On Literature

    Challenges of Writing and Publishing today
    Africa and Beyond

    Doris Lessing once commented that ‘world literature without African literature is like an orchestra with some pieces missing’. The same could, of course, also be said about the literatures of Asia, the Arab world, Oceania, Eastern Europe or Latin America. In the twenty-first century it is still the case that anything written and published outside western Europe and North America seldom finds its way to worldwide acclaim. In this article we take a look at the book world in all its diversity, and ask what is really going on here and what can be done about it.

    In the parallel universe of the global book markets of recent years, there is really only one question everyone has been asking: how long will it be before the digital revolution sweeps the good old book from the shelves? This seemed like a futuristic vision back in 1994, when the Frankfurt Book Fair dedicated an area of the exhibition to ‘new media’ just as the Internet was putting forth its first tentative shoots, and the first publishers were experimenting with materials on diskette and CD-ROM. From 1998 onwards the first e-readers, such as the Rocket eBook and the SoftBook Reader, came onto the market – and were a dismal failure, mainly because they were too expensive and unwieldy, and because publishing houses simply didn’t make any interesting content available (even though three publishing giants, Bertelsmann, Simon & Schuster and Random House, had invested in the idea).

    The end of the digital revolution?

    It wasn’t until 2008 and the launch of the Kindle generation that electronic books made their breakthrough. The big English-language book markets, such as the United States and Britain, recorded exponential increases in sales, and it was assumed that the other big international book markets – China, Germany, Japan and France in particular – would swiftly follow. Speculation was (once again) rife that the end of the printed book was nigh, and anyone who suggested that this might be an exaggeration and warned people not to get carried away was derided as a fossilised relic from a bygone age.

    Today we know that, optimistic prognoses notwithstanding, the digital revolution has failed to come about. The management consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has been stuck in a loop for several years, publishing studies predicting that in five years half of all books will be electronic. When this deadline had to be extended for the third time, if not before, it was no longer terribly convincing.

    It’s true that in the United States and Britain today around a third of all books produced for the general public are purchased in electronic form. Particularly in the fields of crime fiction, fantasy, romance, erotica and science fiction the success of e-books has caused sales of inexpensive paperbacks to plummet. Genre fiction, a category read primarily for light entertainment, is suffering from a tendency to cannibalise itself. This has unpleasant consequences for the publishers. Especially in markets with no fixed book price agreement, such as the United States or Britain, e-books are generally much cheaper to buy than their printed relatives. If one-third of books are sold there in electronic form but the sales share doesn’t even reach 15%, this isn’t exactly beneficial for publishers’ annual balance sheets. Furthermore, since 2013 the apparently unstoppable growth of the e-book market in the US and Britain has stalled. Monthly growth percentages in the sector have shrunk from two and even three figures to values approaching zero. In some months, profits have even fallen.

    So is the market for e-books saturated? Does 30% market share mark the end of this development? Right now there’s good reason to assume this is the case. However, in doing so we mustn’t overlook the fact that electronic books have not significantly exceeded the threshold of 5% market share in any other major linguistic region of the world – they haven’t even managed to do so in extremely technology-friendly countries like South Korea or Japan. So there’s still room for more growth there – although the Internet giant Amazon, which is used to supplying two-thirds of all e-book sales (and sometimes more) in North America and Western Europe, has so far failed to get its foot in the door in any of the potential growth markets, such as Russia, China and India.

    E-books in the Arab world

    In the Arab world, too, the market activity of the American giants like Amazon, Apple and Google is barely perceptible. To date, these suppliers have not been making localised sales proposals to any of the larger Arab markets, such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Yet surely this linguistic region – comprising twenty-two countries, including the booming Gulf states, with a population of more than 300 million people and a notoriously difficult transport infrastructure – would be attractive to e-book suppliers?

