African publishing in a globalised world

Adam Helms Lecture, Stockholm University, 21 November 2016
- Mary Jay -

I am delighted to be invited to give the Adam Helms 2016 Lecture, and thank the Swedish Publishers’ Association, Stockholm University Library, Publishing Studies programmes at the Department of History at Stockholm University, and Uppsala University for the honour. Adam Helms was a distinguished literary figure, and the two publishing companies he founded now form part of the Bonnier Publishing Group’s prestigious list. This history, together with Sweden’s noted internationalist outlook give me particular pleasure in having the opportunity to address you on the topic of internationalism in publishing in our globalised world, and the challenges and opportunities for African publishers in particular.


“We think of globalisation as a uniquely modern phenomenon, yet 2,000 years ago too, it was a fact of life, one that presented opportunities, created problems and prompted technological advance.”[i] The details all that time ago were different, but the fact is that the great advances made in the sciences and humanities, indeed where Civilisation was born, was the region now regarded as exotic and peripheral, ill-versed in democracy, and a threat to the West – the region from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to the Himalayas. The Silk Roads opened up the inter-connections of that vast area. It led to cultural and religious mixing and exchanges and the expansion of trade; but it also led to persistent outbreaks of wars, and oppressors seeking domination, including in culture and religion.  It is partly in this context that I view the opportunities and challenges of the new globalisation today which is to some extent viewed as a benefit engineered by the North, where Africa is perceived as a peripheral potential beneficiary, in need of assistance and not a driver.

We understand the modern manifestation of globalisation in the broad sense of inter-connectedness of communications, cultural, social, and economic life; and in some respects political structures. Global corporations may have their means to transcend boundaries, for good or ill, but African scholars and publishers seeking to travel to the North do not necessarily see ‘globalisation’ as any assistance in securing visas. At a recent academic conference in the UK, many overseas scholars were denied visas or entry.

However, assisted rather dramatically by technological advances in recent history, it has undoubtedly brought many benefits: the question is to whom have the benefits accrued, and how far it is a free-for-all with some left behind. In publishing, the opportunities are clear for innovative technologies, cross-border trade (if unfair barriers are not erected), and ease of communications (remember the pre-email era alone!). Sweden’s distinguished publisher Bonnier I understand now has 250 companies and brands across 14 countries. Growing largely organically, that seems to me a very good example of the global opportunities for publishers, respecting local governmental regimes and cultures. 

African publishers have at one level taken advantage of this dispensation; but at the same time, many of the structures of the industry from the colonial era have been carried forward. Of course the clock cannot be turned back: but how can it be programmed to operate with respect for the rights of countries and cultures to preserve their own cultural autonomy?

African publishers and globalisation

I would posit that the main practical advantage for African publishers has been IT, notably the internet and connectivity, always assuming not too many power outages. We are all no doubt aware of the explosion of the use of mobile phones in Africa, overcoming the unreliability and expense of fixed phone lines. The mobile has enabled publishers to connect both within the continent and outside, also addressing the expense and unreliability of email in many countries. Publishers, particularly commercial publishers, have established Websites. There is a problem selling direct from Websites – distribution rights of course being respected – since the use of credit cards is nowhere near as widespread as in developed countries. However, from a recent survey of the 52 University presses in Africa, only 27 have Websites, and 21 email addresses. Only seven published new titles in 2015, and 4 in 2014. ABC’s current tally is that only two such presses (outside South Africa) are currently actively publishing. So what price technological advance? I don’t propose to enumerate the many reasons for this, as many of you will be well aware of the enduring infrastructural problems which beset African publishers, and how some good economic growth rates have not translated into sufficient sharing of resources and public investment. In this notable case of University presses, we can add the overwhelming failure of governments and universities to support their presses. Perhaps it is not so surprising when one remembers that the World Bank asserted in the past that there was no need for support for African universities, since Northern scholars could provide all the expertise needed by Africa – how is that for independent cultural autonomy?

