The late Victor Nwankwo was Managing Director of Fourth Dimension Publishers, Nigeria.

Print-on-Demand: An African Publisher’s Experience

In the early 2000s the late Nigerian publisher, Victor Nwankwo, of Fourth Dimension Publishers (FDP), with African Books Collective (ABC), started a project to digitise FDP's backlist and make the books available print on demand (POD). Once the project was completed he presented his findings to the African Publishers Network (APNET) at the 2002 Nigerian Book Fair in Abuja, and they were also published in African Publishing Review (2002), 11(5), 28–39. Tragically Victor is no longer with us and did not live to see how his forward-thinking practical action would impact on ABC in its quest to bring African-published books to markets outside of the continent.

It is easy to forget that at the time this study was written POD was still in its infancy, ebooks weren’t widely available and there was still much reluctance from publishers to make use of digital publishing technology. Today, we think of POD simply as another printing option, rather than as a distribution strategy which needed to be rejected or accepted. ABC held a well-attended workshop for African publishers in Oxford on POD in 2003 and slowly other African publishers became involved, though many continued to send book stocks for warehousing. It was not until 2007 when a warehouse operation was no longer viable and ABC remodelled that POD become the norm. Today just 1% of the books distributed by ABC are warehoused. Due to the increased reliability of supply as book files can be transported electronically, rather than shipped from Africa, and printed locally in the market in which the book is being sold and never go out of stock, POD opened up more wide-reaching wholesale networks for African-published books. Amazon was just getting started in pioneering its ‘long tail’ and began offering the more specialist books that stores were not interested in stocking.

This model suited ABC well: in addition to libraries, now individuals could also more easily access African-published books from abroad. Resource-wise ABC could concentrate on finding places to make the books available and on marketing rather than on managing stocks and consignments. Digital (e)books soon followed. The changes in ABC's workflow necessitated by POD were quickly adapted to making African-published content even more widely available to global audiences.

Reading Victor Nwankwo's study today, some 18 years on, it is easy to forget the huge changes that have taken place in the publishing and bookselling world such as online bookselling, digital marketing, ebooks and eLibrary resources. It is interesting to note where he was overly-optimistic for example around the penetration of POD in Africa and book STMs, and where he may have underestimated the impact not just of POD, but of eRetailing and its impact on booksellers. 

The practical action that this study prompted paved the way for ABC’s future sustainabilty. Victor Nwankwo believed that donor funding for the collective would eventually cease and that African publishers would need to find ways to stand on their own two feet, and aside from an interest in new technology this is what drove his work. When donor funding did indeed cease in 2006 ABC was fortunate to not only have the POD model to base a new operation around, but also the ‘digital revolution’ in full swing around it. Though some of the early years under this new incarnation were touch-and-go in terms of breaking even, African publishers continue to retain their own international distribution collective which will be celebrating 30 years of trading in 2020. 

By Chief Victor Nwankwo, MD, Fourth Dimension Publishing


The world is in the midst of unprecedented advances in science and technology with dramatic impact on social, economic and even cultural activities. Such advances are in different realms. In Africa, national governments invest very little in the production of knowledge. In OECD countries average “investments in knowledge, measured as public and private spending on higher education, expenditure on research and development, and investment in software,” are about 5% of GDP as against less than 1% in developing countries. 1. Publishing in Africa is heavily dependent on the “bread and butter” textbook market. The corrupt patronage system endemic in most of Africa and the lack of political will to seriously implement book policies compound an unsustainable publishing environment. Those, coupled with inadequate institutional infrastructure have resulted in a pitifully low output of knowledge products. The consequence of this is a widening knowledge divide.A look at the history of companies shows that technology is never the principal cause of greatness; rather it accelerates greatness that is already in place. 2. The point is that, as James Maxwell said, most people are more comfortable with old problems than with new solutions. To bridge the knowledge gap and convert this threatening digital divide into a digital dividend African publishers must adopt a new way of thinking. Print-on-Demand requires this parading shift to find what opportunities ICT offers to by-pass the limitations of lack of investment capital and inadequate physical infrastructure ordinarily for getting their books to the market place.This paper presents the experience of this writer on a pilot and on-going print-on-demand initiative. It is hoped that through this paper other than African publishers will better understand the subject, and therefore, first, come to terms with the shift in mind set conditional to this new initiative, and second, see in what practical ways they can successfully key into it.


