Will e-publishing help Africa switch on to reading?

Children in Africa reading an e-book produced by the organisation Worldreader

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Publishers have long bemoaned Africa's lack of a "book culture" but some hope that the advent of smartphones and the internet could help change this, writes journalist Chris Matthews.

The 566% increase in worldwide internet usage since the start of the millennium might appear staggering but not when compared with Africa, where online activity has grown by an astonishing 3,606%.

Start Quote

For us in Africa 'bookless' societies are indeed pre-book societies”

End Quote Henry Chakava in 1997

More than 160 million people are now connected throughout the continent, mostly on mobile phones.

With internet access surging and connectivity increasing, the doors are being thrown open to digital publishing.

All of which suggests a new chapter has been started since Kenyan publisher Henry Chakava's withering attack on Africa's book culture back in 1997.

The assessment by the former Heinemann editor of his nation's literacy levels made for uncomfortable reading.

"There is talk in the 'North' about a 'bookless' society, meaning a post-book society, while for us in Africa 'bookless' societies are indeed pre-book societies," he said.

Today, one of the countries to have turned the page on the past is Nigeria.

'Foolish to ignore smartphones'

This year's Human Development Report revealed that more than a quarter of the 170 million population are now online, heralding the dawn of a new publishing era.

A man using a tablet in November 2012 in Johannesburg, South Africa More people are now getting connected in Africa using smartphones and tablets

"The proliferation of smartphones across Africa, combined with the inevitable burst into e-commerce, means that we would be foolish to ignore what is about to happen with publishing in Africa," said Jeremy Weate, of Abuja-based Cassava Republic, publisher of fiction, non-fiction and children's books.

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We don't have to worry about printing, warehousing, distribution or engaging in fruitless marathons across the continent for payments that will never come”

End Quote Jeremy Weate Cassava Republic

A romance imprint entitled Ankara Press and an original crime series, Cassava Crime, are due for release later this year with the focus on an e-reading audience, while Max Siollun's Soldiers of Fortune, a non-fiction work charting Nigeria's recent military history, has been published digitally as well as in hardback.

For the likes of Cassava Republic, e-publishing is fast proving a far more efficient business model than traditional methods.

"Moving to e-books addresses some of our most significant challenges with print books," said Mr Weate.

"In Nigeria, it is a tough ask to find a printer that can offer reliable services, a wide range of paper and guaranteed product quality.

"We don't have to worry about printing, warehousing, distribution or engaging in fruitless marathons across the continent for payments that will never come," he added.

Another of the country's independent publishers, Kachifo, has also been keen to forge a digital path.

The Lagos operation is the first mainstream publisher in the country to release an e-book novel before it was published in print.

Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen was made available on the Amazon Kindle prior to its paperback release, while the text was also included as part of e-reading initiative Worldreader's latest anthology.

'Cultural imperialism'

A non-profit organisation borne out of an idea "to help the developing world leapfrog paper books", Worldreader's donation of e-readers to classrooms and communities across the continent is making reading accessible for thousands of young people.

Banner for Soldiers of Fortune by Max Siollun Soldiers of Fortune by Max Siollun has recently been published as an e-book and as a hardback

With more than 700,000 e-books delivered and nearly 13,000 children reached in nine African countries, Worldreader's digital drip-feed is helping to push the publishing frontier forward.

Already accustomed to a "post-book" society in their native US, Worldreader's initiative aims to make e-readers of one million young people in Africa by 2015.

The scheme is not without its critics, however, some arguing that "cultural imperialism" is at play.

With pre-set content and information ready to consume - the process has echoes of the first print publishers arriving from Europe in the mid-19th Century with designs to spread religious texts and Western education.

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Digital publishing is a win-win-win”

End Quote Amanda Barbara Pubslush

The initiative's awareness of cultural nuances and the addition of works from local authors suggest such fears are unfounded.

Worldreader, which works with local publishers across the continent, makes books available in local languages too, which could also help expose audiences to a new generation of its own literature.

The Caine Prize for African Writing gives unheralded, unknown authors the chance to reach new audiences, with the winning novel and shortlisted entries published in print and as part of the Worldreader scheme.

"Our partnership with Worldreader provides a great opportunity for Caine Prize winners to share their stories with students across Africa," said the Caine Prize's Lizzy Attree.

"It is vital for us to get the stories that we celebrate, support and promote into the hands of African readers," she said.

Cutting costs

While the idea of e-readers being made accessible to millions across the continent remains far-fetched at present, the smartphone could provide a solution.

"Many young Africans are already comfortable reading on mobile devices and we think this trend will continue as the price of smartphones gets cheaper," said Mr Weate.

A bookseller on a street in Lagos Nigeria It is a struggle to distribute books in Africa, and they can be expensive

With the digital revolution improving literacy and reading levels among thousands of young Africans, self-publishing offers real opportunity for new stories to be brought to life.

By removing virtually all costs, crowd-funding platforms like Pubslush give all authors, wherever they are in the world, the chance to get their work out there.

"Digital publishing is a win-win-win," said Pubslush's Amanda Barbara.

"From a publisher's perspective, digital books are much cheaper.

"From a writer's perspective, digital publishing allows for an easier route of publishing and from a consumer perspective, it means ease of access to books they love at a cheaper rate, instantly."

With huge swathes of Africa still without access to electricity, millions inhabit a Chakavallian "bookless" society.

Yet with the internet boom unrelenting, the realisation of a "post-book" society in Africa cannot be fiction for much longer.

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