African Books Collective: African published books in the North

- Justin Cox and Stephanie Kitchen  -

This is a presentation about the African Books Collective that for some 30 years has distributed African published academic, literary and children’s books around the world. The aim of the paper is to provide some insights into how books published in Africa are making their way to libraries with collections on Africa, and to discuss current and future trends; it being understood that ‘decolonising library collections’, the theme of this conference, would by rights involve acquiring and maintaining materials from outside the global North. This paper was prepared for the SCOLMA annual conference ‘Decolonising African Studies: questions and dilemmas for libraries, archives and collections’ held at the University of Edinburgh on 10 June 2019.  

What books and publishers does ABC distribute?

Upon its creation in 1990, ABC represented a large number of university presses on the continent and independent publishers, some of which are large firms still trading today. Today few university presses are trading or publishing new books. This work was largely picked-up by private independent publishers and research institutes such as CODESRIA, OSSREA, the Institute of Southern African Studies and others. Now none of these aside from CODESRIA are still trading. In recent years, alongside the work done by independent publishers, scholars have turned to alternative avenues to get their work distributed, and hybrid models of publishing have become a feature of the book-chain in Africa. Publishers, or content-producers, may take the form of NGOs whose main purpose is not publishing per se but which need an outlet for their work; loose networks of writers and scholars who have formed their own presses or research organisations; publishing outfits which carry out publishing work for organisations or book series, usually with funding; and many small independent literary presses and writers’ networks.

Some of the notable publishers distributed by African Books Collective are:

CODESRIA: The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa

African Minds, South Africa, an open access, not-for-profit publisher

Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon

The Forum for Social Studies, Ethiopia, an independent, non-profit institution

Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, Tanzania

 Sub-Saharan Publishers, Ghana, established in 1992

Weaver Press, Zimbabwe, formed in 1998.

Recently growth in the ABC list has come from research institutes and organisations based in South Africa; the first and most long-standing of these is the African Institute of South Africa. The Southern African Migration Program publishes research and reports on migration in Southern Africa. More recently ABC has begun distributing books published by NISC. Originally established to develop academic bibliographic databases, NISC now publishes books, including the African Humanities Series. There is also the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), an independent research organisation.

University presses are beginning to re-emerge. The University of Namibia Press re-energised its programme in 2012; a new university press has been founded as Kwara State University Press in Nigeria; and the University of Mauritius Press re-started publishing in 2018. Whilst these signs are encouraging, we would still note the depressed state of the university press sector in Africa, with the exception of university presses in South Africa at Wits, Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal. It is notable for example that neither Nigeria nor Ghana have active university presses publishing in West Africa.  For more in-depth analysis of university presses in Africa, see the study published by African Minds in 2016.

The above is just a snapshot of some of the key producers of scholarly content in Africa. Many more titles, some one-offs, some publishing infrequent, but nonetheless critical, works are widely available via ABC’s distribution networks.

Distribution (print and electronic)

ABC was founded in 1990 by African publishers so that they could control their own distribution in countries outside of their own. It was founded with the help of funding agencies in Scandinavia, Europe and the US, which continued for its first 17 years of trading. At that time, book distribution was pre-digital and the outlets for scholarly books were not as numerous as they are today. Furthermore books were shipped around the world and stored at great cost. The quantity of titles produced by participating publishers in ABC was half that of today.

Nowadays ABC distributed books are widely available via all major library platforms: Project MUSE, EBSCO, Proquest, Ebrary, CyberLibris and Gardners. Newly launched this year is books distribution through JSTOR, and there are many more smaller providers. These largely US-based platforms have been hosting ABC distributed content since 2010, and have been critical to ABC’s survival. Project MUSE report that sales in the UK are hard to come by, though it is hoped that JSTOR might provide expanded reach.

Digital access leads to increased discoverability of content and sometimes results in an increased demand for print copies.

Printed books can be ordered from ABC directly, which ensures the maximum financial benefit for sales is passed on to publishers. Books can be ordered from all major wholesales and library suppliers around the world.

Global book sales and geographical distribution

In the last eight years ABC has sold over £2 million worth of print books on behalf of the African publishers it represents. 62% of those sales were made in the US. The collective also distributes ebooks for publishers and has recorded sales of £470k to both retail and library platforms. We estimate that 80% of digital sales are to libraries in the US.

This follows some 20 years of support from US-based libraries and major African Studies collections. In years gone by, standing orders were also held with libraries in the UK. Currently only the British Library and the University of Cambridge show as direct UK customers of the collective, though some library business may have switched to wholesale channels where the end-user customer is not revealed.

Recently the proportion of books sold in the US has declined as there has been growth in other regions, most notably in Germany, Canada, South Africa and China. Increasing interest, as availability of the books becomes wider, is being shown in Australia, where the African population is on the rise in the Pacific region. For example, library platforms owned by the American company Proquest report that 10% of ABC sales made through them were made in Australia, as compared with 6% in the UK. Recently in Germany institutional libraries have been purchasing or enquiring about purchasing ABC’s complete digital collection, which now totals 1,200+ books.

