Hans Zell has been author, editor, and publisher on African topics for over four decades, and has written extensively on many aspects of publishing and book development in Africa.

African Book Industry Data & the State of African National Bibliographies

No less than three international meetings on publishing in Africa have taken place recently, which have been followed with detailed action plans. Among many other recommendations, calls for action to find solutions to perennial problems, as well as discussions focusing on sectorial innovation and revitalization of the African book industries, participants in all three meetings were strongly urged to start collecting and disseminating book industry data. 

It is true that reliable figures of book publishing output for the continent of Africa do not exist at the present time, with the exception of a very small number of countries, notably South Africa and Morocco. Meantime the state of African national bibliographies, which can form the groundwork of book industry data, presents a picture of neglect for the most part, with many national bibliographies seriously in arrears, currently dormant, or having ceased publication altogether. Only a small number are accessible in digital formats.

Book publishing data and book production statistics are important elements in measuring the growth and vitality of indigenous publishing in any part of the world. In the absence of such data for most of the African continent, there is a need for research, analysis, documentation, and systematic gathering of current, reliable data and statistics on the whole book sector in Africa. However, there are huge challenges and complexities in the goal of collecting data for book industry surveys, which must not be underestimated. Many questions will need to be asked: for example, how is data going to be collected and analysed; what will be the parameters; and what are going to be the sources and the methods? Who should be responsible for undertaking the research and the compilation of such book industry data; and, crucially, who is going to fund the research and the data gathering process on a systematic and ongoing basis?

Collecting book industry data is closely interrelated with the publication of national bibliographies and, in addition to examining the issues and challenges relating to the creation of book industry statistics, this paper also provides an analysis of the current state of national bibliographies in Africa, as well as linked matters such as legal deposit legislation, and compliance of legal deposit. Most national libraries and bibliographic agencies in Africa continue to operate under severe constraints, and have been chronically underfunded by their governments for the past four decades or more. An analysis of the current status of African national bibliographies sadly presents a dismal picture.

It is unlikely that reliable data for the African book industries can be collected and published without the input and full cooperation of national libraries or bibliographic agencies. There is equally an urgent need for much more active collaboration and interaction between the agencies producing national bibliographies with publishers and book trade associations in each African country.

Any attempts to revive the fortunes of African national libraries, and the resumption of publication of high quality and timely national bibliographies, will amount to a formidable task. This paper offers a range of suggestions and recommendations how the situation might be addressed and improved, but also points out that regular compilation of a national bibliography, and effective maintenance of legal deposit, necessitates adequate staff in terms of both numbers and expertise, which is not the case at this time.


Participants at three recent, high level meetings on African publishing have called for the need of data and statistics for the African book industries. The value of reliable book sector data, on production as well as consumption – and to aid publishers, booksellers, educators, or policy makers – cannot be disputed. The ongoing lack of data for African book publishing output leads to the work done by publishers across Africa being marginalised worldwide, as well as contributing to the persistent myth of an African ‘book famine’.

However, the challenges and complexities of systematically collecting data for book industry surveys can be formidable, especially in an African context.

In most countries in the world compilation of book industry data is closely interconnected with the publication of national bibliographies, as well as the effectiveness of legal deposit legislation in place in any country. A national bibliography functions as a mirror that reflects the culture of a country, and provides an overview and statistical account of a country’s book industry. It can be an essential tool for selection, acquisition, and collection development in libraries and other institutions. At the same time it provides promotion and visibility of a country’s publishing sector.

Sadly, the current state of national bibliographies in Africa presents a picture of neglect. Less than 10 African nations can be said to have fully functioning and timely national bibliographies, and also offer digital versions of some kind. Another dozen or so did produce national bibliographies in the past, but which have been in a permanent state of hiatus over the last two decades or more, or they have ceased publication altogether. 29 African countries still have either no national bibliography, or no current national bibliography.

Additionally, the dramatic recent transformation of the publishing landscape, which has generated a multitude of electronic information resources, has changed the scope of national bibliographies, and has created many new challenges that affect its compilation and production.

Based on the needs it fulfils, and the uses it supports – including data gathering for the book industries – there is a strong case to be made for the revitalization of national bibliographies in Africa, and national bibliographic agencies, and which must be accompanied by adequate funding, training, skills development, and capacity building.

Only then will it become possible to systematically collect and disseminate reliable book sector data; not only for the benefit of the African book professions, but also serving as a valuable tool for policy makers in education, culture, and other spheres.

The bottom line is that one cannot hope to generate meaningful book industry data without the aid of timely national bibliographies recording a country’s publishing output.

Read the full study online at academia.edu

December 2018

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