Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 30, May 2002 


First-timer's view of the London Book Fair

David Ng'ang'a
David Ng'ang'a is former Publishing Manager, Macmillan Kenya Publishers Ltd and currently studying for an MA in Publishing at Oxford Brookes University, UK

When I heard that the London International Book Fair would be forthcoming soon, I was excited. Excited because I had never had the opportunity to be there. So it was with awe and expectation that I applied for my badge from their web site. Come the day, and together with my Oxford Brookes' classmates, Tanzanian Mbonea Mndambi and Korean Kim Hyungtai, we boarded the London-bound bus outside our halls of residence.

Changing times
Once inside the Olympia Exhibition Hall, my first priority was to find the seminar rooms. This was with a view to catching up with the 'Changing Times, Changing Africa' seminars organized by the Southern African Book Development Education Trust (SABDET) in conjunction with the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF). This two-part seminar series was to discuss 'innovative trends and developments in African writing, publishing and marketing'.

I arrived in time to find Isobel Dixon of South Africa taking to the floor. Ms Dixon, an established literary agent, not to mention author in her own right, shared useful experiences and visions for the industry in Africa. What I picked up from her is that the past ways of communicating are not the ways of the future, especially if Africa is to break into the international marketplace.

That African publishers need to be more aggressive in marketing books came across strongly in the afternoon session concerned with the book supply chain in Africa, and chaired by Oluronke Orimalade, a bookseller from Nigeria and chair of the Pan-African Booksellers' Association. The session profiled Uganda and Malawi, with a view to establishing the effects of the Textbook Revolving Fund (TRF) and the Universal Primary Education project in Uganda on reading, book buying and the respective industries. Speakers were Justus Mugaju, Consulting/Associate Editor of Fountain Publishers in Uganda, and Bernard Bagenda, Senior Principal Librarian of Uganda Public Libraries Board, as well as James Ng'ombe, the Managing Director of Jhango Heinemann in Malawi. Notably the two projects are aimed at liberalizing and expanding book distribution in the two countries.

Uganda has witnessed a tremendous growth in book buying, moving from hardly any bookseller network in the mid-1980s to a respectable book industry at the dawn of the millennium. Started in 1988, Fountain Publishers has grown to be one of the leading publishers in the East African region. Its success dispels the myth that local publishers cannot effectively compete with multinationals. Citing the tendency of potential readers to prefer bars, television and mobile phones, as epitomized by Makerere University students, Mugaju called on book businesspeople to boost the reading link in the book chain to overcome these external forces.

The TRF has not only supported textbook buying, it is also contributing to strengthening the reading culture in Malawi; there is an increase in children's visits to libraries over the years. However, DANIDA will not fund the project from this year, posing a sustainability challenge to the project. Nonetheless, signs are that Parent-Teacher Associations have the will to continue buying books for schools. There was a consensus that book projects should outlive donor support for book industries in Africa to be competitive in the international marketplace.

After discussing the heavy matters of the day, delegates attended the ZIBF-sponsored reception. I cannot tell you about that one though as I was as busy as the Londoners finding the right tubes to catch to my cousin's place before it was dark. Statistics show that 70 per cent of Londoners do not know the place they are going to, and they do not get lost. Actually, I did get lost twice and nobody knew.

I arrived at Olympia at 11.00 a.m. the following morning, this time just to sample the exhibitions. What struck me was the sheer size of the fair. I am told that this year's event was bigger than last year's, and it has been growing tremendously since its inception. Unlike October's Frankfurt Book Fair that was affected by September 11, there was a big presence of American, European and Asian publishers and publisher associations (PAs). Are Africa's book business people listening? If you cannot make it, please do send your PAs, BSA (Book Sellers Associations), or even APNET.

The fête was simply dazzling. There were gigantic stands by HarperCollins and Macmillan, the well-designed Dorling Kindersley stand and the tech-savvy Whitaker Information Services. Sub-rights and distribution deals as well as author-agent-editor negotiations were finalized. This premier showcase offers unlimited opportunities for African publishers - not only in English-speaking countries, but in the entire continent.  [end]  [BPN, no 30, 2002, pp 10-11.]

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