2.1 Strategic Thinking

Only a few years ago debates on prospects of electronic publishing in Africa focused concerns on whether the electronic book would replace the printed book, and how all this would pay out in Africa. Indeed many players in the international distribution of African books were emphatic that the print-on-demand concept had “not a chance” as an option for addressing the problem of availability of African published books. The concerns were entered on the infrastructure inadequacies in Africa: inadequate and high cost of power supply, high population / Internet Service Provider ratio, low PC and telephone density.Some of the concerns and expectations have remained relevant.

  • The book world will have to change the way it does its business. Boundaries between functionaries in a publishing house, library, bookshop and printing press are blurring. Indeed the distinction between publishing and retailing will also blur.
  • The book as we know it will stay with us in Africa for some time to come. Indeed the printed book is not under threat; even downloaded books have to be printed.
  • We can improve our management effectiveness and data collection and management, increase the visibility of our books, and improve access through facilitated payment procedures and shortened turn around time.

The match of ICT development has continued. the magnitude of the on-going transition to a knowledge-based global economy involves not just the adoption of a new generation of technology but also the transition to a new economic framework. The level of capital formation and wealth creation has grown and continues to grow at a rapid rate. What prospects do these have for the publisher in Africa? How does he/she key into all this?There is a glimmer of hope in the fact that information and knowledge goods are free of material constrains resulting in lower marginal costs. In this regards, there are wrong questions that are bound to give wrong answers. For example the question, ‘How do we replace the printed book with electronic book?’ evokes the constrains of physical goods economy where the African publisher is grossly handicapped. The right question should seek ways to harness the emerging technology to address the specific needs of the book chain as it is now in Africa - improved product quality, ease product accessibility to users, enhance our projection to international markets, increase publishing capacity and make books available that would not be otherwise economically viable. This approach has informed and driven this project.

2.2 Strategic Challenges

In order to appreciate where technology can most beneficially intervene, it is useful to state that the three core strategic challenges to African publishing are language, investment capital and distribution. The three, working together or separately bear decisively on the sustainability of publishing as an enterprise.


National politics are dependent on international factors. Often the official language of communication counteracts linguistic pluralism and literary diversity. Indigenous language are underdeveloped, thus further re-enforcing their status as ‘talking languages’. Increasing numbers of Africans are unable to read in their mother tongues. When a people are unable to convey intellectual and cultural discourse in their language, unqualified damage is done to fabric of their cultural life.Against the backdrop of this unhappy situation is the fact that African languages are numerous, most with small populations of speakers. This falls short of the economy of scale demanded by current offset printing process. Worse still, commercial publishers have no motivation to publish books in local languages. The result is a vicious circle - that of no books and therefore no readership, no readership and therefore no books.

Investment Capital

Lack of funding constrains production of new titles. Banks are not interested in providing funding support. Governments wrongly assess the knowledge industry only on the basis of its direct financial contribution to the GDP. Current creative capital support schemes by international organisations (e.g. by the Dag Hammarsjold Foundation in Kenya) are too few and far between to even scratch the surface of the problem. In Nigerian the rapid devaluation of the Naira to 1% of its value over a period of 10 years has imposed artificial poverty almost overnight on publishers. Of the 90 members of the NPA, four have turnovers above N300 million (=US$ 2.5m at the current N120 to the $). Another four have turnovers of above N200 million (US$ 1.6-2.5m). Down the turnover path to the N100 million limit (US$ 900,000), adds another five. In other words 13 of the 90 members of the NPA have turnovers of above $800,000.77 or 85% have turnovers below $800,000. The top four are mostly in educational books and have multinational antecedents of one nature or the other. Among primary and secondary school text publishers, bulk purchase (as against normal trade) accounts for a significant part of turnover. In a corrupt system, the ‘small guys’ simply have no chance! The vast majority of the lowly 77 are general publishers. We therefore have a lopsided availability of books. Books for general reading are scarce and this has compounded the reading habit problem and resulting in low demand. Again the vicious circle!


