Decolonisation and Co-publishing

- Stephanie Kitchen and Mary Jay -

In 2018 the African Studies Association of the UK (ASAUK) and the African Studies Association (ASA, US) launched an initiative to draw attention to the need for a more equitable playing field in co-publication between publishers in the North and in Africa.

Barriers to expanding co-publishing include small local academic markets, prices, lack of distribution channels, lack of subsidies to support African editions; and the weak state of university presses in the continent. With notable exceptions, in West Africa neither Ghana nor Nigeria have significant active university presses able to co-publish academic work. We should also note at this point we are speaking mainly of co-publishing in the English language – translations present a different challenge (discussed briefly below). We are also mainly speaking about scholarly titles which are high priced in the North. 

ABC is able to broker co-publishing arrangements and authors and publishers can consult ABC for advice. Some ABC publishers have expressed an interest in participating – being able to consider co-publishing books. These include Luviri Press (Malawi), Safari (Nigeria), E&D (Tanzania), Gadsden Publishers (Zambia). Others are already co-publishing including Malthouse (Nigeria), Mkuki na Nyota Publishers (Tanzania), Sub-Saharan Publishers (Ghana), University of Namibia Press, and Weaver Press (Zimbabwe). There are publishers outside the ABC network that co-publish books including Wits Press, HSRC Press, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press and Jacana in South Africa, and Premium Times in Nigeria.

In the North, notably a handful of university presses in the US have expressed an interest in co-publishing with African publishers, including Ohio, Indiana and Michigan State university presses. In Europe, interest has been expressed by Africanist publishers including Brill, James Currey Publishers and Pluto Press. James Currey has a long history of co-publishing with African publishers; the ABC initiative has facilitated newer co-publishing projects in the pipeline between Pluto and Sub-Saharan Publishers in Ghana, and Brill and Mkuki na Nyota Publishers in Tanzania.

The purpose of the initiative is to try to make connections and arrangements for co-publication where it’s possible, rather than assume nothing can be done – granted that in some contexts e.g. Central Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia and other small and francophone states it can be difficult. This is very much the approach the International African Institute (IAI) has taken to co-publish its academic work over the last decade.

Historical context

Following independence, the indigenous African publishing industry started to flourish. African scholars had access to the new independent publishers giving a voice to Africa’s own scholarship and perspectives. Many notable scholars published locally, not least in the context of national development. Early examples are many, and include Claude Ake, Okot p’Bitek and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. This continued with noted scholars such as Samir Amin, Paulin Hountondji, Amina Mama, Mahmood Mamdani, Thandika Mkandawire, Dan Nabudere, Issa Shivji, Yash Tandon and Paul Zeleza. Many of the early liberation leaders published in Africa: Samora Machel, Agostino Neto and Nathan Shamuyarira. 

With the onset of the imposition of structural adjustment policies, and a lack of support from African governments, the local publishing environment struggled and writers and scholars migrated to Northern publishers. Globalisation in this context was a negative, in that it did not open up, rather it closed down on African publishers. The level playing field between potential equal partners of the South and the North was flattened in favour of the North. African scholars have migrated to the North, to the impoverishment of Africa. This initiative seeks to recognise the realities, whilst at the same time seeking to re-calibrate a fair place for African publishers in the world of scholarship. 

Above all, the purpose of this initiative is to recognise this background, and to seek to find ways whereby African publishers can take their rightful place in the global marketplace. Support for African development – whether economic, cultural, societal or educational – requires a commitment to equitable practices in African publishing as key to national development. 

What are the mechanisms that enable co-publishing?

Very few academic books are genuinely ‘commercial’ in terms of sales/royalties; therefore, a cooperative approach is likely to yield better dissemination.

First, authors can utilise the network of publishers in Africa provided primarily via ABC. Researchers may endeavour to understand the academic publishing scene, however rudimentary, in the country in which they are working. Personal contact goes a long way.

Second, establish cooperation between publishers in North and South. Publishers need to set and agree reasonable file fees/rights sales (typically to be not more than US$500, even in South Africa) and in the case of smaller publishers these should be waived where possible. 

