio Studies in Publishing 7, 1996), Professor Philip G Altbach states that `private publishing operates in the context of governmental policy. This is true in any country, but it is even more important in Africa where circumstances must be favourable for the success of any new enterprise because of the difficult economic climate.' Professor Altbach rightly sees the estimable and fundamental role of African governments in the formulation and implementation of national policies in African states.
Why national book policies in African states?
Book provision is at a very low level in African states. The cultural industry of publishing is not given the status it demands in a continent of underdeveloped readership, very high illiteracy, where 1,200 languages (as noted by Amu Djoleto, a Ghanaian book expert) are spoken, of which only about 600 are published. Only about 25 per cent of the population are literate in the two most widely spoken languages, French and English. Only one per cent of new titles in the world are contributed by the African continent.
Government neglect of the industry continues to be a significant reason for the very slow progress of its development. Support to the infrastructure is generally negligible. Very little is given in terms of issues such as tax concessions, book studies and subsidies. This is quite unlike the case in many developed countries, although their the industry is at a far more developed stage.
Where sound, workable book policies exist all stakeholders, especially government, are likely to be prompted to pursue the development of the industry.
A national book policy is only a first step, but it is vital as a way to get on track and advance the development process of the main parts of the book chain. It provides the basis for the development of a self-sustaining indigenous book industry. A national book policy sets the scene for awareness about a country's book industry.
The industry is an `ideas' industry promoting culture and, of course, a nation's civilisation. This is more necessary for countries that are poor in the upkeep of their cultural development. The book industry is the bedrock in the promotion of literacy and education in African countries, and the book itself is central to education and development.
The book industry creates employment. Its development will increase job opportunities for professionals working in various sections of the book chain. This in turn creates a wider professional awareness for the continuing development of the industry.
A national book policy in practice
The establishment and implementation of a national book policy has to have the support of all stakeholders, especially government. For any book policy to work, all stakeholders ought to be involved in its design to see that their development goals can be fulfilled through its implementation.
Of course, African states have vestiges of earlier book policies whether formally written or implemented unwritten. A good number of them must surely have been found to be workable. Those workable rules and regulations previously in place must not be discarded; rather they can be looked at to see how they can be adapted. Any policy that does not reflect current needs is unlikely to work well in the interest of the country. In his essay `The transition from state to commercial publishing systems in African countries' (in The Challenge of the Market: Privatization and Publishing in Africa), Paul Brickhill made a final note on the establishment of a national book policy. `The main considerations in national book policy are not its content as such, which must change with circumstance, but that all the players - all government departments concerned, the development sector, and the private sector - are involved in and committed to its design; that it is conceived as a continuous, evolving and flexible process to be modified and improved; and lastly that it must be implemented, mistakes and all, with government backing.' [end] [BPN, no 21, 1997, p. 11]
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