01 June 2006

Can African publishers publish African authors and keep them?

Textbooks make up ninety percent of Africa’s total book production. Whilst the continent’s population makes up twelve percent of the global figure, it produces only one percent of the world’s books. As a result, the remaining ten percent of Africa’s book production, which includes liturgical materials, academic books and gray literature, makes up a tiny and almost insignificant proportion (Chakava, 1996, pp.79-81). The affect of this situation on African authors is put by the President of the Ghana Association of Writers:

“If you [the writer] set out to print anything on your own, the printing costs will stagger you. If you manage to print, the distribution difficulties will blow your mind. If you give your stuff to a local publisher, you will sympathize so much with his problems that you may not write again. … So all our best work … appears first to an audience which either regards us like some glass-enclosed specimen… or like an exotic weed to be sampled and made a conservation piece … or else we become some international organization’s pet.” (quoted in Kotei, 1987)

African literature is viewed as virtually non-existent such that when a work is published, it is considered almost as an exception. This occurs despite there existing great literatures authored in Amharic, Swahili, Hausa, Yaruba and Zulu (Fawcett, 1992, p.174). According to Zell, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a large amount of literature in African languages exists but remains unpublished (ibid. p.172). As the above quotation points out, when African authors do get published, it is not by African publishers, but by foreign internationals. In this way, dissociation almost occurs of these authors from the literature of their region.

Who is publishing African literature?

Chakava (1996, p.81) notes that “Africa’s leading fiction writers are published in the North, mostly in Britain, France, and the US.” These individuals emerged during the 1950s and 1960s when an indigenous African publishing industry did not exist or was only just being established. Chakava believes that these authors continue to be published outside Africa either because the local industries are still developing, or because authors “are still bound by contractual obligations to their original publishers.”

Heinemann relies heavily on the US export market, and will do so increasingly due to a reduction in size of UK market. Indeed, British booksellers are no longer very interested in selling African literature (Fawcett, 1992, p.173). Because publishers favouring internationalism are linguistically Eurocentric, African authors must write in English or French to reach an international market, even though great literature is being written in Amharic, Swahili, Hausa, Yaruba and Zulu (ibid. p.174).

Shortly after publishing Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1958, Heinemann launched its African Writers Series, achieving a list of one hundred titles of fiction, drama and poetry in a decade (Hill, 1992, p.45). The number of titles in this series by 1992 was 300.

Hill (1992, p.46) insists that profit was not Heinemann’s primary concern in promoting the African Writers Series. In the event, he writes, the series was very profitable; after selling only 2000 copies in its first two years, Things Fall Apart went on to sell several million copies.

Oxford University Press’ African divisions, made up largely of local managers and editors, have created strong African lists in both English and African languages. These include original fiction, poetry and drama, by authors such as Wole Soyinka and John Ruganda (Hill, 1992, p.47).

Longman and Macmillan rely on local African authors, both in the education sector and in fiction. The former’s African companies each publish between twenty and one hundred new titles each year in a range of languages (Hill, 1992, p.47).

Ramchond (1983, p.63) points out that most West Indian novels since 1950 were first published in London, while “nearly every West Indian novelist has established himself while living there”.

Although the characters and settings of most novels by West Indian authors in England were drawn from the native islands, and although they dealt with issues relevant to those people, the price of novels manufactured in Britain were often too great for most West Indians to afford (Ramchond, 1983, p.74). The main audience for their work, therefore, was not a group who shared their experiences, but a foreign one. Ramchond writes: “West Indian writers deplore the poverty of cultural life in the islands, but the departure of so many giften men from an area whose joint population hardly exceeds three million, has only aggravated the situation they sought to escape…” (ibid.)

Fawcett (1994, p.172) believes that the record of British publishers translating African languages into English is virtually non-existent. Rather, he writes, “African literature today is locked away in African languages and few people care to find the key and use it.”

While African authors and literature scholars wish to see such material published, publishers, whether British or African, insist that this is an unrealistic propostition for they struggle even to sell African literature in English. (Fawcett, 1992, p.174)

Rosalind Ward, of Longman’s African and Caribbean series, does not believe that the sales potential of African-language titles is large enough to even justify the payment for translation. Furthermore, she argues that when authors write in their own languages they do so for their own cultural framework (Fawcett, 1992, p.173).

Fawcett (1992, p.173) notes that university departments in Germany have published translations of African literature, while the African Literature Forum in the UK cannot because it does not have funds to do so.

Schulz (1992, p.94) notes that the current African authors are published by only three small German companies. Suhrkamp is the only large publishing house to have shown an interest in the continent.