We also would note that there is no evidence that licensing such African editions affects sales to Northern markets. Researchers and authors may need to make this point to their publishers, ideally before contracts are finalised; and/or authors may request to retain rights for their own books in African markets, or e.g. for other important languages in countries where research has been done, such as French for ‘francophone’ regions.

Researchers may consider publishing the first edition of their work in the country where it is most relevant – there are established and committed academic publishers in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia… If an author is concerned about ‘global standards’ or peer review, s/he might encourage the publisher to engage with this; or arrange some additional peer readers on their manuscript (as many experienced researchers will often do anyway). Authors should get involved and offer to peer review, or edit book series, for African publishers. If an institution and research assessment system don’t allow its academics to first publish in Africa, or if a book is primarily of global interest then the author might at least try to initiate discussions with both regional and international publishers simultaneously. 

Northern publishers should consider publishing more books by African scholars in the diaspora who may have established networks and access to publishers in Africa and channels to disseminate their work. The same may apply to continental scholars who decide to publish with a Northern publisher.

Involvement of the African publisher in peer-reviewing/assessing manuscripts

When arranging a co-edition with a publisher in the African continent, it is important to observe ethical practice vis-à-vis the manuscript and review process. At the very least, the manuscript or published pdf needs to be made available to the African publisher/editor as part of the co-publishing discussion. Ideally also the full readers’ reports. In addition to seeing the readers’ reports, one or two publishers, notably for the IAI’s books, Wits Press, also tend to recruit an additional report from their own cohort of reviewers, usually based in the country concerned. Once manuscripts and reports have been reviewed decisions can ensue about contracting co-editions.

Co-publishing examples from the IAI

Mkuki na Nyota Publishers in Dar es Salaam is preparing an edition of Jason Sumich’s The Middle Class in Mozambique. This book is highly relevant to the politics of class formation in Eastern and Southern Africa and socialist legacies. 

Premium Times Books in Nigeria is publishing a paperback edition of Hannah Hoechner’s book Quranic Schools in Northern Nigeria: Everyday Experiences of Youth, Faith, and Poverty. This follows a series of events and launches arranged by Premium Times Books, Nigeria to promote the first edition.

A series of co-editions with presses in South Africa makes books available at more affordable Rand prices: 

HSRC Press recently published an edition of the IAI book with Zed Books Taxing Africa – highly policy-relevant work based on decades of research collaborations across continents – the researchers were based in Tanzania, Norway, UK, Canada, Sierra Leone and beyond.

The IAI has a longstanding collaboration with Wits University Press to co-publish many of its monographs, most recently Liz Gunner’s Radio Sounding: South Africa and the Black modern; earlier examples include Andrew Bank’s Pioneers and the Field: South Africa’s Women Anthropologists; and Maxim Bolt’s Zimbabwe’s Migrants and South Africa’s border farms.

Sometimes modest subsidies have been provided (of the order of US$700 to 1,200) to facilitate marketing/lower pricing of these editions.

Another example is of Jessica Johnson’s In Search of Gender Justice: Rights and Relationships in Matrilineal Malawi which is being distributed in Malawi via Mzuni Press (the publishing house for Mzuzu University). 200 copies were sent at IAI expense to Malawi and the Malawian publisher handles onward distribution. 

A further example is Mark Hunter’s new book Race for Education: gender, white tone, and schooling in South Africa which is being distributed at a subsidized price by Cambridge University Press’s branch office in Cape Town. Such arrangements are subsidized by the Northern institutions (in these cases, the IAI and the University of Toronto). 

Benefits of co-publishing

Benefits of co-publishing/distribution include the reception of research in African countries. Such research on Africa may be relevant both in and beyond the continent; but often the most immediate relevance is within the continent. Promotion in Nigeria of Hannah Hoechner’s academic book on the important topic of Quranic schooling in Northern Nigeria would not have been possible without the collaboration with Premium Times Books. On a bigger scale, the IAI’s book Taxing Africa, on specific contexts and changes required for more equitable national and international tax regimes, was discussed at meetings including in Somaliland, Somalia, Rwanda, Tanzania and South Africa. Both of these books have had some level of subsidy to make them available in Africa; in the Nigerian example, gratis copies were provided by the IAI to Premium Times, shipping costs were covered (considerable to Nigeria) and the author used her own research funds to assist in promotions. The Tax book meantime was primarily supported by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex.