History of independent African publishing

Indigenous publishing is integral to national identity and development: cultural, social, and economic. Such publishing reflects a people’s history and experience, belief systems, and their concomitant expressions through language, writing, and art. In turn, a people’s interaction with other cultures is informed by their published work. Publishing preserves, enhances, and develops a society’s culture and its interaction with others. In Africa,

indigenous publishers continue to seek autonomy to pursue these aims: free from the constraints of the colonial past, the strictures of economic structural adjustment policies, the continuing dominance of multinational publishers (particularly in textbooks), regressive language policies, and lack of recognition by African governments of the economic and cultural importance of publishing. African publishers seek to work collectively, to harness the digital age, and to take their place in the international marketplace on equal terms, Africa’s own voice.[ii] Books are not a luxury; they are integral to education and development.

It is a well-established fact that in recent history the colonial powers in Africa dominated publishing until independence; notwithstanding that, pre the colonial missionary publications, primarily for the purposes of converting to Christianity, publishing was active on the continent from the early civilisations of the Nile valley, to the illuminated scripts in Ge’ez from monasteries in Christian Ethiopia. In the Western Sudan, Jenne, and Timbuktu, important trading posts and Islamic study centres housed the oldest libraries and universities in sub-Saharan Africa; and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, royal scripts in Arabic were produced on the Swahili East Coast and in Madagascar.

It is estimated that up to 95% of books now published in Africa are educational, as compared to the broad ratio in the north of 60:40 textbooks to non-textbooks. That survey indicated that the African continent consumes in excess of 12% of all books produced in the world, but contributes less than 3%. Similarly, the best estimate available is that 3,500 African literature titles are in print in French and English; this publishing output from a continent now estimated to have a total population over one billion. This equates to a ratio of roughly 1 title for 285,714 people. The US ratio is 1 title for 3,393 people.

The traditional model of publishing industries in the developed world is that the profits made from textbook publishing for schools and tertiary institutions were partly invested in publishing for the wider market, particularly scholarly titles and literary and children’s books for the general consumer market. Indeed, much of the attraction of publishing lies in the cultural and intellectual endeavour of the importance of the book. But the multinationals that take the lion’s share of the textbook market in Africa invest little, if any, of those profits within the country in which they are made; and the non-textbook sector is insufficiently developed by indigenous publishers, partly because of their long effective exclusion fro the textbook market.

Book donations

A further continuing and deleterious activity is “book donations” to Africa. No doubt well-meaning organisations, particularly in the UK and the US, send book donations to Africa, seeking to address the lack of books. That lack arises from a number of factors: the difficulty for African publishers of supplying their cultural appropriate books (for the policy reasons addressed elsewhere in this lecture), and the regrettable mindset amongst many that Northern published books are superior. Governments do not have to finance and resource libraries, including University libraries, if books are donated free, often irrespective of their relevance. Very few of these organisations match requested needs; rather they send publisher or library over-stocks. The shipping costs of the containers sent could in fact pay for locally published books requested by libraries in Africa: indeed much of our feedback centres on this point. They do not want to be recipients of charity, they would prefer either their own budgets, or to be able to request locally published books. What sort of charity is that, holding back a self-sustaining publishing industry, and continuing to swamp local culture by imported books?

British multinational publishers

We have in the past been challenged about special pleading about the role of the former colonial publishers. The structures of the so-called francophone and anglophone spheres are different, although some of the outcomes are the same. I speak here primarily about the former British colonies, and can justify our long standing assertions. In 2010, Macmillan Limited, a UK company, was the subject of a World Bank investigation and finding that declared the company ineligible for Bank-financed contracts for a period of six years, following an admission of receiving bribes for orders for educational books in South Sudan. Subsequently, the UK Serious Fraud Office fined Macmillan £11.2m in 2011. In a second World Bank investigation, Oxford University Press East Africa and OUP Tanzania, two wholly owned Oxford University Press (OUP) subsidiaries, were debarred for three years from World Bank–funded orders. This followed a finding of improper payments made to government officials. Subsequently, the UK Serious Fraud Office fined OUP £1.9m. The African companies in the OUP case are subsidiaries, thus their profits benefit the parent company rather than the local economy. I mention that OUP is a registered UK charity, thus does not pay UK tax. Is that fair practice, given they are engaging with commercial (textbook, not scholarly) competition with African publishers. The empire lives on!

