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Africa Shouldn’t Be Forgotten in Conversations about Publishing

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Depending on who you ask, Africa has between 54 and 57 different countries (Morocco is, for example, not a member of the African Union), with more than a billion people living on the continent. Yet, for all its immensity, Africa rarely comes up in conversations about publishing (or much else for that matter).

This is unfortunate. The Continent represents what is likely one of the greatest challenges to publishers and poses the question of how to you get more than a billion people, of an enormous diversity of languages, cultures, religions — many of whom have zero access to books — to become readers. To be educated. To be more fully integrated into the 21st century that so many of us live in.

For all our talk about working in “developing markets” — Brazil, China, India — our focus is almost exclusively on commercial concerns. We never talk about Brazil, China or India (each of which has enormous challenges of its own) as “lost causes.” The conversation revolves around “opportunity.”

With Africa, at least as long as I have been alive, it has always been different.

One of the most memorable moments of my life was when I was working in Lusaka, Zambia as a journalist and logged onto the internet with a friend. It was her first time seeing the Web and she wanted me to show her what it was all about. She worked at the business center at my hotel, but had never been online and neither had anyone else she knew. This was in 1998. I typed in www.amazon.com and moments after the screen came up on our exceedingly slow dial-up connection (I had one of the first accounts in the country, arranged through the local university), she saw the homepage and everything that was for sale. Her eyes opened wide in wonder, as if they were going to pop out of her head. “I never knew you had soooo much,” she said, adding “You must be very rich.”

We are very rich. And we often take what we have for granted.

For those of us that work in publishing, the material rewards are often limited compared to those in other “big city professions,” like, say, banking. There is a strain of idealism that runs through us in the publishing community (some, of course, more than others). We would do well to extend some of that idealism and put it into practice by trying to reach those with the greatest deficit.

Yes, the challenges are immense and I for one don’t have an answer how to do this; no one does. But finding an answer starts by making Africa part of the conversation. 

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted January 11, 2013 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    Here’s a link to my recent piece on the literary scene in Accra, Ghana
    http://bookslive.co.za/blog/2012/12/19/manu-herbstein-the-literary-revival-in-accra-ghana/

  2. Tarry Asoka
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Sounds like one of those patronising articles. The choice of not making Africa part of the conversation is mainly ignorance rather than the lack of of publishing related issues to talk about on Africa. To start with Africa has a takling culture and as you rightly imagined Africa is not one homogenous place. And with so many web sites, blogs, newsletters, books,etc…authors, bloggers and publishers in 2013; it is very interesting that you are still seeing the countinent from the illusion of 1998.

    The issues are not as challenging as you imagine. Just like with home video starting with the ‘Nollywood Paradigm’ in Nigeria and now spreading to the rest of the continent, progress with publishing in Africa will follow a yet uncharted path but will take advantage of the emerging technologies. Therefore, the sort of conversations that need to happen is within these contexts.

  3. Edward Nawotka
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    @Tarry Asoka — Patronization depends on who is being addressed. This isn’t addressed at African publishers who already know the the challenges they face and what is being accomplished by each in their own country. But our readership is by and large European and American and it was addressed to those in that context. Had I been addressing African publishers, I would ask — why aren’t African publishers more a part of the global conversation about publishing. Does the responsibility then fall on them to do more? Or are there other obstacles, like patronizing Westerners getting in their way?

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