After speaking to seven publishers, it is safe to conclude that there are four hurdles publishers and writers in Africa need to cross to arrive fully:
- The price of books published on the continent which often times chases away the average African reader.
- Production and editorial quality.
- Distribution/Accessibility of African-published books.
- Standard/Worldwide recognition of these books.
Emma Shercliff, publishing consultant and director, Cassava Republic Press (UK), addresses these issues.
On the price of books and how it affects the young African reader…
I think it is partly about perception. Young people may well be prepared to spend 1000 Naira on phone credit to chat to their friends, but baulk at paying the same price for a novel. However, we do try and price our titles as sensitively as possible. All our Young Adult titles and Children’s titles are priced well under N1000; some retail as low as N400. Our new print Ankara Press romance titles will be priced at N700. Our adult fiction retails for an average of N1200.
We often offer discounts when we exhibit at schools or universities, as we know that price can be a limiting factor to the purchase of books, particularly for young people. We also hope that by producing well-edited and attractive novels young people will appreciate the quality of the books and be prepared to pay an extra couple hundred naira to buy a locally-published title by an African writer. We also put a lot of effort into our marketing in the hope that people will hear about a title on the radio, or on social media, and actively seek out certain authors and titles.
The quality of books published in Africa…
There are two separate issues here: The first is the poor quality of physical production; the second is poor editorial control. Unfortunately, the quality of printing within Nigeria is not always of a high a standard or as consistent as we would like it to be. Cassava Republic has tried printing with Nigerian-based printers in the past, but suffered a number of very costly errors. For this reason, we now print outside the country.
If you are asking me what can be done about the editorial quality of books, the answer is simple: more publishers need to introduce rigid editing processes, including multiple checks and proofing. All our Cassava Republic titles go through at least three rounds of edits (structural edit, copy-edit and proof-reading), and usually many more. We work very closely with our authors to ensure that each finished work is a product of which they and we can be proud, but this process is expensive and time-consuming, which is why some publishers sometimes circumvent it.
We know that the editorial capacity within Nigeria is limited, but have tried to work with freelance editors both within Nigeria and across the continent as much as possible. We have now built up a network of editors and proof-readers across Africa who we are confident are of a high standard and are familiar with our requirements. But again, this process takes time and investment in training. The Nigerian Publishers Association does run some very good editorial and production training courses and many of the larger educational publishers I have spoken to in the course of my PhD research do invest in training for their staff. Foundations such as the African Writers Trust also offer editorial training workshops for aspiring editors. But despite these efforts there is still a lack of skilled editorial staff in the industry as a whole.
Solving the distribution problem…
One of the major problems with distribution in Nigeria (and indeed in neighbouring countries) is that retail outlets do not pay publishers in a timely fashion. Authors are understandably upset when they visit a bookstore and don’t find copies of their books there, but if the bookshop owes a publisher a large amount of money, the publisher simply can’t supply more stock without receiving payment. We have had several examples of bookshops and distributors who have gone bankrupt or disappeared altogether without paying for books – such instances make it difficult for publishers to have faith in the book distribution network. I am aware that the Nigerian Booksellers Association are trying to introduce examples of best practice into their industry, but there is still some way to go to improve matters. Consequently, many publishers supply books directly to schools or universities, or seek alternative retail outlets such as cafes or supermarkets.
Some retailers such as AMAB Books in Minna, Nigeria, are already doing a great job at direct delivery of print books. Harnessing the power of online ordering for the supply of books seems to me a highly effective strategy. The book-buying individual has been hampered in the past by the high cost of delivery – it just isn’t cost effective for a customer to order a single book from a publisher as the freight charges via courier are so high, often far higher than the cost of the book itself. However, what I admire about AMAB is that they are using the Nigerian postal service and have had a very good experience with them so far. They were brave enough to challenge the preconception that there was only one way of delivering books and it seems to be working for them.
In terms of distribution elsewhere in the continent: Intra-African distribution is tricky due to the high cost of transportation, customs and tariffs – and the unreliability of the road network. Somewhat counter-intuitively, it will be easier and more cost-effective for us to use our UK office to distribute our African-authored titles into East and South Africa, rather than ship them to other African countries from Nigeria.
On standard and recognition
Publishing in Africa has come a huge way in recent years. Although the large educational publishers still dominate the industry, there are a number of young, dynamic companies across the continent publishing contemporary fiction and non-fiction and providing outlets for African-based writers. Sadly, Western readers are not at all familiar with African writers. I think those of us in the African writing/publishing scene sometimes imagine that celebrated African writers such as Teju Cole and Helon Habila are household names in the UK, but this is simply not the case. When I conducted some informal research amongst friends and colleagues in the UK publishing industry last year to try to gauge the market for African fiction in the UK, even publishing professionals were hard-pressed to name an African author other than Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri. This is the very issue we are trying to address that with the launch of Cassava Republic in the UK in April 2016. By making more works by African writers available in the West, we hope to increase the awareness of African writing and open up the market for other African writers and publishers. But we are clear that Cassava Republic will remain an African publishing company; we are committed to always releasing our titles in Africa first. And, importantly, we want to publish African writing that hasn’t been dumbed-down or mediated for a Western audience – we want to educate the Western audience to appreciate African fiction in its original form.
With this, we have ended the conversation On Publishing Business in Africa. Thank you for reading and sticking around. We hope to bring you equally exciting correspondence in the future. So, take a break, but don’t go away 😉
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