    In fact, an ambitious project was initiated more than a decade ago in the form of the Cairo-based supplier kotobarabia.com. It pledged to convert both the current output and backlists of the region’s leading publishers into electronic formats and make them available to interested parties all around the world. After some initial success it all went quiet: without a reliable supply of reading devices for the audience demand remained stuck at a microscopic level, and for the publishers it simply wasn’t worth the investment. The project was also negatively affected by the fact that EPUB, the worldwide standard format for e-books, has only recently been able to display texts in non-Latin scripts reliably, since the introduction of Version 3.0. Of course, the very limited range of Arabic-language texts available in electronic formats was also unable to attract large numbers of readers. It’s true that in many countries voracious readers have no particular problem with English-language texts. However, a mass market – and it is almost impossible for publishers to operate without one – can only be created with a strong range of products in the prospective customers’ respective mother tongues. Still, in early 2014 the telecommunications giant Vodafone entered the Arabic e-book market with the service kotobi.com. This gives us reason to hope that things here will start to move, but I believe nonetheless that it is premature to speak of an ‘explosion’ of the e-book market in the Arab world, as some observers are doing.

    At this juncture, we must point out that over the past twenty years there has been no lack of naïve enthusiasm for the potential of electronic books. This naïve enthusiasm is no help, though, when what is needed is for this potential to be developed so that it can result in something truly useful – also in those parts of the world where books and reading are more than just forms of inexpensive entertainment. Whether we are speaking of Africa or Asia, the Arab world or Latin America, books – for the majority of people there, at least – are luxury items, regardless of whether they come in printed or electronic form. And if we look at their significance for the education of the individual and the development of civil societies, they are in fact also a means of survival.

    Luxury item and means of survival

    Luxury item and means of survival – that’s a combination that doesn’t really go together. And indeed in most countries it doesn’t work, because market laws prevent it from doing so. The biggest problem is the cost of producing books. If a larger print run is required, it’s usually cheapest to get this done in South or East Asia. However, a printer in China or India doesn’t differentiate between a customer in Western Europe and one in Africa, Asia, the Arab world or Latin America. All there is is the simple principle that the larger the print run, the lower the cost per item. This means that publishers and book buyers in Europe or North America benefit from relatively low prices, while for publishers and book buyers in other parts of the world it means the books come onto the market at around the same price as in Europe or North America. If, however, we take as the standard of comparison not the exchange rate but the purchasing power of the individual, we see that in many countries a measly paperback is sold at a price equating to between 60 and 80 euros in Germany.

    So in many parts of the world books are extremely expensive. This has consequences. Even in countries where schools provide a basic level of literacy, it can be observed that in many people this literacy is at least partly lost because they don’t have money to buy books. As a result many countries, especially in Latin America, feel it is incumbent upon them to take action. For more than a decade the Mexican Ministry of Education has been running a large-scale programme that buys around six hundred titles every year – primarily children’s and young adult literature – and distributes millions of them free of charge to schools and libraries. Similar programmes exist elsewhere: the Brazilian government is now the biggest buyer of books in the world.

    In Africa and South Asia, however, many governments rely on book donations and procurement schemes run under the aegis of the World Bank or other donors. Church-related associations in Europe and North America in particular are especially enthusiastic about donating books, and some publishers let these well-meaning people and organisations have books at cost price to distribute between Sahara and Cape, or between the Himalayas and the Mekong. Because of the large number of organisations who collect and donate books, it’s impossible to collate usable statistics about the economic significance of these activities, so let’s mention only the American initiative ‘Books for Africa’: this has been active since 1988, and sends around 2.5 million books a year to the continent, valued at more than 30 million US dollars.

    Questionable aid

    Free schoolbooks, financed by donor organisations or European governments: that doesn’t sound, initially, as if it should be problematic. And it is indeed undisputed that without these charitable donations it would scarcely be possible to provide for these schools, especially those located outside towns. However: charity also spells death for the fragile regional publishing scene. Every book produced and donated from abroad denies a regional publisher the opportunity to produce and sell a book of their own. Yet if this book cannot be produced and sold, the opportunity to generate bigger print runs and thus to be able to offer books at lower prices also dwindles, which in turn means that fewer people have the opportunity to buy books.

