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Developing African publishing for the world market: Authors’ perspective

The development of publishing generally is of importance to every being because books are universally recognized for their ability to, in Francis Bacon’s words, “make the man.” The situation of publishing should therefore interest all who are concerned about humanity. It is only because over- generalized topics usually escape satisfactory treatment that we hereby limit our focus on this subject to Africa. This delimitation is, further, appropriate because the cliché that charity begins at home is right and Africa is our home.

We also find this topic engaging because even though a discourse on publishing is of inestimable value to all and sundry, it is apparently of primary significance to the author. The author writes first and foremost for himself, but it is common knowledge that his desire is to share his thoughts with as many people as possible. And the best way to share that is through the trade of the publisher. The development of publishing is thus the development of the author. Publishers and authors are therefore equally yoked together in subsistence. They can either survive together or perish together. This subject thus interests me as an author.

Now, what is publishing? This question would have been unnecessary except that in the 21st Century, things have become all-inclusive that no term can now be taken for granted. Who does not know that publishing refers to the manufacture, printing and distribution of books? But in the 21st Century, one starts hearing of Desktop publishing and Electronic publishing. Due to their wording, these concepts compel attention wherever publishing is the root word of discussion. Desktop publishing, “the use of a computer and specialized software to combine text and graphics to create a document that can be printed on either a laser printer or a typesetting machine” (Microsoft Encarta), does not, however, concern us in this discussion. We will therefore not dwell on it beyond its definition.

Electronic publishing, which may also be called digital publishing, argues itself very relevant to this discussion, but for reasons of convenience, we shall not be dwelling much on it here. Rather, our attention shall be on traditional print publishing. Traditional print publishing, as we all know, was developed in Europe in the 15th Century by pioneers like Johann Gutenberg, Anton Koberger, Aldus Manutius, William Caxton and Johann Froben. This, of course, is not to suggest that these people were the founders of publishing. Indications of human consciousness for publishing were observable even in the students of Plato who sold or rented transcripts of his lectures.

And by 400 BC, it is said that Athens was the literary capital of Greece and the centre for the production and selling of scrolls and papyri. The point is that publishing, in one sense or another, has always been there right from the time of the Greeks through the Romans to the medieval period. But the advent of the printing machine brought about an understandable development in publishing and contributed immensely to the emergence of  that blessed period for the revival of learning, the renaissance.

I do not possess all the historical capabilities to accurately capture all the details concerning the emergence of publishing in Africa. But it is an educated conjecture to suppose that this was also another “follow-come” of colonialism.

Missionary activity

Just like Western education came here through colonial and missionary activity, publishing too followed the same route to emerge in Africa. This is not to imply that Africans did not know about publishing before the arrival of the colonials. Emmanuel Obiechina has dwelt rewardingly on the written letter in Africa before the coming of colonialism. Along with these African pre-colonial alphabets was a publication which though limited by its time, was a form of publication all the same. But our duty in this presentation is not to provide the history of publishing in Africa. We are concerned with how to develop the production and distribution of books in this continent so that they would be competitively available in the world market.

Developing African publishing for intercontinental competition

So, how can African publishing be developed for the world market? To our mind, the answer to this question is sincerely very simple: all stakeholders in the book business only need to faithfully contribute their share and the world market would be full of African books. And who are these stakeholders? To our mind, the major stakeholders are authors, publishers themselves, universities, governments, religious leaders and wealthy members of the society. These are the people that are capable of greatly promoting the book.

In  fact, for some of these stakeholders, their fates are tied up in one way or another to the survival of publishing. An author, for instance, cannot live if  his books are not published and sold; and a professional publisher cannot live except his trade can sustain him. Stakeholders like these are that dependent on the good fortunes of the publishing business. Indeed, all the people mentioned above as stakeholders, have indispensable roles to perform to ensure the proper development of publishing in Africa. We shall now briefly look at each of these people and examine the possibilities of their contribution in publishing.

The role of authors: We find it useful to begin our examination of the development of African publishing by looking at authors themselves. This is because it is authors that bear the primary brunt of an underdeveloped publishing industry. They must therefore wake up and take their fate in their own hands. It is for this that I very much commend the efforts of Ayi Kwei Armah. Those of us who attended the 2001 ANA annual convention in Port Harcourt where Ayi Kwei Armah was in attendance, will remember how he told us that he had assembled a group of writers in some West African countries and they have put together a publishing outfit to cater for their needs. It will be recalled that in the early 60s, there was the Mbari Club in Nigeria which did not just ensure the coming together of writers but also made certain that publishable works were published as appropriate.

Also worthy of mention is Femi Osofisan’s efforts in Opon Ifa Press. If African publishing is to be developed for a world  market, more efforts of this nature will have to be encouraged. More and more authors will have to be involved in the business. If there ever were days when the author just wrote and cared little about the general situation of publishing around him, such days are over now.

Authors must find practical ways to participate in the publishing circumstances around them. They need to form groups like Ayi Kwei Armah has done, and as was once the case with the Mbari Club. Or they could choose a particular publisher and encourage him by their patronage so that it could develop as desirable. I have personally chosen this last option. At a point, I had several manuscripts and little publication. So I wanted to change the situation. I wanted to publish. But there were several publishers in Nigeria who had made names for themselves and who attracted me by their names. Indeed, the most likely thing for me to do was to go to any of those publishers. But I felt that I should encourage an upcoming publisher so I chose to publish my books with Aboki Publishers, Makurdi.

We are not in any way trying to discourage any one from choosing to publish with an established company; we are not even trying to imply that Dr. Jerry Agada will never ever publish elsewhere. Our only point is that the option to publish with an upcoming company is one way that authors can contribute to the development of publishing in the continent. I chose Aboki Publishers and found this choice very wise because it opened the door for more publications from authors from my part of Nigeria. At present, writers like Moses Tsenongu, following in my steps, have published up to six books there. Today, I can say that this company seems to be on its way to becoming one of the most vibrant publishers in this country. Only recently, it added Journal of African Oral Literature (JAOL) to the long list of journals it has been publishing for the past decade. The company appears most promising. What we want to emphatically underscore is that authors must find their place in the promotion of world class publishing in Africa.

The role of publishers: I think several publishers in Africa lack ambition, and without ambition, there is no way an individual or a company can achieve any development meaningful enough to be worthy of attention at the world level. Too many publishers appear to have been discouraged because of situations that we feel they should have been taken as challenges. A good case in point is Heinemann’s scrapping of the African Writers Series due to reasons that we find unsatisfactory.

– The Vanguard

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