Schulz (1992, p.95) writes: “So long as Africa remains, in European minds, a continent without a history, staggering from crisis to crisis, curiosity about African literary culture has little chance of developing.”

African publishers

Mbanga and Ling (1993, p.209) argue that the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) is strategically placed to serve the region’s publishing industries. Held in Harare every August, it lies between southern and sub-Saharan Africa, and is accessible to the three European languages commonly utilised in contemporary African writing. The organisation behind it aims to make ZIBF “a marketing tool for the publishing industry throughout Africa” by attracting overseas interest (ibid., p.211). It has established an office in London which acts as its marketing agent for Europe and North Africa.

According to Mbanga and Ling (1993, p.213), the 1993 ZIBF hosted representatives from twenty-one African countries. However, they point out, this participation remains dependent on the support of donar agencies such as NORAD and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Mbanga and Ling (1993, p.213) write that the 1992 ZIBF made progress for international trade between various African states. Licensing agreements were signed with Nigeria for the production of children’s books in Southern Africa; distribution agreements were made between Botswana, Zimbabwe and the Independent Publisher’s Association of South Africa; and representatives from Ghana, Nigeria, Mauritius, Kenya and Tanzania won orders from Southern Africa.

The African Publishers’ Network (APNET) is committed to the growth of international trade within the African continent. Based in Harare, it liaises with the ZIBF with the aim of promoting such growth.

Hill argues that the difficulties faced by Africa’s indigenous publishers are often not the result of activities by transnational publishers, but African governments who endeavor to impose restrictions on information and education. Hill notes that in 1992, the Kenyan government was publishing the country’s school textbooks in direct competition with local publishers. The latter, as a result, were being driven out of business. By securing Kenyan publishers’ admission to the International Publishers Association, Hill argues that British transnationals assured them world wide support against government tactics (Hill, 1992, p.50).

Hill argues that for more business to go to African publishers, or the local offices of transnationals, the local book production infrastructure must be strengthened. Only the, he writes, can the indigenous publisher “compete on a more equal footing” (Hill, 1992, p.52).

The British multinational publisher, Evans, is owned by a Nigerian country (Hill, 1992, p.52).

Zell (1998, p.106) notes that a African publishers fail to market their books efficiently. At a conference on publishing and book development in 1973, African libraries pointed out that while they received a lot of publicity from Northern publishers, they did not have similar information about books published in Africa. At a seminar twenty-five years later held by APNET, the Managing Director of the University of Lagos Bookshop confirmed that the same situation remained. Arguably, however, the African Book Publishing Record, the quarterly catalogue published in English, partially fills this gap.

Ashcroft et al. (1989, p.7) argue that control over language is one of the main features of imperial oppression. By introducing the idea of a standard version, language is used to perpetuate a hierarchical structure of power. As a result, post-colonial writing may strive to replace the language of the centre with “a discourse fully adapted to the colonial place” (ibid. p.38).

Ashcroft et al. (1989, p.195) point out that literature, amongst other arts, produced in post-colonial societies is not a simple adaption of European models. Rather, “the process of literary decolonisation has involved a radical dismantling of the European codes and a post-colonial subversion and appropriation of the dominant European discourses.”

Chakava (1996, p.91) suggests that “African copyright laws should make in mandatory for a foreign publisher who acquires rights from an African publisher to make a full acknowledgement of this fact in his own edition. The practice will not only expose and promote the African publisher to the international market but will also affirm that he is the holder of the copyright in the work.”

1. Ashcroft, B, Griffiths, G, Tiffin, H (1989) The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge)
2. Chakava, H (1996) Publishing in Africa: One Man’s Perspective (Nairobi: Bellagion Publishing Network)
3. Fawcett, G (1994) The unheard voices of Africa Logos 5/4, pp.172-177 (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.)
4. Hill, A (1992) British publishers’ constructive contribution to African Literature Logos 3/1, pp.45-52 (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.)
5. Kotei, S I A (1987) The Book in Africa Today (Paris: UNESCO)
6. Mbanga, T, Ling, M (1993) An aspring Frankfurt emerges in Africa. Logos 4/4, pp.209-214 (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.)
7. Ramchond, K (1983) The West Indian Novel and its Background (London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.)
8. Schulz, H (1992) Bringing African Literature to Germany Logos 3/2, pp.94-97 (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.)
9. Zell, H M (1998) The production and marketing of African books: A Msungu perspective Logos 9/2, pp.104-108 (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.)

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