African Books Collective, the British Council and
African book fairs
Mary Jay is Consultant to African Books Collective, The Jam Factory,
27 Park End Street, Oxford OX1 1HU, England. Tel +44 1865 726686, fax
+44 1865 793298, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.africanbookscollective.com
The British Council, in a new departure, sponsored
African Books Collective (ABC) exhibits at the Kampala National Bookweek
Festival in November 1997, at The Africa Centre in London in December
1997, and at the first Nairobi International Book Fair in September
1998. This co-operation followed discussions between the British Council
and ABC about the role of the organisations in the publishing and book
industries in Africa.
ABC's work aims to strengthen autonomous and indigenous
African publishing - and of course ABC is founded, owned and governed
by autonomous, indigenous African publishers. A persistently weakening
factor for African publishers is the traditional dominance of multinational
- notably British - publishers in the backbone textbook market.
The British Council's publishing and information
sector strategy aims to work in partnership with UK organisations in
order to `increase Britain's role in the global information society
by promoting the best of British publishing and information services
and products, and to help close the north-south information gap'. At
the same time, one of the objectives in helping to close the gap is
`supporting the development of information and publishing infrastructures
in overseas countries'.
Discussions between ABC and the British Council
in 1997 centred on how the British Council could in reality support
indigenous publishing infrastructures if at the same time it has a remit
to create greater market share for UK publishing in overseas markets.
In the same year the British Council carried out a major evaluation
of its `Information Services Management' work, and was keen to promote
better understanding and partnerships. ABC's view was that we should
co-operate to ensure that at least British Council programmes in Africa
should not work against the interests and needs of indigenous African
publishers; and that, if possible, they should work in support of local
capacity building. In this spirit the British Council sponsored its
first ever books exhibit in Africa of exclusively African-published
(ABC) books - not a British book in sight!
Using materials and information on ABC member
publishers, ABC itself, APNET, African booksellers, ZIBF and the Noma
Award for Publishing in Africa, British Council designers made attractive
display panels for the Kampala stand. The exhibit had the merit of showcasing
books from many other African countries, always a practical difficulty
This exhibit was subsequently mounted at a special
event at the Africa Centre in London, hosted by the British Council,
and the whole exercise was remounted - showcasing more new African-published
books - at the first Nairobi International Book Fair, organised by the
Kenya Publishers' Association.
The Kampala event was a national book week which
also attracted regional representation, and its focuses were clear:
on the national efforts to enhance literacy, availability of books and
reading materials, and strengthening the local publishing industry.
Nairobi, by contrast, was called an `international' book fair. The nomenclature
was more a statement of the aims of the organisers than the reality
of representation. With the comparative development of Kenya's publishing
industry within Africa it makes clear sense for there to be a Nairobi
book fair, and it will easily attract regional representation, as indeed
it did. Given that trading as such is not difficult, Nairobi could well
be a viable trading place which in time could attract wider than regional
In addition to the pre-eminent place of the Zimbabwe
International Book Fair as the African marketplace, there is room for
book weeks and fairs to flourish nationally and regionally throughout
Africa - the Ghana and Dakar fairs, for example. But ZIBF suffers the
disadvantage of Zimbabwe's continuing taxes on imported books, and the
difficulties for international publishers of collecting in hard currencies.
So there is a vacancy for a venue where actual international trading,
concrete sales and business could take place. Organisers of `international'
books fairs, as in Ghana and Nairobi, will however need to be clear
precisely what their objectives are in using this word.
Aspects of the apparent dichotomy in British Council
policy were later discussed at the Bellagio Publishing Network meeting
in Copenhagen in December 1998, and one point then made was that the
British Council should evaluate its promotion work in Africa against
the question `Will this have a negative effect on African publishing?'
It was recommended too that the British Council's work with African
publishers should concentrate on what the publishers themselves define.
Meantime, let a thousand book events flower!
[BPN, No. 24, 1998, p. 4]
to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 24, 1998>>