‘A book in every hand’: Digital book publishing in Africa

(I wrote this from the Frankfurt Book Fair, in October 2011)

By Tolu Ogunlesi

On September 27 Nigerian independent publishing house Kachifo announced on its blog that it was “[making] history again with its release of the first ever Nigerian book exclusively in digital format… [Eghosa Imasuen’s novel] ‘Fine Boys’ will be the first ever Nigerian book by a mainstream Nigerian publisher to be released as an e-book before it is published in paper and ink.”

Challenging that claim is novelist Myne Whitman, who insists that her self-published romance novel, ‘A Love Rekindled’ (CreateSpace, March 2011), deserves the credit instead.  

The dispute – a ‘no-dispute’, really, considering that Kachifo’s boast is explicitly qualified by its use of the phrase: “by a mainstream Nigerian publisher,” – is arguably a pointer to the emergence of a digital future (and a keenly contested one at that) for contemporary Nigerian and African literature.

“Our romance imprint is going to be driven by digital publishing,” says Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, publisher, Cassava Republic and a 2011 Frankfurt Fellow. The new imprint, due to be launched in 2012, aims to publish one novel per month in its first year, and as many as five per month, subsequently. E-books, Bakare-Yusuf says, will be an effective platform from which Africa-based publishers can capture the Diaspora market. Cassava Republic also has plans to aggressively explore audio-books and mobile downloads.

At the moment, however, it hasn’t published any e-books, for a number of reasons, one of which is the non-availability of e-book rights for most of its books. “We’ve only [published] one book for which we had world rights,” Bakare-Yusuf says, referring to Toni Kan’s short story collection, Nights of the Creaking Bed. For the rest of their books – novels by Helon Habila, Lola Shoneyin, Adaobi Nwaubani, among others – they’ve had to acquire Nigerian, West African or African rights from foreign publishers.

And then there’s a strategic caution at work. “I don’t want to do e-books for the sake of ebooks,” Bakare-Yusuf says, adding that it’s important to think well about digital strategy (pricing, “access” and marketing) especially in a developing market like Nigeria’s. It is important, she says, to ask and answer the question: “Why should [African consumers] buy an e-book and not a print copy.”

Bridget Impey, Publishing Director of South African house Jacana, shares a similar caution. She says the company is taking its time to create an effective content digitisation strategy. “It looks like we’ve got a long time,” she says. Jacana currently offers only pdf copies of its books for sale via the online store Kalahari. None are available yet in e-book compatible versions.

Impey says that it’s crucial to develop at least two different strategies, one for the world (the e-book reader market), and a “totally different” one for South Africa and the rest of the continent, where the digital future is more likely to be built around mobile phones than relatively expensive e-book readers. “Everybody’s got a phone, they’re not all going to have a Kindle,” she says. Jacana, Impey says, will be looking for a way to “get content onto mobile phones”, to reach as many people as possible.

It is clearly not alone in that quest. Halfway across the continent, Nigeria’s Kachifo – fresh from the euphoria of releasing the ebook of ‘Fine Boys’, months before the print version is due – has a similar vision: “We won’t stop until everyone has a book in hand; whether in print or on their mobile device.”

One thought on “‘A book in every hand’: Digital book publishing in Africa

  1. Pingback: Getting Africa’s ebook horse in front of its cart | Arthur Attwell

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