London Book Fair: A ‘Journey of African Publishing’

In News by Olivia Snaije

Amid a digital transition in Africa, key publishing players at London Book Fair say they see more content coming from the continent.

Speaking at London Book Fair’s ‘Journey of African Publishing’ seminar on April 18 are, from left, Lawrence Njagi; Mercy Kirui; Brian Wafawarowa; Bibi Bakare-Yusuf; and Gbadega Adedapo. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

‘When Did Publishing in Africa Actually Begin?’
Among the first sessions of London Book Fair‘s opening day, April 18, “Journey of African Publishing” featured appearances by several prominent members of the International Publishers Association. (More events with IPA’s engagement are here.)

Traveling from South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya, participants arrived on time despite their flights being diverted because of Sudan’s airspace being closed by the country’s reignited conflict.

Brian Wafawarowa, president of the South African Publishers Association and CEO of Juta & Company, moderated the session. 

Speakers included:

Wafawarowa began by saying that the journey of African publishing has been very arduous, although publishing industry players today began working in the 1980s and 1990s on ground that had already been prepared for them. Today, content is increasingly coming from the continent itself, he said, and people are going through a digital transition.

Merci Kirui. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Olivia Snaije

Njagi said that it’s important to pose the question, ‘When did publishing in Africa actually begin?’ Certainly not with missionaries in East Africa who came, as he put it, with a Bible and a gun. Long before stories were put down onto paper, Africans already had their audiobooks, Njagi said, with their mothers and grandmothers who told and retold stories over time.

That said, today, 95 percent of books produced in the region are textbooks, Njagi said, and he’d like to see more children reading, and more people reading trade publications.

Bakare-Yusuf said that when she founded Cassava Republic 17 years ago, she was interested in seeing books written by Black people but also published by Black people. Taking possession of the production was important, she said, and today it’s exciting to see more trade publishers being established.

But the challenge to getting more books to readers, she said,  is price. “The question is not whether people want to read but how to make books available for people. … We need more Africans owning the means of production.” It’s encouraging that Africans are coming “to know each other and not having to make a detour via Europe.”

Adedapo stressed the importance of policy in the development of publishing in Africa, which is “moving fast,” he said.

He referred to the International Publishers Association seminar in Lagos in 2018, an event at which he spoke about the challenges of rampant piracy in Nigeria.

The Nigerian president recently signed a new bill to curb piracy, and in Lagos in February, the Nigerian Copyrights Commission signed a memorandum of understanding with the Nigerian Publishers Association and the Booksellers Association of Nigeria to curb piracy.

Bakare-Yusuf: ‘We Fetishize Technology’

At eKitabu, Kirui and her team work with more than 100 African publishers digitizing more than 5,000 titles.

“We fetishize technology, but it should not be a prosthetic for what we do. People still want to read physical books, but they need to be accessible and affordable.Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Cassava Republic

Publishers have started to use technology for processing and packaging, she said, and an increasing number of platforms are being created to provide access to information.

Technology can be used to assess cataloguing, to track how information is being used, and to measure the impact of what you’re providing. But “technology is not the solution to everything,” she added. 

Indeed, “We fetishize technology, but it should not be a prosthetic for what we do,” said Bakare-Yusuf. “People still want to read physical books, but they need to be accessible and affordable.

I’m interested in how to develop selling rights from one country to another so publishers can publish the books locally—and how to make it cheaper for us to produce books.”

Circling back to policy, Njagi said that government usually controls policy, and each time there’s an election, the new government chooses whether they want to continue a certain policy in place.

Private publishers, he said, need to be able to compete with government publishers, otherwise copyright and publishers cease to exist.

We need,” Njagi said, “to influence policy at a national level in a positive way.

Although it’s always interesting to hear the points of view of those involved in publishing on the African continent, this vast subject merits a two-day conference rather than a one-session seminar.

More from Publishing Perspectives on African publishing markets and issues is here, more on the International Publishers Association is here, more on book piracy is here, and more on London Book Fair is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s world media partner.

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.