This year’s Uganda International Writers Conference held by the African Writers Trust (AWT) in Kampala, had the theme Contemporary Publishing Trends in Africa.
Headlined by Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, the co-founder of Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria, one of Africa’s leading publishing houses, many agreed that the past decade has seen a surge of exciting literary initiatives in Africa, spearheaded by young writing and publishing professionals on a continent where the business of publishing, distribution and buying of books is at its lowest ebb.
AWT hosts a biennial international writers’ conference in Uganda, to debate pertinent current issues affecting African writers in different spaces.
In her keynote address titled The Current State of Publishing in Africa: Do We Dare Hope? Dr Bakare-Yusuf lamented that the production of knowledge which is one of the signs of civilisation, is on the decline in Africa.
“We are allowing the West to dictate what will become Africa’s knowledge. We are net consumers and not producers of knowledge,” she said.
According to Dr Bakare-Yusuf, publishing and “achieving” are related. Achieving is about publishing — it is where society stores what it wants to remember in future; “All of us can participate in achieving, whether in print or online, and our achievements have already been altered by new players. We need as many writers and publishers as possible.”
“Distribution on the continent is difficult and expensive,” she acknowledged, suggesting “We need to collaborate African publishers. We need to work in a meaningful and purposeful way. How does Cassava Republic get to be known across Africa? Western publishers should consider discounted distribution fees for African publishers to distribute books in Africa or publish books in Africa.”
According to AWT director Goretti Kyomuhendo, “Book distribution in Africa is still hampered by poor transport networks and unfavourable tax and other trade policies that make it nearly impossible to move books say from Malawi to the DR Congo. But with the advent of the Internet, there are new ways of distributing and selling books on mobile phones and other devices,” she said.
Anena, a Ugandan author and online content producer at the African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala, is already doing this. She posts her poems on Facebook, and on a blog, using these new media as a marketing tool. She shared her experience with conference participants.
Anena says that self-publishing works in places where the publishing infrastructure is not developed or non-existent. “Importantly, self-publishing allows writers to get their work out to the public without the uncertainty of acceptance as is the case with mainstream publishing. However, one has to ensure the book goes through all editorial processes just like in mainstream publishing.”
“We should not discredit self-publishing but encourage writers to consult editors and others in the entire publishing process because we in the traditional publishing sector do not have the resources to publish every book there is to publish,” said Dr Bakare-Yusuf, adding that there is a need to cultivate and nurture new readers.
“We should exploit smart phone users and audio downloads. We need to find them where they are,” she said. “Instant gratification on social media (Twitter and Facebook) is cultivating new readers which we should exploit.”
“It is important that we produce quality books. We should think about the quality of the paper and book covers. Bad covers put off readers who want to display good books on their coffee tables,” she added.
On the issue of piracy, Dr Bakare-Yusuf said that when Cassava Republic signed an agreement with the Nigerian Examination Board to collect royalties for the examinable novel The Last Days at Furcados High by A.H. Mohammed, they cut out book pirates by having students who were registering for the literature exam buy the book from recognised school agents and distributors.
“The cost of the book was collected upon registration of the exam and we were able to cover our costs and pay nominal advances to the author and book cover designers. The pirates had nothing to sell. Other traditional publishers had not thought of this idea,” she added.