On the Challenges of Publishing in Zimbabwe

In News by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

Zimbabwe, once a comparatively wealthy nation, has struggled to develop under the leadership of Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe, once had a robust publishing industry, one that has struggled to flourish under the leadership of president Robert Mugabe.

Publishing anywhere in the world presents its own set of challenges. And in an interview for fungaineni.com, Jane Morris, co-founder of amaBooks, spoke with Fungai Machirori (FM) about the challenges of publishing in Zimbabwe. Among the highlights:

FM: How is business in the publishing sector lately? What factors are influencing this?

JM: Our impression is that the general economy of Zimbabwe is in a poor state at the moment, and obviously the book industry is affected by this. People having less disposable income results in less money being spent on buying books. Unfortunately reading, outside school or college syllabi, is not a priority for many people in Zimbabwe. ‘amaBooks are publishers of Zimbabwe fiction and there is a very small market for most fiction titles.

However, there are positives – success stories such as NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names or Bryony Rheam’s This September Sun have stimulated an interest in local literature, and the availability of short-run printing in the region means we can continue to make books available even if their sales are fairly limited.

FM: Are you receiving manuscripts? Are they good? Do you have the capacity to publish?

JM: We are receiving manuscripts, and some are of a good standard. Unfortunately with the limited sales for fiction we have to be very selective in what we choose to publish. There have been times when we have enjoyed a manuscript and would have liked to accept it for publication but did not have the requisite resources at that time. However, the publishing world is changing. Publishers used to depend on litho printing, which required a large print-run in order to keep unit costs low – hence a large initial investment. New technology has helped in that respect; a smaller print-run is now possible, meaning that publishers can take a chance on books that are not likely to sell in big numbers, including fiction and poetry. EBooks add another dimension, with that, and print-on-demand, books can remain in circulation even when numbers selling are small.

FM: Are you selling many copies locally, and why or why not? Are all the books nationally available?

JM: Our books are available in the main centres of Bulawayo and Harare and a limited number in Mutare. We would love our books to be available in the smaller centres, such as Gweru and Kwekwe but most outlets only buy school text books. There are not a great number of bookshops in Zimbabwe and we make an effort to get our books into other outlets such as shops selling crafts. Anyone having difficulty getting hold of one of our titles can contact us directly. The biggest market for our books still remains Zimbabwe. There are people in the country who do buy new books, but the number of such buyers is limited and discerning. Efforts are being made to encourage an interest in literature through literary events, competitions, reading clubs, workshops and launches.

We are endeavoring to enter into co-publishing, or rights selling, arrangements to make our titles more readily available outside Zimbabwe. Most of our books are available outside of Zimbabwe, on a print-on-demand basis through African Books Collective.

FM: You have turned some books into e-books. Are they being bought? Why do you think this is the case? What are your most popular items currently?

JM: Most of our books are available as e-books on a number of platforms. Outside of Zimbabwe, e-books do seem a good proposition cost-wise for our fiction titles, given the high cost of distribution or the high cost of print-on-demand. Certainly, e-book sales are on the increase, we have been heartened at some of the recent sales figures. It has also been good to be able to bring some of our older titles back as e-books. The good news locally is that a local company, Open Book, will soon be up and running, selling e-books both for the standard e-readers and for cell phones that do not need to be too smart. The option to sell either complete books and individual stories or poems is very exciting and innovative. Worldreader are working in a similar way to promote a reading culture, distributing Kindles in projects in schools and elsewhere across Africa. Worldreader recently launched in Zimbabwe at King George VI School for Children living with Physical Disabilities in Bulawayo, and we are just about to publish a collection of stories and poems by the students there, which will be available as an e-book.

The most successful e-book title we’ve had is Bryony Rheam’s This September Sun, which topped sales on Amazon in the United Kingdom in mid-2013 and remains consistently in the top 100 of Women’s Literary Fiction.

FM: What are your hopes for Zimbabwe’s literary sector?

JM: These are exciting times for publishing across the world – with technological changes leading to much more open and varied access to publishing. Zimbabwe has special challenges, due to the economic climate, and to the exodus of many of those who write and who would purchase literary fiction. E-book technology does seem to offer a way of distributing content at fairly low cost to potential readers, but we must ensure that there remains a vibrant local publishing industry that provides high quality local literary content. There are good Zimbabwe writers, both in Zimbabwe and in the diaspora, and we think that the future is safe in their hands. We have always been keen to publish new writers and the ideal platform has been the series of short writings we have published. A number of these writers have gone on to publish their own books – Novuyo Rose Tshuma, Bryony Rheam, Christopher Mialazi, Mzana Mthimkhulu, Raisedon Baya, Deon Marcus and we understand that a number of others are working on books. We hope that this gives encouragement to new writers following on. it is really exciting as a publisher when a manuscript from a new writer appears on your screen, and you think…Yes. Initiatives to encourage writing, such as the Yvonne Vera Award and the Writers International Network Zimbabwe manuscript assessment programme are initiatives that support and encourage writing and there is certainly the need for more of these.

And at Voices of Africa, Fungai Machirori notes that:

“It is 14 years since the inaugural Caine Prize for African Writing was awarded to Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF). And while the fortunes for the Prize – one of the most prominent for African writing – have grown, the same has not held entirely for Zimbabwe’s local literary scene.

“Once a prestigious event attracting regional and international visitors, ZIBF now goes by largely unnoticed. Vibrant writers’ groups like Zimbabwe Women Writers (ZWW) and the Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe (BWAZ) have faded into near oblivion, their prolific writers’ exploits no longer published. Kingston’s – one of Zimbabwe’s flagship bookstores – has closed down its main branch on Harare’s Second Street thoroughfare, the office space now occupied by an insurance firm.

“This [month], however, the Caine Prize returns for the first time to Zimbabwe with its annual workshop and public events to be held over two weeks between Harare and Mutare.

Lizzy Attree, director of the Caine Prize for African Writing told Machirori, “Our return is partly based on the high number and quality of entries we receive from Zimbabwean writers, and the funding conditions that make such an expensive enterprise possible. The Caine Prize has long wanted to hold a workshop in Zimbabwe and support Zimbabwean writers, but had not felt the environment was right until recently.”

“Our return is partly based on the high number and quality of entries we receive from Zimbabwean writers, and the funding conditions that make such an expensive enterprise possible,” says Lizzy Attree, director of the Caine Prize for African Writing. “The Caine Prize has long wanted to hold a workshop in Zimbabwe and support Zimbabwean writers, but has not felt the environment was right until recently.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.