“Distribution is the weakest, most neglected and least understood aspect of African book development.” Reasons are a legion: arbitrary customs tariffs, concentration of bookshops in cities, poor infrastructure development, etc. Indeed it is now accepted that the pace of production has far outstripped that of distribution. Books published and not distributed are not sold. Low sales turnover results in diminished capacity to publish. Yet another vicious circles!Any publishing initiative, which seeks to make a change, must confront one or all of these strategic challenges.


3.1 The African Books Collective Ltd (ABC) Initiative

The ABC owned by African publishers was set up primarily to address the problem of the distribution of African publishers’ books in the global North. It was designed to have the publishers’ books in the Oxford warehouse of the ABC, to give these titles a more effective promotion and to give the publishers relatively higher earnings in international currency. It was therefore intended to strategically impact on the other constrains of the African publisher. Operationally it works as shown in Figure 1.

The Publishers’ Constrains

One main feature is the physical movement of books from the publisher to Oxford. This had been fraught with all sorts of unanticipated obstacles. These include:

  • Production standard was often low, diminishing the publisher’s chance of effective competition in a market where standards are usually high. Exports to a market should at least match the standards of that market
  • High freight costs of books from Africa to Oxford. Postal rates in Nigeria rose by over 1000%.
  • High cost of back loading when titles are de-stocked by ABC. Sometimes it is more cost effective to waste the books or give them away.
  • For a fair sized list to make steady and dependable returns over the years all titles that sell should be kept in print. However, academic, cultural and other general books sell slowly, and quite often when stocks run out, reprint is not justified by the economics of limited demand and the high cost supply. The publisher’s dilemma is to find the right balance between short print-runs (at high production costs) to meet immediate and short-term market demands and longer print-runs with lower unit costs but high inventory holding and high investment commitment. Usually, neither options is feasible.
  • Constrained by limited capital, most African publishers are unable to keep their titles in print. In consequence their lists never get to “see” the market. There are backlist titles the existences of which people never get to know.
  • As a result ABC records a high ‘stock’ of “dues”, i.e. unfulfilled orders.

In summary, the diminished output from African publishers has posed a sustainability challenge to ABC and therefore to African publishers’ international market outreach.

3.2 Digital Print Technology and the Production of African Books

The ABC organised a workshop in 1998 for 12 publishers, to examine the opportunities of digital printing technology. Since then only two or three publishers have bought digital printing services from UK providers. The reason is that there was no follow-up-programme to spell out the ‘how-to’ of it and overcome the publishers’ natural initial inertial to engage this new technology. In response to the emerging opportunities and challenges of digital technology, and seeking to move the ABC efforts into a creative and sustainable phase, we at the Fourth Dimension Publishers (FDP) entered into a POD Wholesaler arrangement with Lightning Source Inc. (USA) (LSI) Figure 2 illustrates how this arrangement would have worked.

This had one problem; it did not factor the existing distribution agreement with the ABC. Soon after Lightning Source Inc established a sister company based in the UK (LSUK). A meeting was held in London between FDP, LSUK and ABC, which provided the more favourable model, illustrated by Figure 3.

We set up 92 titles onto the digital library of LSUK over a five-month period ending April 1st 2002 increasing it to a hundred target soon after. This now constitutes Phase I of our development. Of these titles 60% were backlist, which we considered good but had received either inadequate promotion or no exposure at all for various reasons. We updated and repackaged some of there. The remaining 40% were new titles for 2002. We have embarked on Phase II made up of 40 new titles for setting up during the remaining months of 2002.