In the US, African Studies collections will often spend in the range of £2,500 on new titles in print from African publishers to meet their collection needs and may also at the same time have access to complete or curated digital collections containing ABC distributed books.

Sales and distribution in Africa

In Africa, excluding South Africa, the situation in very bleak. African-produced content is much more widely available outside Africa than it is within. Some sales are made via the library supplier Mallory, and occasional tender orders appear. Project MUSE had subsidised pricing to African countries and some institutions had access, in cooperation with INASP. But when those countries were deemed by INSAP to be, in theory, capable of paying for such resources themselves the subscriptions were not renewed and access was lost. And even when there is access in a few institutions, usage tends to be low. Other specialist library platforms dedicated to providing content to African institutions have struggled to get off the ground though remain hopeful. 

African published books, epublishing and digital technologies

Publishers in Africa were on board with digital publishing from its inception. As part of its remodelling as a self-sustaining organisation in 2007 ABC needed to digitise very quickly. In 2018 64% of books released by ABC were made available electronically, and in the scholarly category this figure is much higher. Within the institutions where ABC’s digital collections are available, usage is high. Project MUSE report that in the first quarter of 2019, 3,200 African published books were read on their platform and this figure is increasing rapidly year upon year. Some institutions in the UK do have access to these MUSE collections but usage in those institutions remains very low in comparison to other countries which have similar access, with the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia and Japan all reporting very healthy use.

Digital technologies have vastly reduced the costs of making available and supplying scholarly books with small print runs. Collectively African publishers have been able to seize on the advantages of these innovations and reduce the barriers in e.g. selling a book published in Uganda to a customer in China, or several books published by various publishers to be sold in Germany. ebooks have reduced the friction even further and have enabled libraries across the globe to vastly increase their holdings of African produced knowledge from a range of content producers on a wholesale basis. We would nonetheless note that cross-border book trade within Africa is still problematic; such transactions tend to go through ABC rather than via more local channels.

The sale of a title in a digital collection with a multi-user access licence does not result in the same return to a publisher as a full-price sale of a print book. That said, sales made in such collections are often incremental additional sales reaching many more libraries than is possible for just print, or even perpetual purchase of ebooks. Therefore, libraries outside of the major collections which do not have the budgets to spend on such specialist material may find that it is more cost-effective to acquire such content digitally. As usage figures prove a title’s value, more full-priced and perpetual sales are encouraged and on the whole the market has grown. The way in which digital collections are priced does provide publishers with some sort of idea about what a minimum income for a scholarly work might earn in the library market and allow for better modelling and planning. However, library cuts and perceptions about price remain a challenge for publishers everywhere. If the cost to libraries of acquiring specialist content is driven down further, and more and more content is expected for less and less, then the scholarly book chain – including in Africa – could find itself in a race to the bottom.

Challenges for publishers

Other challenges remain for African publishers despite a more frictionless international trade. Globally, the costs of publication, in relation to income, remain high in the scholarly sector, particularly when print distribution is accounted for. Though demand for the print format remains high, within the publishers’ local markets it can still be uneconomic because of the costs of printing. Even ebooks, discussed above, often do not address the imbalance because publishers cannot, for many reasons, always rely on a local library market for their books and this can restrict the publication of good new content. A lot of the content received by ABC is produced by hybrid publishers who often cannot make their books widely available in their own countries; whereas traditional publishers, who maintain full local distribution networks which form the backbone of their businesses, publish the fewest scholarly books distributed by ABC.

Northern libraries and support for African publishers

There are no barriers to acquiring African-published books from ABC, though it does seem that libraries in the UK could be doing more to ensure their collections contain knowledge produced on the continent; by scholars working within an African context and on an equal footing with such knowledge being produced in their own institutions.

It is important that libraries recognise that by choosing to purchase books published in Africa they can directly support the production and publication of more knowledge on the continent and bolster its growth and ensure its ideas are heard.

African-published books and decolonisation

By considering issues of decolonisation in relation to their acquisitions, organisations like SCOLMA – UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa, also European and US librarian associations, and their members, can provide an increased market for books published in Africa, encouraging dialogue and further balancing academic exchanges. Publishers have new and efficient methods which allow easier access to their books; they have globalised their offerings which no longer, as was the case in previous times, need to be ‘hunted down’ and ordered ‘specially’.

The ball is also in the court of scholars to use and cite content produced on the African continent more; meantime librarians can highlight the availability of such content to their communities, and prioritise its purpose in the same way as they do with knowledge produced in the North.


Justin Cox is CEO at African Books Collective.

Stephanie Kitchen is Managing Editor of the International African Institute, London. 

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