In Africa, traditional publishing has been facing numerous obstacles for decades. Within this context, digital publishing represents an obvious opportunity. Aware of these advantages, various international NGOs are offering free content and experimenting with new forms of distribution. However, so long as there is no established market or commercial ecosystem – in which writers, publishers and booksellers can find their place –, the problem of the sustainability of local digital publishing will continue to be an issue. To get a better handle on the opportunities and challenges of African digital publishing, we talked to Marc-André Ledoux, an entrepreneur based in Senegal and the director of the publishing house African New Digital Editions (NENA, according to its French acronym) and the African Digital Bookstore (LNA).
1) Marc-André, can you briefly explain the history and objectives of NENA?
African New Digital Editions has positioned itself as a social enterprise in the area of African digital publishing. Without losing sight of economic viability, which is a condition for our sustainability, our goal is to compile, distribute and perpetuate African cultural heritage, in the form of his written works, which are the fruit of the local imaginary and local reflection. Our mission is cultural, but also economic, since we are entrepreneurs.
A pioneer of digital publishing in Africa, NENA began its activities in 2006, by distributing compilations on CD-ROM concerning issues related to African law – in this area we have built up a good collection. These are complex and bulky hypertext publications (one of them contains over 30,000 pages!). With the arrival of tablets and reading devices, NENA quickly began to diversify and incorporate works for a wider audience, in EPUB format. So right now our back catalogue comprises around 400 titles ranging from poetry to treatises on economic science, and includes sentimental novels and essays. One point in common: with very few exceptions, these titles originate from African authors (over 40) and publishers (about 25), who have entrusted us with publishing the digital edition of their works.
2) How do you distribute the publications?
Publishing is just one link in the book chain. That is why we are now offering an integrated solution. So we have added another two areas: digital distribution (we send all the e-books we publish or co-publish to more than 60 online platforms and resellers); and in particular digital bookstores, especially since the launch – in 2014 – of our own e-commerce site: the African Digital Bookstore (LNA), dedicated to local books.
LNA is important because it has a structuring effect on the rest of the African publishing sector. Indeed, the bookstore is bringing together more and more actors from local publishing, grouped around a common platform. In this way, we are demonstrating the viability of an endogenous African development, which needs neither Amazon nor Apple in order to become known.
3) What are the strengths of NENA/LNA, particularly in a context of intense digital competition on a global scale?
I believe that we have two strong points. Firstly, we have built a real powerhouse for producing digital publications. Our raw material can be either old printed books, worn by time, or else files created using any layout program. We also work with various formats: EPUB, interactive PDF, HTML, and even other variants that may come as a surprise.
We also have a medium- and long-term vision, in particular because we want to turn LNA into an African cultural showcase. The digital book that is purchased and downloaded online or the professional CD-Rom are just the early forms of a wide range of publishing products. We have already announced the launch of digital libraries that will enable African university libraries to offer free access to the documentation of local content.
4) How were the projects received by the African public?
The first reactions have come from actors in the industry: they have oscillated between surprise and satisfaction at seeing that this initiative was being carried out on African soil. In addition, each week we are contacted by African writers who want to be published in digital format by NENA; and the fact that (for the moment) we do not suggest to them a printed version does not scare them. With regard to the readers, most of the hundreds of users who purchased e-books from NENA in 2014 did so through the digital bookstores that sell our titles.
5) In your experience, what are the main opportunities and challenges of the digital age in Africa?
The great challenge at present is to convince African publishers as a whole of the importance of moving over to digital. There is a potential of several thousand titles written by African authors. Imagine the day when all of these titles are gathered together in one place: when readers from around the planet that love African books will have somewhere to go; the whole of African literature will thus gain visibility, instead of getting lost among the plethora of offerings on the Amazons and iBookStores of this world, where it will always be in the minority.
Furthermore, switching to digital does not mean abandoning the printed word: on the contrary, I think it is a chance to breathe new life into the paper format, thanks to print-on-demand. At LNA we have set up the infrastructure that would make it possible. It would be enough for us to just add to the digital books the reference of the print-on-demand books and, with each order, send the PDF with a watermark to the nearest printing shop to the customer’s home. Since we have the original file of the digital books that we publish or co-publish, it would be easy for us to prepare the printable PDF, ready for printing on demand. This scenario is possible for Europe and I can imagine how it could be achieved, but I would hesitate to start working until there was a solution up and running in Africa. The problem is that I don’t know of any printers that have the necessary technology for print-on-demand. I am trying to get the attention of printers in Senegal, but since delivery from one country to another is difficult, in the long term the ideal thing would be to establish a pan-African network of on-demand printers. We could start in a particular country. In any case, I don’t see myself investing in printing… Stick to what you know!