3.3 Economics

The figures in Table A below have been developed for two paperback books of 200 and 400 pages respectively. They adequately illustrate the cost and investment considerations between the standard offset printing (computer for production in Nigeria) and the Digital POD options (computed on LSUK rates).

In terms of costs, digital POD has an advantage for print-runs up to 150 and 200 copies for a 200 and a 400-page book, respectively. Not the the advantage of POD as the page extent increases. It would cost a publisher only US$ 3,280 by digital POD to produce 20 copies each of 20 titles (200 page extent) and have them ready in the UK to fulfil orders. In addition, and more critical to a publisher’s operational capacity, is the very low marginal costs required to set up publishers’ titles. It would cost publisher only US$ 1,600 (for 200 page extent and US$ 2,800 for 400 page extent) to set up the 20 titles and have them in a virtual warehouse ready for delivery on order at a relatively short notice. Let me immediately point out that certainly the figure of 20 copies is theoretical in respect of offset printing. Most of presses are either so old, or so fast that by the time you get a clean, even impression a lot of paper would have been rated anyway. The section following works with actual figures.

Break even points.

Table B below presents details of six titles. Titles 1 to 4 are FDP titles produced under the POD arrangement. Titles 5 & 6 produced under digital “short-run digital printing” and offset printing, respectively.

Table B. Break even points for printing options

The ‘break even point’ is the minimum number of copies that would be sold to recover direct production costs. Cost outlay is the minimum financial commitment that the publisher must make to publish the book (LS requires a minimum first order of 20 copies). We have not included all the cost elements, origination and overhead costs, royalties, etc. But as these are common for all titles, they do not affect the comparative figures. The break-even points are 20 or less copies for titles 1 to 4 and 120 and above copies for titles 5 & 6 respectively. Cost recovery is quicker POD printed titles because outlay costs are lower. In respect of titles % & 6, lowering the print runs will increase the unit costs.

3.4 Advantages of POD

Print-on-Demand is a service, which a printer offers. While it is made possible by the digital print technology, all printers who have this facility do not offer it. The Lightning source print on Demand technology arrangement offers Fourth Dimension the following advantages:

  • Improved production standards. The production quality matches the standard available in the market;
  • Savings in cash-up-front otherwise required for a long print run. Marginal publisher investment in stock-holding;
  • Savings on freight costs of stocks from Africa to the UK;
  • Savings on staff resources for stocks ordering and management;
  • Savings in ABC warehouse space and on stocks management;
  • Reduced rejection rate of valuable works from writers (including works of good scholarship and works in African language) due to our increased publishing capacity;
  • More time to face the work of publishing and to give adequate and deserving editorial attention to author’s works.


4.1 Action Steps 

Action Steps:1.Identify tiles that fit the market.2.Get your texts ready in digital format setting your margins to conform with the required Lightning Source sizes as follows: Size 1: 5” x 8”; Size 2: 5,5” x 8,5”; Size 3: 6” x 9”. The minimum page extent acceptable by LS is 108 pages. Cover design should also be in electronic format.3.Contact ABC / send advanced publication information to ABC to ask if they would carry the title(s).4.Convert your texts to PDF format. This depends on the electronic format in which your text is. Our experience prefers that texts in Quark Xpress. However, this service can be provided by a third for a fee or by ABC, if they wish.5.Upload the texts to LS Website. You need an account with LSUK to do this. Again this is in an area where ABC can be of assistance.

4.2 Technical Challenges

Like many publishers with desktop publishing facility, FDP uses Microsoft Word to produce its texts. The LS requires that titles uploaded to its digital library be in PDF. The Word 2000, which we use, does not convert to PDF. This requires to first print text to the Adobe Distiller. Our experience is that even the the resultant text loses its margins. Texts originated in Quark Xpress do not.However, texts converted from Word 2000 to Quark Xpress are stripped of their formatting. Our practical response to this is to transfer texts originated in Word to Quark Xpress before formatting, and then convert to PDF.Therefore the main hurdle is the digitalisation of the publisher’s works. The two challenges are:

  • The publisher must have the hardware and software capability for the digitalisation and coding of texts to set up and upload titles to the printer’s digital library. Also necessary is an easy access to the Internet.
  • There is also need to access the necessary skills within or outside the publishing house to undertake the digitalisation and uploading task.