Language policies

The empire also lives on through language policies in Africa. To take three European bilingual countries: Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Although those three countries have a combined population that is less than half that of Tanzania, which is approaching 43 million, education from the cradle to the grave is in Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish. They (you) learn English as a second language and the international language of communication, such that most Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes, certainly in the professional classes, speak perfect English. Thank you for allowing me to address you in English, since I would not be able to do so in Swedish! And yet, though Swahili is spoken throughout Tanzania and in much of eastern and parts of southern Africa, these regions of the continent do not follow this policy and are, thus, denied their cultural heritage. The mindset is that English, not Swahili, can best deliver education and it is tantamount to outlawing the language in education. The bulk of publishing in Africa is in English, and to some extent French; and of course English is the pre-eminent language of the internet.  If those in education are educated in a language which is not their mother tongue, with poor teaching standards and low purchasing power, the market for books in English will be small, but negligible and uneconomic in local languages. This is one of the drivers of publishers seeking international sales to provide investment income in their publishing output. Efforts are made from time to time to promote translations of African works; an initiative we launched with Unesco died a death due to their funding cuts. Of course I cannot necessarily be definitive, but I am only conscious of Tranan in Sweden, who has actively translated African works into Swedish.


Good bookshops in Africa are few and far between, and a number have folded in recent times as in Kenya because of a VAT hike. I am one of those who regrets the abolition of the fixed book price agreement in the UK, which has had a negative impact on many independent booksellers to the benefit of the chains and of course Amazon. It is a contentious issue, and the research on the negatives and positives shows conflicting outcomes, and indeed different policies in the Scandinavian countries. I would posit here that countries with relatively small but highly educated populations are more likely to withstand the assault of blockbusters at the expense of culturally important books. At the same time, at the risk of being controversial, Germany is in my view a splendid example of a vibrant publishing, bookselling and reading culture, which has not suffered from its enduring fixed price agreement; and booksellers have been better placed to withstand online competition. The problem in Africa is the scarcity of bookshops and generally poor respect for payment obligations.

African Books Collective

The advances made by autonomous publishers in the post-independence period were largely halted by the imposition of “structural adjustment” economic policies in the 1980s. It was against this overall background that publishers were struggling to keep alive: indeed many folded. A group of twelve key players came together in 1985 to brainstorm about what hurdles they could overcome by their own endeavours. By 1989, ABC had been established as the collective voice of independent African publishers, to market and distribute their titles internationally, and to put African scholarship and culture within the international sphere: asserting Africa’s own voice in international counsels. Here I must may tribute to the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) for their ready ear to the problems and their funding of the initial research for holding the conference. At the same time, the Dag Hammarksjköld Foundation had laid much of the scene through their development work: they organised and funded a series of Arusha Seminars, starting with “The Development of Autonomous Publishing in Africa” in 1984, and further conferences in 1996 and 2002. Here, I will if I may, pay tribute to Anita Theorell then at Sida, who was a stalwart supporter of the ABC initiative. I am also particularly honoured to welcome the presence of Per Gedin, the distinguished Swedish publisher who was a key player at the Arusha seminars, informing and advising with his expertise. This international collaboration and support from Sweden was crucial in working with African publishers to address the problems

The role of overseas partnerships and assistance

In those heady days, start-up financial assistance was received from Sida, the Ford Foundation, and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad). At later stages, whether core funding or specific project funding, notable assistance was provided amongst others by the Rockefeller Foundation and Hivos, the humanist development agency in the Netherlands. It is important to note also the efforts of the founding publishers themselves. At a time of severe foreign exchange constraints, they each contributed £1,000 to the start-up costs – a massive amount from their resources. And without giving away any secrets, their ingenuity was incredible as to how they managed to do it – all of it legal of course, but nonetheless a pretty amazing display of determination!

