Mapping Book and Publishing Policy in Africa and Latin America

In Feature Articles by Olivia Snaije

Looking at books and the publishing industry in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, the International Alliance of Independent Publishers finds a wide disparity in public policy and awareness.

Image: International Alliance of Independent Publishers

Editor’s note: Public policy on books and publishing—and most aspects of life and business—will be affected by the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps for years to come. In Africa, the Worldometer updates today (May 21) show a total 97,508 cases for the region and 3,020 deaths. In South America, there are 520,526 cases and 26,635 deaths reported. The International Alliance of Independent Publishers is based in France, the world’s seventh hardest-hit nation, today with 181,575 cases and 28,132 deaths. And the world’s total caseload on Wednesday (May 20) passed 5 million cases. —Porter Anderson

‘An Imperfect Tool Open to Modifications’

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

The Paris-based International Alliance of Independent Publishers has published the first part of an ambitious project attempting to map book industry public policy in 10 countries in Latin America and 12 nations in sub-Saharan Africa including Madagascar.

The alliance, which brings together more than 750 independent publishing houses in many parts of the world, operates in six languages—English, Arabic, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Persian. The mapping project, for now, is in French and Spanish. English is to be added if funding allows.

Subjects tackled include international agreements, cultural policies, copyright and intellectual property, market regulation, and taxes on books.

Laurence Hugues

Laurence Hugues, director of the Alliance, says the idea for the mapping project was first introduced during a 2014 conference in South Africa. International members there agreed that in the absence of statistics on the book industry in their respective countries, it would be useful and practical to pinpoint just where national policies on the book industries were—if there were any at all.

The objective, Hugues says, is to show the discrepancies between markets, get the attention of governments, and work toward reinforcing or building public policies for the book industry. The underlying idea is also to promote the concept of “bibliodiversity,” or cultural diversity applied to the publishing world, one of the alliance’s primary missions.

With funding from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Fondation de France, the project was started three years ago with two detailed questionnaires sent to publishers, professional organizations, booksellers and public entities in the countries to be studied.

“What was telling,” Hugues says, “was that not many of those we contacted had much information. We thought the project would be a failure but then we realized that the fact that information was difficult to obtain or non-existent was significant” as part of the project’s outcome.

“Our team is absolutely aware of the fact that it’s a work in progress,” she says. “It’s an imperfect tool that’s evolving and open to modifications.”

For each country, in fact, there’s a “To Contribute” button that opens an email readers can use to contact the alliance by email. Even incomplete, however, Hugues says that she and the organization consider the information collected to be valuable, in that they’ve found no other studies of this kind.

“In some countries such as Senegal or the Ivory Coast,” she says, “information was available very quickly. But in other countries, either it didn’t exist or the research was more complex.”

Serge Dontchueng Kouam

Cameroon publisher Serge Dontchueng Kouam collected the data in sub-Saharan Africa, which then was analyzed by the French specialist Luc Pinhas.

Chile’s Andrés Fernández Vergara handled the data in Spanish-speaking Latin America and analyzed it, working with Chilean publishers Paulo Slachevsky and Juan Carlos Sáez.

For Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo, information is sparse, while for Cameroon, far more information is available.

As Pinhas points out in an analysis, although all African countries in the study signed the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, the reality of a public policy on cultural industries in general is “uncertain and fragmentary.” Courses in publishing and bookselling are few and far between, and students and professionals from the region often must travel to Tunisia, France, or Canada for training.

But in most countries, he reports, intellectual property laws exist and, over time, professional organizations are being created.

Pinhas concludes on a hopeful note writing that over the past 20 years the situation has progressed considerably thanks in no small part to the professionalization of independent publishers and the pressure they have maintained on the cultural arms of governments.

In Latin America, each country in the study with the exception of Honduras has a government entity dedicated to culture, with policy  programs focused on the book industry and reading.

Yet to varying degrees, most countries suffer from challenges including piracy, robust book imports from other markets, limited representation of indigenous cultures, and/or a dominant presence of publishing multinational corporations–which can have an impact on local production.

Andrés Fernández Vergara

Progress will be supported, Fernández Vergara in Chile says, if books are made more widely available and more democratic societies evolve, creating more discerning public policies.

Meanwhile, the alliance next is to map the Arabic-language countries.

“Work has already started in the region,” Hugues says, but is complicated by the instability of military conflict in some areas. “The project is somewhat on hold now,” she says, “but it’s progressing in the three North African countries. They have institutions, even if they’re sometimes unsatisfactory, and these can be added to the maps.”

Hugues says she expects that information from North Africa will be added in three to four months, and that she hopes to extend the mapping project to the anglophone countries of the African continent.

“I’d like to think that it will contribute to solidarity among publishers,” she says, “and be a useful tool for professionals inside and outside the countries concerned. It’s a tool for civil society that we hope government institutions will use.”

More from the International Alliance of Independent Publishers is here, more from us on Africa is here, and more from Latin America is here. More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.