Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 22, July 1998 


Preparing for multinationals in African publishing: the inevitable impact

Philip G. Altbach

Philip G. Altbach is Monan professor of higher education at Boston College. He is also director of the Research and Information Center of the Bellagio Publishing Network. This article was prepared with the assistance of Damtew Teferra.

The invasion of the multinationals into African publishing, bookselling, and the media generally is inevitable. As Africa emerges as a lucrative market, the giants of the international publishing industry will invest in the region. This is already happening in South Africa. Those involved in the book trade need to carefully consider the implications. Many African countries still have time, since their markets are not yet profitable, but the time is not far off when the African book industry will be affected by world trends in publishing and by the multinationals. Two recent developments relating to Asia tell us something about the future role of multinationals in publishing and the world of books in Africa. The most disturbing event was the refusal of HarperCollins in Britain - a major publisher, owned by multinational media magnate Rupert Murdoch - to publish a book on Hong Kong by former British governor Chris Patten. The other more benign development was the hugely successful opening of an American-owned Borders superstore in Singapore.

The era of protectionism is over. GATT and other international treaties mean that countries can no longer develop local industries behind walls of trade restrictions. Capital flows more smoothly. International influences on all aspects of the economy are substantial. There is nowhere to hide. If multinationals wish to enter a market, there is little to keep them out. It may well be that the new regime of open markets is better for development, but there are downsides as well.

The Patten case is an example of how international commerce can influence local publishing. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, frequently fought with Chinese authorities, who took over Hong Kong in July of 1997. His book, which reflects on his experience as governor, is not surprisingly highly critical of China. HarperCollins signed a contract with Patten and high officials of the firm publicly praised the manuscript. As the book was about to go into production, it was abruptly cancelled. HarperCollins' chief executive did not mince words in announcing the cancellation. He indicated that the book was deemed to be too critical of China by the owner, Rupert Murdoch - who has extensive business interests in Hong Kong and China, and sees the region as important for his expansion plans. Murdoch owns the major English-language Hong Kong newspaper, the South China Morning Post, which has been notably uncritical of China, and Sky TV, which dropped BBC news when the Chinese complained it was too critical.

Rupert Murdoch made a business decision not to publish a book in Britain that would arouse the ire of China. A publishing decision in one country was made because of political considerations half-way across the world. The decision engendered a storm of protest in Britain and negative publicity elsewhere, including announcements that many key HarperCollins authors would no longer publish their books with the firm. So far, however, there has been no change in policy. The HarperCollins story is emblematic because it is such a clear example of political meddling - no one hid behind a fiction of deficiencies of quality or contractual problems. The contract was cancelled for purely political reasons. If such decisions can be made in Britain, political interference in smaller and weaker markets, such as Africa, would cause Murdoch no worry.

The opening of a Borders megastore in Singapore is another example of the role of multinationals in the book trade. Borders, one of the two major American superstore chains, is expanding overseas. Its stores typically stock 100,000 titles, have large selections of magazines, music CDs, and other media products. Singapore, despite high per capita income and universal literacy, has not been well served by bookstores. Borders was an immediate success, and will very likely change the face of Singapore bookselling. Local chains and stores will have to improve if they are to survive in the new marketplace. A foreign corporation with access to capital can, with strategic investing, serve a local need, earn profits, and at the same time wreak havoc in the local booktrade.

These examples tell us that book industries in Africa, as well as in other parts of the developing world, must constantly be aware of international trends. As multinationals enter the publishing industry, they inevitably bring foreign control, and perhaps foreign political constraints, into the local marketplace. The multinationals also bring access to capital, easy distribution channels to other countries, and economies of scale into the equation. It will be quite difficult for local firms to complete. And there is relatively little that can be done to protect local publishers.

In Africa, concerns loom large about how local books are to be published in an environment in which the economic and political interests of multinational firms dominate. Multinationals enter a market to earn profits. They are basically unconcerned with ensuring that particular kinds of books are published, and they care little about local booksellers or authors. The experience of South Africa, by far the largest market in sub-Saharan Africa, is illustrative. The small local publishers that sustained independent publishing during the apartheid years have had problems competing with the multinationals that have entered the publishing scene, and many have either been bought by the multinationals or have gone out of business.

All of this is unsurprising. Multinationals are now the norm in Western industrialised countries. The largest American publishing group is owned by Germans, but there are choices in these large markets. In the United States and Britain, there are other choices if one publisher refuses to publish a book. No doubt Chris Patten's book will be published and achieve success. In Africa, there are fewer alternatives. However, local book communities are not entirely powerless. The following initiatives can help at least to ameliorate the situation.

  • Promulgating a national book policy will provide a legal and financial framework to help the indigenous book industry. Low-interest loan programmes, policies to foster publishing in local languages, appropriate copyright arrangements in the framework of the international copyright system, and other initiatives have proved to be effective in fostering the local book community. A positive climate for the book trade cannot be overemphasised;
  • In the awarding of contracts for textbook production and other programmes, preferential treatment can be given indigenous private publishers;
  • A mechanism of bank loans, low interest arrangements and the like could be established to assist local private publishers. Arranging finance is always one of the most serious problems for small private publishers;
  • The textbook market could be opened for competent indigenous private publishers. Textbooks are always a central element for the health of the publishing industry in developing countries, and ensuring that textbooks are locally produced is of special importance.

These policies would not prevent the incursions of the multinationals, but they would at least assist indigenous publishers in emerging markets. In a perverse way, Africa's current economic difficulties may help indigenous publishers, since the multinationals are not yet poised for market penetration in countries facing severe economic problems. Now is certainly the time to recognise the potential impact of the multinationals, and to ensure that the emerging local book industry will not be swept away with the tide of the multinationals. Experiences across the world in Singapore and Britain should stimulate African concern in this increasingly interdependent world. [end]  [BPN, no 22, 1998, p 13.]

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