ABC has a dual mission: it is cultural, with a primarily commercial strategy. By 2007, we were able to become self-sufficient, with no further need for core donor funding. This outcome was attributable to the IT revolution. In one sense I am nervous about speaking in Sweden about the digital revolution – after all, Stockholm is described as the world’s virtual capital, with many successful start-ups, such as Skype, Spotify and so on. It is salutary to remember that 2007 was the year that Apple launched the first iPhone, Facebook made a drive to expand beyond non-educational users, Google developed Android and so on. So we can chalk up that African publishing was in the vanguard in 2007! Happily, this timing coincided with the change in policies, and to some extent attitudes, amongst the traditional donor countries working in partnership to support African publishing in the development context. A number of factors contributed, including longevity of funding, but very materially the introduction of the Millennium Development Goals which had no place for publishing, books or culture as such. Funds moved to government to government funding for poverty alleviation strategies, with no place for individual enterprises. How could a collective of over half the countries of sub-Saharan Africa secure funding from African governments, when publishing is not perceived as any part of poverty alleviation? Despite research we have done into the economic benefits to individual country publishers, and all the dependent ancillary services, it has fallen on deaf ears. The EU was not receptive to our efforts to obtain funding for providing African published books to African libraries, continuing an earlier funded project run by ABC – with again, I may say, notable support from Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. Having said this, I should perhaps stress again that the digital revolution has now enabled us to become self-sufficient, and the publishers themselves value that independence and self-respect.

I believe the demise of other organisations in the heyday of the 1990s funding for African publishing development organisations is largely due to the fact that they were donor inspired or dependent, with no strategies for self-sufficiency, particularly in the changing digital climate. Of course the funding climate has changed, with countries and multilateral organisations having pre-set agendas. I doubt in the current climate that ABC would have been able to attract sufficient understanding and resources to start. The one great loss we all feel is the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, which was a genuine inter-continental and international meeting place, with its influential Indabas, and where much real trading took place. Notwithstanding the difficult political climate which began to discourage participation, the primary issue is that they were largely donor dependent.

Here I am happy to draw attention to positive partnership publishing between Sweden and African countries, which is a real benefit to Africa. The Nordic Africa Institute collaborated with African publishers on some co-publications – ensuring their books were available at accessible prices in Africa. There are examples of NAI and Swedish co-publications with a Tanzanian publisher, and with South Africa. They sent considerable quantities of their relevant publications free to African libraries; although that was legitimate support to the knowledge economy rather than to African publishing as such.

Adoption of globalisation opportunities

Undoubtedly IT and the digital revolution has been the main opportunity. Internationally, through ABC, it has been twofold: first the old distribution model of shipping books from Africa to the UK and onwards to its US distributor, warehousing, freight etc. costs, has ceased. Publishers send files for new titles via email, and ABC converts to ebooks and uploads to its print-on-demand (POD) printer. Thereafter, ABC simply prints to customer order and the printer ships. We print in the US for the market (not now needing a US distributor) and in the UK for all other markets. I fear I must mention Per Gedin again here: he first alerted us in the 1990s to the possibility of POD, and so it has been.

The other great plus for African publishers has been digital marketing, widely disseminating their print and ebooks through the myriad mechanisms; indeed that has been a key ABC survival strategy, although, as I explain later, that benefit has not extended to accessibility and sales in Africa.  

There are sectors in Africa which are using IT systems productively, particularly I understand in the health sector, accounting and GDP research. M-Pesa, the mobile payments system based in Kenya has particularly greatly benefitted small enterprises and individuals in East Africa. There are a few trade books platforms, particularly in Kenya and Nigeria; although one such platform in South Africa recently folded.