4.3 Titles That Travel and Earn More

It would help publishers who wish to export their titles to be aware that certain titles travel better and earn more than others in international markets. The ABC has advised its participating publishers that titles in the following categories are in greater demand than others.

  • Women’s Gender Studies (original academic research);
  • History, Archeology / Pre-history;
  • Languages and Linguistics (dictionaries, phrase books and language course titles);
  • Guide Books (cultural snapshots of countries);
  • Cookery (African cookery rather than restaurant chef recipes);
  • Human Rights;
  • Folklore (oral tradition);
  • Environment;
  • Art Books;
  • Anthropology

Table C below shows the details of the various categories of titles that we produced in phase one.

It is instructive to note that Law titles lead in the average mark up in terms of mark-up factor and quantity. The nature of law books allows higher mark-up ratios. Titles on Policy and Development follow. Mark up for popular fiction is the lowest because it is limited by what the market can take.


This project has so far sought to address the role of digital printing in getting books published in Africa to users outside Africa. The next stop should be digital printing in Africa. No less that 85% of the African publishers can be described as small and medium scale enterprises. They deal mostly with small print-runs, and face the same low numbers that prevail when selling to the international community. Over 80% of the university press participants in the African Books Collective ceased sending their books to Oxford for distribution essentially because they do not produce anymore. This therefore is the area of growth waiting for stimulation by a digital print on demand arrangement. 

5.1 Frequently Asked Questions

Concerns have been expressed over the prospect of having POD machines in Africa. These questions serve well to elicit answers that throw more light into the process.

Question 1: The POD is high technology that cannot be maintained in Africa.

Answer: The POD machine is not more complicated technologically than equipment already in use in Africa: cars, computers, and even electronic gadgets. Indeed Rank Xerox has been selling its early POD model, the Docutext. AGFA has also produced models slightly cheaper than the Docutext. The difference is that emerging models are cheaper by 80% because they have been stripped of their needed photocopying baggage.

Question 2: 3 Billion Books (a company that currently actively promotes the POD concept) talks about the “book STM”. We do not even yet had cash STMs in Africa. how can we talk of book STMs?

Answer: The “Book STM” is envisaged as a later development of the POD. It will come to various parts of the world, including African, as and when they are ready, just like the cash STM is only just coming to some parts of Africa. We are concerned with the prospects of the concept of the POD as a specific tool of book production .

Question 3: What we need is to get more books to more people in Africa. India produces books at very low unit costs.

Answer: India’s low cost mass production did not happen in a day. It follows from a large reading population, resulting from the political will to promote readership through consistent education and book policies. We can hope that it will happen in Africa in our time, only if we play our part, now.

Question 4: Will a book machine in African not undermine the ABC?

Answer: The improved production capacity of ABC’s participating publishers and their ability to sell more within their countries will strengthen them to the benefit to ABC. ABC does not sell in the countries of its members.

Question 5: What about the international organisations, which produce a lot of books and information products to Africa. How will a POD machine work in Africa

Answer: The UNESCO, the World Bank and others organisations would save on their freight budgets if they could buy services to have these books produced in several African countries without loss of quality.

Question 6: Very few African publishers can afford this machine. Will it not lead to undue advantage over publishers who cannot afford it.

Answer: It is essentially a printer, and a publisher needs not own one to produce books. All that is required is to pay for the service. Some publishing houses own offset presses. Indeed some publishers were printers first. There will not be any more “undue” advantage than there is already, if at all.

Question 7: One is worried about the unemployment that this technology will cause.

Answer:  The point has been made that it is a printing option that will not displace existing options. It is aimed at filling existing gaps. It can therefore only help to stimulate growth in the book chain.