In South Africa, university infrastructure can and does support promotion of local and international research on Africa. The IAI has collaborated with Wits University, the University of Johannesburg and the University of the Western Cape in disseminating its works; but this tends to work much better if authors’ books are available via a South African publisher or distributor at an affordable (usually subsidized) price.

There is too the ethical dimension of connecting research with the people and lands it is written about; and also that titles are available to African research collaborators and the libraries and populace of their home countries. Arguably this should be a basic requirement of ethics guidance in all academic disciplines. 

The limitations of co-publishing, pricing issues and other challenges

Sometimes co-editions are not possible, for example, when there is an insufficient market in an African country, or the economics don’t work out favourably, as in cases of fairly low-priced books. In such cases it may be possible to arrange highly discounted sales, i.e. of over 50%, off list prices with distributors based in Africa. The IAI has distributed such discounted editions in both Kenya and South Africa via Prestige Books and Blue Weaver respectively.

However, the economics of a relatively low-priced title presents different problems: such titles are more likely to be published by commercial publishers, rather than university presses. The Northern publisher will prefer to sell direct; but the costs for an African buyer can be prohibitive i.e. even with a low price and a discount, the buyer must pay customs and shipping costs. In this case, the economics work for a Northern publisher, if the buyer can meet the extra costs; but do not work for the African buyer with the add-on costs, resulting in the book being more expensive in Africa than in the North, and there is effectively less dissemination than through licensing or co-publishing. 

Other challenges

Distribution costs

These are high for almost all African countries; in some cases, postage is also unreliable: South Africa is among the worst cases for this. Co-editions, where files can be emailed as pdfs or similar, may in such cases be preferable. 


This is still a major expense for publishers in Africa where infrastructure is poor. Print-on-demand (POD) is now marginally available in East Africa but there is no POD in Southern Africa. Generally, POD hasn’t yet progressed such that it is making a commercial difference. It is often more economic for publishers to print in Turkey, Hungary, India or China. 


These are small for academic books in West, East and Southern Africa, especially in the smaller and poorer countries. South Africa is one of Africa’s largest economies, yet researchers can be surprised at how small academic book markets still are – the editions mentioned above may sell only a few hundred copies; for example HSRC Press exceptionally took 800 copies of Taxing Africa; more specialist titles may only sell 200 copies or fewer.


This is very important, yet very difficult to fund; a publisher (whether in the North or South) will usually ask for a grant contribution towards the costs – which can vary between £3,000-£10,000 depending on the length of the book, and that’s before all the additional editorial /publishing work on the foreign language edition that often needs an additional subsidy. It’s notoriously hard to find funders for translation where research is considered ‘secondary’, not ‘original’, so it is hard to access research grants. French programmes tend to favour translation of French-language authors into English, not the other way around. CODSERIA notably translates many of its books and publishes in English, French and Portuguese. This is a highly commendable stance, but only applies to their own funded research and publications and is supported by donor funding. 

Commercial publishers in the North unwilling to co-publish

Despite the evidence that carefully contracted licensed editions don’t affect sales of primary editions, publishers largely remain reluctant to licence editions to African publishers. 

Reasons may include publishers’ lack of willingness to spend resources on non-profitable licensing: for non-specialist publishers, African markets, especially outside South Africa, are seen as small or quasi invisible.

Arrangements for ebooks 

Publishers are increasingly wanting to retain global rights to these; it is however possible to licence print and ebook editions to African publishers (the IAI has facilitated these types of contracts) but for many publishers this is considered too much hassle for too little gain.

Northern publishers’ are often ignorant about the realities of book distribution in the African continent – where barriers include a lack of POD, tariff and custom charges, shipping costs, a dearth of distributors, certainly not continent-wide – leading to publisher assumptions and lack of action, bottle necks etc. culminating in books not being made available in African markets.

