By Dennis Abrams
Writing for The Reporter, Neamin Ashenafi took a look at bookselling in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, and at dissatisfaction on the part of readers, writers, and publishers, offering a glimpse of a publishing world in transition.
For many readers, the feeling is that the books that are available are written for commercial reasons, and not to make a statement. “…writers,” the article says, “aim to maximize profit neglecting to address current social, political and economic issues.”
There is a sense that the market is unaware of what audiences are actually looking for. Voracious reader Moges Beyene believes that current trends in books are a reflection of the same lack of progress and focus in society and other arts. “You can’t detach it. It’s a part of society, not only a part, but it is also a mirror of society. Even the music these days is far from reality…the musicians of today fail to provide something and different and satisfy the current audience. The same goes for books and other forms of art, but the book situation is severe compared with the others.”
And speaking from the booksellers’ perspective, Tesfaye Adal, who has been in the business for nearly fifty years, agrees that today’s writers seem to be most concerned with profits. “That’s the difference between the former writers and the contemporary ones.”
Ashenafi points out that, “Formerly writers focused on social issues and did not bother about the money, but now some authors get deals before they’ve even started to write; the market leads them. Publishers will tell the writers or translators to focus on a specific issue, then the deal is made and the work reaches the public. As a result the price of these books is high, due to the basic nature of profit making.”
Which leads to the ever present question of higher prices. It seems that “It is undeniable that there is an increase in the cost of printing, but the amounts requested by publishers and authors have also skyrocketed. Many readers comment that as the prices rise the substance fall.”
And on top of that, while publishers print the price of the book on the cover, many booksellers reject those prices and are known to erase low prices and sell the books at a higher price.
Bookseller Tesfaye is “saddened” by the issue of price tags. “Those who create new prices by erasing the original ones are criminals – greedy and immoral…they are seeking unlawful enrichment, sometimes earning more than both the publisher and the author.” (In fact, most booksellers simply put new price tags over the original ones, creating any figure they please, sometimes making up to 100% profit.)
But time and time again, and prices aside (there seems to be general agreement that people are willing to pay higher prices for better books). the issue still goes back to the issue of quality in today’s books. And it seems that that lack of quality is driving readers back to older books, that, whether “historical, academic of fiction, were strong and at the center of the community. The older generation can come up with different names, such as Bealu Girma, Haddis Alemayehu, Dagnachu Werku, Birhanu Zerihun…and Mengistu Lemma, but who are the symbols of the present generation?”
And this, Ashenafi writes, is the state of the Addis book market today: “Who controls the prices and contents of the books, the writers association? The author? The public?”
“There is a French saying: ‘All the world may know me by my book, and my book by me.’ It sums up the current trends towards books in Ethiopia.”