African publishing in the time of COVID-19
COVID-19’s spread around the world continues to have catastrophic effects, from lives lost to the economic consequences of lockdowns, bringing financial devastation to individuals and jeopardising even the most robust industries.
The African Publishers Network (APNET) consulted members from across the continent to get a snapshot of the current state of publishing and has received feedback from 26 countries. Its recently published report, ‘Country Report Of African Publishers In Covid-19 Period’, looks at the effects of COVID-19 on publishers and how they have responded. But APNET also notes the lack of government support, with publishers from Algeria to South Africa and from Sierra Leone to Tanzania stating that they are in need of assistance. The Egyptian government’s promise to buy titles from publishers is one example of possible support, but extensive interventions are required across the continent.
Challenges and adaptations
It’s clear that publishers’ responses have been shaped by the strength of the industry in their respective countries, which is shaped by factors such as the education book market, government support, and technology. Even without a complete lockdown, in many countries the closure of educational institutions and book stores immediately hit the demand side of the market; and the relatively underdeveloped e-publishing model meant it was unable to step in and fill the supply vacuum, which is also being affected by the closure of printing firms. Additional factors, such as the cancellation of and disruption to book festivals, have also inevitably affected sales and wider conversations amongst peers. Currently, the Ghana International Book Fair is still scheduled for 27-30 August,* but July’s International Society of Oral Literature in Africa conference has been postponed to 2021. The consequences are not only economic but also intellectual as the sharing of knowledge at book markets and conferences has paused.
“Here in Kenya, the effects of COVID-19 are biting really hard. Business is depressed, from the time schools closed, and although a few bookshops are still open, they are almost at NIL transactions. We have been working from home most of the time, and it's not yet clear when the situation will revert back to normal, since infections keep rising by the day.” Kiarie Kamau, Managing Director and CEO East African Educational Publishers Limited
APNET’s findings show that there are variations in whether countries have been able to move from hard copy to digital copy sales, depending on publishers’ existing online capabilities. Amongst the most challenging contexts is Congo, which doesn’t have electronic publishing infrastructure or capability. There is also little to no eBook availability in countries as varied as Malawi, Mali, and Rwanda.
Other countries have been more successful in being able to draw on existing infrastructure and networks to continue book distribution. In Egypt, for example, publishers have created free reading platforms on their domestic sites; but they, alongside publishers in countries including Ghana and Guinea, are also distributing eBooks internationally via hosts, online book stores, and partners, such as Worldreader and Youscribe. In Kenya, some publishers are providing free content to the Kenya Education Cloud, while others use their own portals. And some South African publishers have been able to sell some eBooks through their websites. However, like others, many Ghanaian publishers are unable to sell to the domestic market because they lack online portals.
Where there are online libraries, there has been some distribution of material. Examples include the Tanzania Institute of Education which is allowing teachers and students free access to an e-library, and a Guinean publisher who has created a free online library for students. The Publishers’ Association of South Africa have created a resource page highlighting organisations that are making digital material available for free in response to the crisis. But this is far from the norm across the continent. For instance, Benin is unable to provide any online library access.
The current pause on activities has also exacerbated existing problems. For example, in Ghana, school curriculum changes meant that previous editions of textbooks could not be sold, but new textbooks are pending government approval. This has led to revenue losses that have been hit further by the lockdown. In Niger, one publisher sold local language books to NGOs working on literacy, but this has stopped, which is having consequences for local language teaching, and so is instead sharing some titles with an international host.
Looking for opportunities
Despite the challenges, which should not be played down, this moment also provides a space for reflection and invention. There are opportunities to develop and increase eBook availability, as noted by the Zimbabwe Book Publishing Authority. There is also room for innovation; the biggest mobile operator in the country has started an electronic library and are paying for eBooks.
There are also other examples of positive effects, including how publishers can actively contribute to the promotion of reading during lockdown. In Togo, where lockdown is limited but nevertheless the industry has been affected, publishers have donated books to children and to associations who work with women in prisons. And striking a constructive note, the Sierra Leone Writers Series Publishers reflected that, ‘Writers have time to start, continue and/or complete their manuscripts. We have received more submissions than before for the same period.’ It is undoubtedly the case that this moment is also providing rich material for writers, even if they cannot meet in person to discuss the changing landscape. Social media use has stepped in to assist, with, for example, the Creative Writers’ Association of Kenya setting up a new Facebook page for its members.
There has also been the recent announcement from the International Publishers Association (IPA) that they and Dubai Cares, a UAE-based global philanthropic organization, will fund African publishing entrepreneurs to come up with locally owned, digital learning innovations to help African students overcome the pandemic’s impact on their education in 2020 and beyond. By concentrating on education, they seek to address the sudden predominance of home schooling and remote learning, which has left many without adequate coverage.
Despite the clear perils publishers face, it is important to look to how digital innovations could take a leap forward during this time. But it is also clear there is a need for governments to collaborate with the publishing industry to develop reading and learning platforms, as well as provide support packages to this essential industry.
African Books Collective’s response
Because of the uniqueness of the African Books Collective model – being largely virtual and therefore mostly unaffected by lockdown measures – it has remained open and continues to trade. However, as wholesale and other business partners are affected, the market is roughly 20 per cent down on this time last year. Many conferences and book fairs have been cancelled this year, and although the Frankfurt International Book Fair is going ahead, a decision has been taken for ABC not to attend this year. Instead, resources will be used to improve internal systems and to fund online marketing initiatives in search of global audiences for the Collective’s books.
To induce readers, in the digital and library trade ABC has been running promotions with numerous suppliers of digital content to libraries. Some collections have been opened up to institutions freely for limited times, and there have been some price promotions as way of more widely exposing the collection to libraries who do not currently subscribe, and to more generally assist scholars and students who may be working from home. Usage statistics suggest that increasing numbers of users are discovering African published content on these platforms, and income from them is seeing a modest spike. Another factor may be that in the US many libraries have had spending freezes or have been directed to spend only on digital resources. Perhaps this is also an indication of a further shift away from print in this market.
Ultimately, ABC is managing to weather this situation because new books continue to arrive from African publishers – and as always there is no shortage of good books coming from Africa.
In response to this difficult and complex situation, APNET recommends that all African governments include the publishing industry in their support packages, in order to minimise financial risks and keep publishers in operation. Despite a drop in income, or at times even a complete lack of income, expenses, including salaries, rent, book storage and other operational costs, continue to increase publishers’ liabilities. Therefore there is a need for government intervention. They propose that:
- National Publishers’ Associations (NPAs) write situational papers to propose support to publishing industries. The ideas for support packages should not only focus on financial support but also include suggestions such as bulk book procurement, purchasing eBook licences, creating soft loans for publishers, tax reliefs, and other initiatives and policies;
- APNET could then support NPAs with an authority letter to help request economic stimulus packages from their government, having known the specific needs from the association;
- There should be more training on electronic publishing for African publishers. The upcoming APNET Regional Training for Trainers in Africa will train NPA recommended participants on electronic publishing, among other things, so they can then help train other publishers in their respective countries;
- The NPAs should share all research work, updates, and information received from APNET and other organisations, including the IPA and ADEA, with their member publishers; and
- There should be regular publisher meetings to discuss individual challenges and possible solutions, these should be shared with APNET.
African Books Collective, June 2020
*Since original publication, there has been an update and the Ghana International Book Fair has been postponed to 26-29 August 2021.