Co-editions South to North

Co-publication can and should work in two directions – not simply North to South, but also South to North. Wits Press has an arrangement with Cambridge University Press (CUP) to distribute their ebooks via the Cambridge Core electronic platform giving them a global audience via academic libraries and platforms. ABC distributes publishers’ ebooks via global platforms. Other notable examples of successful co-publishing in the literary field include Weaver Press (Zimbabwe) licensing rights of Yvonne Vera’s work; EAEP in Kenya historically co-published with Heinemann – the well-known example is Ngugi wa Thiong’o work. 

These examples notwithstanding it remains the case that academic books co-published South to North are few and far between. This is because, as the Kenyan publisher, Henry Chakava, has pointed out, Northern publishers prefer the original rights and themselves perceive only small academic markets for most academic or literary works.

It is owing to this situation that leading Africa-based authors frequently publish in the North, hoping that their books can subsequently be made available in Africa. Two recent examples of arranging such African editions directly largely pertain to South Africa. The first is of a well known African anthropologist at Wits University publishing first with Duke University Press, with Wits Press then obtaining rights to publish the South African edition; and the second is of a literary/media scholar at the University of Johannesburg publishing a new book with the IAI/Cambridge University Press, with Wits University Press then purchasing the rights to publish a Southern Africa edition. 

These publishing strategies are in many ways optimal for the authors concerned who achieve international publication, reviews and readerships for their work, as well as affordable paperback editions via their home institutions. Such arrangements nonetheless disadvantage the African publisher who is not benefiting from rights sales and is in fact buying rights back; nor is it distributing the books internationally. 

Conversely, if a leading scholar opts to publish ‘at home’, as in the case of a recently well received biography published by Penguin in South Africa, international engagement and distribution can be very limited; despite many efforts on the part of the author of this work and their colleagues in the North, the author was unable to find a co-publisher for this book outside South Africa, so disadvantaging the author.


The foregoing gives a snapshot of co-publishing practice using the example of the ABC initiative and some IAI co-published books. 

The wider context – situation of universities and academic journals in Africa, policy/legal/copyright regimes, logistics, infrastructure and communications (including IT and internet provision) – does undermine the often great efforts of publishers in Africa to publish academic and culturally important work. Publishers in Africa are still today disadvantaged by the dominance of their Northern counterparts, particularly in educational publishing and journals. It is for these reasons that a basic structure of co-publishing between publishers in the North and in Africa is not working particularly well either way, whether North-South or South-North (as it works for example between the UK and the US, or the UK and Germany). 

We titled this paper ‘Decolonisation and Co-publishing’. Here is not the place to offer putative definitions of decolonisation, but as practitioners we can say that despite some modest progressive efforts outlined above, the books publishing model that is skewed against African publishing will not change in the foreseeable future without (i) serious participation and investment in African publishing by the continent’s universities (including in university presses), funders of research and policymakers; (ii) serious engagement with African publishing from agencies in the North, including funders and those setting policies for research, publishers, academic authors themselves and their representative bodies.

The purpose of the ABC and IAI initiatives is to kickstart what’s possible, making research available where it is carried out and most relevant, and strengthening African publishers, whilst drawing attention to the wider problems. The ABC initiative is aimed at establishing good practice and has already won significant support from academic associations (ASA, US; ASAUK); it will be discussed at the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) at its meeting in Nairobi in October 2019 and again at the ASA in November 2019. Perhaps these associations should further consider maintaining white-lists or directories of publishers that operate good co-publishing practice to recommend to their memberships? Such strategies may encourage Northern publishers to comply.

Finally, researchers in all disciplines, but particularly those in areas of cultural studies, languages, and disciplines that favour locally-driven ethnography and archival research, where critical reflection on practice is part and parcel of research, can contribute to raising awareness of publishing imbalances.

This paper was prepared for the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS) held 12-14 June 2019 at the University of Edinburgh. 

Mary Jay
 is a Director of African Books Collective Ltd. Email:

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

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