The Future of Publishing is African
The ambiance is thrilling. A sense of the diversity of cultures of the world in the room. Publishers from everywhere are represented. The theme is, “Africa Rising”, and rightfully so. The International Publishing Association, which happens to be the world’s largest league of publishers, has chosen to have its 2019 seminar in Nairobi: which is at the forefront of African literary growth.
Africa has a history of being omitted from the Global discussion on publishing. This is why IPA recently made a commitment to rectify the lack of investment in African publishing. The purpose of this event was; one, to hear the concerns and challenges facing African publishers and to offer solutions that are durable and self-reliant.
As James Murua shares in his article A Snapshot of the International Publishers Association Seminar, IPA on this front came up with two Memorandum of Understanding agreements set with African Publishers Network (APNET) and Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA).
The purpose of which is to promote the development of the publishing industry and to promote the adoption and implementation of national book reading policies in Africa. They also committed to streamlining dialogue between the various actors in the publishing community.
The panellists and speakers consisted of the likes of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o – who is in many ways Kenya’s literary father, Peter Kimani – brilliant author of The Dance of the Jacaranda, Dr Alma-Nalisha Cele – Co-founder of the Cheeky Natives (South Africa) books podcast, Khanya Mncwabe – Centre Coordinator, PEN South Africa, John Mwazemba – General Manager, Oxford University Press East Africa, Petina Gappah – Ingenious Zimbabwean author of the Book of Memory, Out of Darkness, and others. It is no wonder the conference was a great space for networking amongst writers and emerging publishers in the African community.
One of the most beautiful and necessary events that was brought about by the conference was the PublisHer forum which created a platform for African women in publishing to share their experiences as females in the competitive and often limiting world of publishing and distribution.
The title for the night was “Overcoming Publishing’s Diversity Problem.” A necessary and extremely timely conversation that helped set the pace for the rest of the conference. The panellists consisted of Bibi Bakare-Yusuf – co-founder of Cassava Republic, a leading publishing house on the African continent, Thabiso Mahlape – the founder of Blackbird Books, and Ama Dadson – the CEO of AkooBooks Audio. The evening concluded with a storytelling showcase of a segment of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s wives stunningly performed by Maimoua Jallow.
The woman behind this forum, the brilliant and highly innovative Bodour Al Qasimi, also happens to be the Vice President of the International Publishers Association and the president of the Emirates Publishers Association. This position made her the first Arab woman and the second woman ever to have such a senior role in the International Publisher’s Association during the course of its 120 year history. Since founding Kalimat Publishing Group in 2007, Al Qasimi led its growth into a global, multi-imprint publishing and educational technology company with licensing and distribution in 54 countries across five continents. She has used her distinguished position to create spaces for diversity in the publishing sphere. Explaining what PublisHer aims to achieve, Sheikha Boduor shared Michelle Obama’s quote in Becoming:
“When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you don’t slam it shut behind you. You reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
During her opening address on the second day of the conference, Sheikha Boduor called out the neglect of Africa in the literary space with urgency. She laid out a passionate appeal, reminding the room what the continent has to offer,
“It (Africa) has wisdom. Culture. Diversity. Philosophy. History. And it is abundant with stories that can enrich our human spirits. Yet it’s one of the most widely misunderstood regions in the world. It is also one of the most under-represented regions in global literature and culture. We want you to reverse these facts.”
As an African writer, one of the most interesting conversations in literary spaces is the topic of publishing. The advice given almost 99% of the time is, “to have a book that is worth anything you must be published in Europe or America.” Someone brought up an interesting point recently that compares this to imperialism and the process of raw goods being manufactured repackaged and sold back to the original producers at a profit. African stories are the raw material. They are sent to be processed and refined in Europe or America. They are then repackaged, renamed, and sold back to African bookstores at a profit to the Western publishing houses.
Obviously this is a simplification, but it does make for a good analogy of the process. A caveat to the importance of investing in and supporting African publishing houses. The end goal of the different aspects of the African literary space should be to refine, package, and distribute our own stories just as much as we write them.
It is safe to say this conference was a starting point for Africa in terms of what we have to offer in the publishing conversation. Networking and spotlighting different home-grown organizations that are actually doing the work to develop the production and distribution of literature on the continent is not merely beneficial, it is essential.
It was an honour for Prestige Bookshop to witness this and be part of this continental conversation.