Meet the Non-African Fighting for African Book Publishing

    Mary Jay: African book publishing

    Passing on knowledge to generations has always been one of man’s greatest cravings and books have proven to be very good at disseminating such information. African books have the tendency to provide most, if not all Africans with information regarding Africa but just how ready are they to immerse themselves in this ‘source of all knowledge” when the book publishing sector in Africa is still struggling to get noticed?

    Africa happens to be a continent blessed with thousands of creative, literary writers and academic scholars. However, these authors seem to have very little or no market for their publications all because of the absence of competitive book publishers on the continent. As a result, most of these authors have turned to foreign publishers especially in the US and Europe which has and is continuously crippling the book publishing sector in Africa.

    This accounts for a large number of educational (academic) books that are published on a yearly basis for incorporation into school programs. Most of these publishers had long understood the lucrative nature of the academic book publishing sub-domain as compared to fiction or story writing which is more common among European writers.

    More African writers have recognized the importance of promoting the continent’s rich and unique culture through writing but still, there is a problem of marketing those books on the continent which according to most of these writers, is caused by the fact that Africans don’t read; a situation that is putting the book publishing industry in jeopardy.

    This has resulted in most of these writers turning over to foreign markets in a bid to find a market for their books and also, altered their perception about the African continent. However, this excuse seems somewhat lukewarm as that trend over the past few years has changed with many Africans now getting entangled with African books more than ever before.

    All such loopholes in the African book publishing sector were the foundation of the coming of the African Books Collective (ABC). The ABC is a non-profit, worldwide marketing and distribution channel for more than 180 independent African publishers from 24 countries and specializes in the promotion of scholarly, literary, children’s books and academic pieces.

    These publishers believe in publishing from within African cultures and building a good image of Africa both within and internationally.

    One of ABC’s directors and British publisher, Mary Jay has spent a better part of her life trying to promote and support the works of African writers and scholars in a bid to bring their works to a global audience. She calls this “her mission.”

    Contrary to the myth that Africans don’t read, Mary Jay, however, foresees a positive long-term reading, writing, and consumption of African books.

    Through her numerous lobbies, the British Council has sponsored the African Books Collective exhibits at Kampala National Bookweek Festival in November 1997, the Africa Center in London, December 1997 and at the first Nairobi International Book Fair in September 1998.

    This mission of hers unfortunately, could take a much longer than expected time to come to light and here is why.

    1. Lack of Technological Advancements: Most of Africa’s books are available in paperback format, with very few having e-book channels or an online ordering system for their books. Very few of them have an online presence. Only 13% publishers have Twitter handles and 17% active on Facebook. A very large proportion of Africans still dwells in the analog era with limited or in some cases, no access to digital equipment and education. However, most African governments have begun incorporating ICTs into their school curriculum as a way to bridge the digital divide that exists between the technologically advanced countries and Africa.
    2. Corruption: Many African countries have been plagued with unfair competition in their book publishing sectors which has aided in proliferating most of their educational institutions with a low-quality academic material. Some African publishers and authors of educational books, regularly lobby for their books to be introduced into school programs in a bid to realize more returns. According to Mary Jay, two UK-based publishers Macmillan and Oxford have all been sanctioned by the World Bank for carrying out corrupt practices in African markets in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
    3. Development Aid: Like most technological developments of the world including the pharmaceutical industry, book aid to African countries has great side effects. Receiving large donor shipments of books from donor organizations (which in most cases, are non-African books or written by non-African authors), only help to kill the market for local publishers and writers. Perhaps, such books could be converted into funds to be used for purchasing African books and encouraging local consumption.
    4. High-Taxing Rates: VAT (value-added tax) rates on books vary from country to country, and also depending on whether they are printed or electronic books (e-books). Many of Africa’s book publishing experts advocate for a zero-rate VAT as a good policy to support the reading and education of African books, some African countries, however, seem to be taking the opposite direction. In Kenya for instance, the recent introduction of a 16% VAT rate on books caused a noticeable fall in book sales.

    As always, it seems almost impossible to come up with an exhaustive list but truth be told, the African Books Collective has since its inception, worked so hard through Mary Jay to bring African books to the global audience and these still pose as barriers. The ABC’s efforts to bring book publishing in Africa to the limelight, however, appears to be a waste of time for most African publishers who have refused to join the organization in its struggle to revamp the book publishing sector in Africa. In fact, the ABC’s stronghold in Africa is in countries like Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe, with more than half of its publishers from these countries.

    African venture capitalists like Mary Jay are rare to find especially among the non-African race. African publishers, governments and other stakeholders involved in the book business across Africa are called upon to join the ABC’s wide network of 24 countries striving to advance Africa’s book publishing economy and advance policies that favor this lucrative venture.

     

     

     

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