African publishing in the digital age: interview with Justin Cox, CEO at African Books Collective

24/04/2019 / Lab Administrator

Justin Cox has a background in book marketing and is CEO at African Books Collective. Together with African publishers, he has pioneered the interaction of African publishers with the US, UK and worldwide, particularly developing systems in the digital age. He previously worked at HarperCollins NZ, and spent two years in the US establishing ABC’s operations. We talked with him about the challenges and opportunities offered by digital technologies in the distribution of books published by African publishers. 

Can you tell us in a few words what is African Books Collective (ABC) and why it has been created?

African Books Collective (ABC) is a not-for-profit African owned, worldwide marketing and distribution outlet for books from Africa – scholarly, literature and children’s books. It was founded, owned and governed by a group of African publishers who met in 1985 to address the constraints African publishers were experiencing in financing, marketing and distributing their books. These constraints were leading to a dearth of African-published materials in the North. ABC was founded as a collective self-help initiative to strengthen the economic base of independent African publishers and to meet the needs of Northern libraries and other book buyers. With initial support from funding agencies, trading began in 1989. The participants in ABC are 150+ autonomous and independent African publishers on the Continent. They share a common ethos of publishing from within African cultures, asserting Africa’s voice within Africa and internationally. They include scholarly and literary, and some children’s book publishers; research institutes; university presses; commercial presses – large and small; NGOs; and writers’ organisations.

How does ABC business model works?

ABC works just like any other commercial distributor, but with perhaps bigger and more specialised marketing operation. Publishers from Africa send us the books they want distributed internationally. ABC does not charge publishers any fees of any description, we just need to be sure we can find an international audience for the titles we take on. The publisher simply needs to email us the files for books which are produced POD, or send us stock for those that cannot be produced POD. We then add those titles to our distribution networks and begin marketing them via our websites and social media; our catalogues; our internal and some external mailing lists; and the fairs and conferences we attend. Publishers are paid quarterly and we recoup the money for any printing we have done at that time along with our cut of sales. This means that publishers do not have to pay us in advance, or send us any money. Our business model, in terms of how we work with publishers, is very much designed to enable publishers in Africa to reach international markets quickly and without too much friction. “Email book, receive money” is how this works from the publisher end. Independent publishers are busy people and by making our processes as simple as possible we hope our model enables them to focus on more important tasks like marketing and building audiences for their content.

You choose to distribute the books mainly through the print-on-demand system (POD). Why did you make this choice?  Is it possible to buy books everywhere through POD?

Print-on-demand production is faster, cheaper, and requires lower up-front investment than traditional print technology: most importantly it avoids the costs of warehousing and freight. In the early 2000s the late Nigerian publisher, Victor Nwankwo, of Fourth Dimension Publishers (FDP), with ABC, started a pilot project to digitise FDP’s backlist and make the books available print on demand (POD). 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 print stocks for warehousing. Victor Nwankwo believed that donor funding for the collective would eventually cease and that ABC would need to find ways to stand on its own two feet. When donor funding did indeed cease in 2006 it wasn’t sustainable for ABC to continue with a warehouse based operation, so in some ways POD chose us. Fortuitously, at this time, companies like 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. Not all books are suitable for POD so ABC also continues to operate a small warehouse so we can be all things to the publishers we represent.

The overriding benefit of POD to ABC is that is simply not sustainable to run the organisation without it. The margins made on books are notoriously slim so anything publishers can do to reduce their cost of doing business can make a big difference. In the case of POD ABC reduced the cost of the warehouse, publishers saved the cost of freight and ABC saved the cost of the international clearance fees when receiving the books from publishers and then sending books to customers wherever in the world they may have been. Pre-POD if a book went out of stock customers would often not want to wait the unspecified amount of time for another copy to arrive from the publisher, with POD books do not go out of stock and this gives resellers the confidence of supply they need when looking for new partners. At first POD production quality was better than what we received from publishers, though these days African publishers have upped their game considerably in this area.

The major benefit of POD speaks more to the second part of your question in relation to where customers can buy the books. When Victor Nwankwo and ABC first started with POD we thought of the advantages mainly in terms of printing i.e. it was more economical to publish very specialist titles since the economics of offset or then even short run digital printing did not apply. However today publishers have all sorts of printing options and the true advantages of POD are more related to distribution. We use one major partner in this area but also several others who reach into different markets and more countries. That one file which a publisher in an African country emails ABC is used to reach different markets in an ever increasing number of countries, without having to move across borders. Customers of course also benefit since they don’t have to pay to have books shipped from abroad, this assists in mainstreaming the availability of content from African publishers.

Do you also have an e-book offer? What do you think about the e-book potential for African contents?

Yes, ebooks/digital content is now a major part of what we do. The changes in ABC’s workflow necessitated by POD were quickly adapted to making African-published content even more widely available to global audiences via an even bigger network of digital book providers. The biggest proportion of sales in this area is made to those providers who specialise in providing content to libraries on subscription, as collections and/or one off perpetual sales. I believe the first vendor we started with in this area was Ebrary back in 2010. Since then we have attracted 100+ more partners in this area and as a consequence of this work African-published books have, in terms of availability, ‘gone mainstream’ in markets outside Africa: they are no longer an “exotic product” stored on library shelves and are as easily available as any book published anywhere else.

Digital books increase the discoverability of a title much more than a print book can. And though the readers we talk to overwhelmingly prefer print they have, more than likely, discovered the book digitally first, perhaps by searching for the title specifically, or searching for something related to that book’s content. This has expanded the market for these books considerably.

What are the main challenges for ABC in the future?

I think our main challenge is similar to that of other distributors and publishers: namely marketing. There is a lot of competition in the book market and a lot of competition with other products which can be consumed digitally. The challenge for those of us in the book world is to continue to improve the exposure we can give to the content we sell. For ABC in particular I think our job can be made easier when publishers are also looking to international markets and assisting us in building markets for their books worldwide.

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