Vosloo insists on the need to use the technology available and not just focus on paper books, but what happens in the case of traditional publishers?
Those working in the printed book sector all agree that publishing in Africa has been facing enormous challenges for decades. According to the Cameroonian publisher François Nkeme, from the company Ifrikiya, the first problem is related to the cost of materials; indeed, in spite of the Florence Agreements, paper continues to be taxed in numerous countries of Africa, which explains why books are so expensive; secondly, serious difficulties exist in distribution: there aren’t enough bookstores, just three or four in Yaoundé and the same number in Douala; for which reason the publisher has to think up alternative sales channels. Nkeme therefore believes that technology does not represent a danger for publishing but rather a great opportunity:
Digital really can help us (…). I think it is up to us [the publishers] to impose it and at least begin slowly, cautiously; because after all it is true that we have nothing to lose. Digital technology would help us reach a foreign public. But I believe that, as publishers, if we want to make progress in that area, we have to offer an electronic version that is not too expensive, since, as I was saying, the bulk of the cost for us is printing in paper format. Perhaps by going through a digital version we could sell the book more cheaply, at an accessible price. 
Serge Dontchueng Kouam, the director of another Cameroonian publishing house, Presses Universitaires d’Afrique, points out that print on demand is perhaps the tool that can most help publishers in the region:
I think if we could link up the small group of local publishers with print on demand terminals, our commercial and financial possibilities would increase. So rather than creating a local market for on-demand print runs, it is a matter of creating an external market to broaden the frontiers of local production.
But some publishers believe that POD would even favour internal distribution. Russell Clarke, the manager of the South African publishing house Jacana Media, which – as we have already seen – is putting its faith in POD, also points to the fact that logistical deficiencies and the lack of points of sale constitute a serious obstacle for African publishing. In this sense, print on demand may represent a key step forward:
Using POD for single or small orders makes more sense than traditional distribution. At the moment, it’s also very difficult for readers in sub-Saharan Africa to access digital books. Most e-readers aren’t available on the continent yet and internet services are still slow and unreliable at best. So we’re in a situation where combining traditional codex formats with digital printing methods makes the most sense – for now!
Nevertheless, the possibilities opened up by digital technology won’t be able to be implemented immediately, due to the limitations inherent in the local situation. The 12 publishers from South Africa, Benin, Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Cameroon, Madagascar, Guinea and Burkina Faso that responded to our survey point out that the restructuring of the book sector faces numerous obstacles:
1) local professionals do not always have the necessary know how;
2) publishers do not have their backlists converted into digital format;
3) piracy is very widespread;
4) there is a lack of public sector support;
5) the software is too expensive.
In order to address the first point, it will be important to design training programs, many of which can be carried out in conjunction with institutions that are already active locally, such as the African Centre for Training in Publishing and Distribution (CAFED). As several of the publishers interviewed suggest, it would also be beneficial to work with the universities in the region. The activities should cover technical topics – digitization; conversion to ePub and other formats; layout programs; typographies; e-readers; cell phones; POD –; as well as legal topics – copyright, publishing contracts; distribution contracts –; and economic ones – business models; pricing strategies; digital service costs –, among others. It will be essential to tackle these issues dynamically – given that these are problems that have not even been resolved by the most industrialized countries – as well as in an experimental fashion – since as we have seen, the projects that have had the greatest impact have been those that have taken into account the concrete infrastructure and real needs of the continent. Some interviewees propose creating a virtual exchange platform for those that have smooth Internet access.
The second aspect – the conversion of backlists to digital format – could also be approached with the collaboration of local actors like universities, which often have the basic equipment for carrying out the tasks of scanning and text recognition. In this case it will be essential to coordinate the work with the training activities described in point 1.
With regard to piracy, this is another topic to be discussed at the training events, in particular to evaluate whether the digital business model of African publishers needs necessarily to involve the sale of copies – as is the case in the analogue system – or else the sale of licenses to local and international institutions.
As almost all the interviewees mentioned, the public sector does not accompany the publishing industry either in its current analogue form or in its digital explorations. Serge Dontchueng Kouam points out that certain regulations are not only ineffective but also even harmful:
Up to now, there has been a kind of injustice. At the local level, there is an elite that can pay for goods and services by electronic means. To do this you need a credit card and your own internet connection. Inversely, there is no credit mechanism that makes it possible to sell through the Internet. So money circulates in one direction (South-North) but not in the opposite direction (North-South). Through the Internet payments can be made abroad but not the other way round.
In this case, it will be vital to put pressure on the different areas involved, to ensure that the work of publishers is not hindered. This applies to banking system regulations but also to investments in infrastructure, which may foster the “ecosystem” of local writers, publishers and entrepreneurs or else destroy it completely.
When it comes to software, it is clear that the price of a program like InDesign is prohibitive for a publisher from Burkina Faso or Rwanda. There are various possible options here. Any publishers that cannot do without certain tools could request a price reduction, depending on the number of those involved and how much pressure they are able to exert. Another equally interesting route would be to make use of free and open source solutions. It must be stated that only two of the publishers interviewed from sub-Saharan Africa declared themselves familiar with open source solutions. On this point it would also be essential to give assistance with training, as well as with tailor-made software production, bearing in mind the particular possibilities and demands of the sector. No doubt it will not be simple to research and develop personalized tools, given the scarcity of resources faced by local entrepreneurs and the lack of support from the public sector. In any case, it will be necessary to work closely with the community of programmers of free and open source software, which has gained a growing presence in Africa in recent years. There may also be opportunities to collaborate with business incubators such as Appfricalabs, HiveColab and Silicon Cape: Africa’s next great digital publishing projects may perhaps emerge from these centres.
- Cf. Pape-Thoma, Birgit: “Ifrikiya, une maison d’édition camerounaise ouverte sur le continent”, Afrik, 5th July, 2010.↵
- Personal interview, December 2010.↵
- Cf. Personal interview with Amande Reboul, the librarian at the Lycée Français Saint-Exupéry, in Ouagadougou, December 2010.↵
- Cf. Personal interview with Eric Kossonou, the director of Éditions Éburnie, Ivory Coast, January 2011.↵
- Cf. Attwell, Arthur: “Ereading and education in emerging markets”, On technology and information in the developing world, 8th October, 2010.↵
- Cf. supra, December 2010.↵
- This is demonstrated by the repercussions achieved by the Idlelo conferences, held in South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana, with the aim of discussing the opportunities for open source in sub-Saharan Africa.↵
- Many of the continent’s digital start-ups can be found on the Afrinnovator webpage. Cf. “Archive: Web Apps”, Afrinnovator.↵