Question 8: Since writers can go straight to the POD service provided, won’t this kill the book chain?

Answer: Writers go to printers even now. But just printing a book is not publishing it. There are pre-press and post-press activities, such as proper planning, promotion and distribution, which self publishing writers soon find, often too late, are essential to successfully publish a book.

Question 9: In Setting s publishers titles on the digital library of the POD printers, will the publisher not lose control of his/her work? What special guarantee is there that the printer will not pirate your books?

Answer: There is no special guarantee any more than a publisher already has who commissions a printer to produce their books. The printer has the plates and can pirate the publisher’s books if he is criminally inclined.

Question 10: This POD will certainly sideline booksellers.

Answer: Booksellers will not be sidelined. The POD is not a technology per se but an arrangement using digital technology to print a few copies at a time. It is just another printing option which the publisher or writer can buy into. The rest of the book chain remains, as can be seen in Figure 5 below.

5.2 Acknowledgements

This project has been challenging and stimulating, more because we are dealing with a yet uncharted frontier in African publishing. The African Books Collective who in general have been key part of the tripod, including making useful input in the selection of the 100 titles in Phase one. I thank in particular, Mary Jay who initiated the partnership with the ABC, and Justin Cox, the ABC point man in this project who converted the FDP titles to PDF format, and subsequently spent a month at the Forth Dimension under an ABC attachment programme. During this period he successfully transferred the skills required to convert texts for different format categories to PDF. I cannot of course end without mentioning my friend, Dirk Koehler, the World Bank Publisher, who five years ago gave African publishers a tour of the POD facility at the World Bank and introduced me to the possibilities of digital printing. I enjoy a shared faith with Dirk in the imperatives of a bold and creative approach to African publishing concerns, and it was through with that I got the contacts for Lightning Source Inc. and other POD providers. As the project is ongoing, this paper has been updated taking into account new data that have come in and suggestions that arose at various forums where this is discussed. I thank Olle Nordberg whose comments resulted in the latest revision, and all participants at the Zanzibar seminar on strengthening scholarly publishing in Africa, whose interventions contributed to this process.

5.3 Where We Go From Here

The revolutionary advances of information and communications technology can impact in various ways. These advances open publishing in Africa to extra-ordinary opportunities to overcome physical infrastructural disadvantages. They create a pressing agenda to seize these opportunities to address specific needs in the publishing process.What POD is not

  • POD is not a panacea for all Africa’s publishing problems; but it is a model, which is clearly suitable for the conditions described in this paper.
  • It is not a new religion that seeks to supplant existing ones. So there is no need to resist it. African publishers should address the issues raised here and not import preconceptions.
  • this presentation is not meant for publishers who are satisfied with what they have: textbook publishers who are making good business with government bulk purchases, or others who are happy with their profitability.

What POD Presages

  • It is directed to the majority of African publishers who need to do things better.
  • It is meant for those who wish to see the growth of publishers in Africa, which will lead to the larger agenda of increasing Africa’s contribution to the stock of world knowledge.
  • it can create a new kind of economy requiring new paradigms, which is more global and unrestrained by the space constrains of the industrial society.

Boundary Crossing Experience Above all, it is an experience that crosses the boundary from what does not work to what may work. As Ralph Emerson said, “do not go where there is a path, go where there is no path and leave a trail”. Suggestions for moving forward1. People are more comfortable to live with what they know, no matter how imperfect, rather than seek new solutions. Majority of publishers in Africa were trained in the pre-digital technology days cannot afford to employ an IT person. A workshop organised by this writer in 1997 under the APNET training programme showed the publishers from Anglophone West Africa that they could simply link their telephones to their computers to be on the e-mail. Within a month 50% did.The first step therefore is to organise workshops for a sensitisation briefing of African publishers. The purpose is to demystify information technology as far as it relates to publishing and to equip African publishing chief executives and line managers to take informed decisions on participation.2. The next step is to organise skill transfer workshops at national or regional levels to train appropriate publishing staff in the process of digital print on demand publishing.

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