    For the publishers, this also means that they seldom have a chance of successfully tendering to provide books for donor organisations. The rules for this are very clear: once aspects of quality have been taken into consideration, the lowest offer is accepted. Whether or not a quote was submitted by a local supplier is only relevant in a few rare cases. One must also bear in mind that, when vying for these lucrative contracts, those involved have never had any inhibitions about bribing people and pushing themselves to the fore: after all, the business at stake is worth billions. Only a few years ago, in 2011, the global publishing giant Macmillan was exposed as having paid bribes in a bidding contest: it was excluded from all World Bank procurement schemes for several years.

    However important book donations are in supplying schools in Africa and South East Asia, they are also one of the main reasons why the publishing industry in these regions can’t gain a toehold. In most African countries the industry is in a worse state now than it was in the 1970s. This becomes very apparent if we take a look at the literature of the continent.

    In the twenty years after decolonisation, African literature flourished. The Nigerian Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka and his countryman Chinua Achebe, Mongo Beti from Cameroon or Ngugi wa Thiong’o from Kenya appeared in the 1950s and 1960s and were able to take their places in twentieth century world literature. By 1970, the collapse of the economic and political structures of the young African nations was sweeping the continent, and the publishing structures that had given these ‘fathers’ of modern African literature their big breaks were also lost. In the last two decades of the twentieth century in particular the voices of African authors became almost inaudible. Today the situation is better, at least for younger African authors. They have demonstrated for some time now that they certainly do not lack ability and creativity: from Helon Habila to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Alain Mabanckou to Taye Selasie or Teju Cole, they are writing with unparalleled power and originality. However, they are all only able to do this with the help of publishers in Britain, France or the United States: all of them live in these countries.

    The international book markets show their weaker participants little mercy. And where this rigour is not enough to ruin things for the book makers, countries themselves will often make it as difficult as possible for them to supply readers with books. In Argentina, for example, strict import legislation that is actually intended to protect small domestic businesses also applies to books. Anyone who wants to import goods must also export goods to the same value. Thanks to this legislation, businesses like Porsche, BMW or Adidas have become major exporters of Argentine wine, leather and other items. It’s not very easy for publishers to set up this kind of arrangement. A little further north, in Bolivia, one bookseller informed me that in order to import just one single book you’re required to apply for an import licence.

    Market and censorship

    That all sounds pretty absurd, indeed is absurd – and we haven’t even mentioned the issue of censorship yet. This remains extremely popular all around the world, whether for religious or political reasons. Anyone who writes and strikes a critical note in so doing may be threatened with all kinds of misfortune: from not being published to bans on leaving or entering a country, prison, torture, or death. And these threats come not only from the usual suspect countries in the Arab world, from China or from Russia, but also from that stronghold of democracy, the United States.

    As a result, all around the world today many authors live and work with mental self-censorship. Who is crazy enough to write something critical and perhaps get their skull smashed in as a result? The fact that only a few people do is regrettable, but it certainly isn’t proof that they lack courage. I would warn against criticising authors who censor themselves, especially when the criticism is made from the comfort of a German study. Here in the West, it’s one thing to proclaim one’s solidarity with the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, but it’s quite another publicly to confess one’s criticism of social injustices when one’s own government is notoriously allergic to the subject.

    Finally, let us return to e-books. These do indeed have immense potential to do good in large parts of the world. This is especially true as far as supplying schoolchildren and students with textbooks, circumventing problems with the physical distribution of books, and developing new readerships are concerned. Because in producing e-books the printing process can be omitted, and because e-books have no physical mass, they can be offered at a considerably reduced price. In Africa, the Arab world, Latin America and South East Asia in particular, there are great hopes that this will prove a positive development. These should therefore be supported by equally great investment in extending the telecommunications infrastructure: because where there is no Internet, electronic books are as hard to get hold of as printed books where there are no roads.
    Holger Ehling, previously the deputy director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, now works as an author, journalist and agent specialising in the international book market. His most recent publication is Die digitale Bücherwelt / La revolución digital del mundo editorial (German / Spanish, e-book), Fleet Street Press, June 2013.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2015
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