Despite some hopeful signs, it is difficult to extrapolate that the IT revolution has revolutionised publishing, let alone furthered the need for Africa to become their own knowledge economies.

Globalisation, the negatives

Given our understanding that globalisation broadly breaks down barriers, we might expect that there would be very much more cooperation between African publishers and the international publishing community.

I am sorry that there is not a great deal of evidence of such cooperation.

The upshot of massive book donation programmes, including a rather recent programme by USAID, and corruption in textbook tendering, is that publishers are seeking to find the ways in which, for example the IT revolution, can sustain their existence, rather than to expand and grow which is the dominant discourse in the North. I might add here that the Kenyan and South African governments are not assisting their publishers: they both impose VAT on books – 16% in Kenya and 14% in South Africa, amongst others. It is effectively a tax on learning, and is encouraging piracy, a perennial problem in Africa. In Kenya, since the imposition of VAT three years ago, sales have fallen by 35%, and at the same time they are facing the import of millions of textbooks, courtesy of USAID: all this resulting in the shocking outcome that sales through piracy now exceed those through legal channels.
Diaspora trade publishing

There is an apparent new concentration on exciting Africa fiction publishing in the anglophone world. But that writing is largely diaspora writing in the UK or largely US. Irrespective of the provenance of the writer, it is not publishing in Africa. Of course we understand that there has been a move of writers to the North, but it should not be confused with the issues for African publishers. We can document writers who have been nurtured and published in Africa; when they get any recognition – prizes etc. – they move to a Northern publisher. Or writers in Africa seek primarily to publish in the North, not valuing publishing in their home countries. I cite a particularly successful Nigerian writer in the North: when I challenged her some time ago at a conference, she stated that she insists that the Africa rights for her titles be retained by her, to give to a Nigerian publisher of her choice. I laud that, but I do not see it replicated.

Scholarly titles

This similarly applies to the issue of scholarly titles. There is a danger that Northern researchers are simply extracting ‘raw materials’ from the continent for production and consumption in African Studies in the North. UK or US scholars are reluctant, if not averse, to publishing first in Africa, with the option to give rights to a Northern publisher. The reasons are twofold. First, publishing in Africa does not give credit for tenure in the US, or the REF (Research Excellence Framework) in the UK. Secondly, Northern publishers wish to retain original rights, not wanting to have subsidiary rights from an African publisher. I am happy to say that we are pursuing this actively with the African Studies Association UK, who are receptive to the issues to be considered by scholars.
Digital rights

Digital rights are of course global. In that sense, there might seem to be no reason why Africa should not stand on equal competitive terms with the international community. But where for example are the elibrary platforms in Africa? The leading platforms are in the US, through which ABC can sell into Africa; and those sales worldwide now represent some 25% of sales revenue. But the figures for Africa are disappointing, to say the least: even when collections are sold, the download rates are very low indeed. Lack of librarian training is one of the issues impacting on that. There are a few trade books platforms, notably in Kenya and Nigeria; and ABC converts trade book titles. Although easily available for purchase, again there are the concomitant factors: purchasing power, connectivity, and payment options.

Challenges for Africa and for the international community

In the 80s and 90s, African publishers and the international community worked together to address these cultural and development issues. Sweden played a notable role, consistent with its much admired internationalist outlook. I do not know the answers: but I throw out the challenge, how can we work together again in current policy and globalised contexts so as to reactivate those idealistic and realistic ways in which we can address the inequalities in culture and publishing in which we can be partners again, rather than Africa taking its historic subservient role. The challenge for us, therefore, is to reactivate our historic partnership with Sweden in the new age and to make globalisation work for Africa, the South, as it is for us in the North.


Frankopan, Peter. The Silk Roads. A New History of the World (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015)

[ii] Bgoya, Walter & Jay, Mary “Publishing in Africa from Independence to the Present Day” in Research in Africa Literatures, vol. 44, no. 2, Summer 2013 pp. 17-34.

Mary Jay is a former Director and CEO of African Books Collective. A video of the above address can be found here.

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