Why the book is still king in Africa

In the West, millions of books are being destroyed every year. According to a 2009 article in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper , the UK pulped 77 million unsold books. The numbers are chilling – and growing. The audiences for Western book publishers are growing more fragmented and disaffected, yet millions of books are still been published, leading to unnecessary wastage. For instance, 59,000 of the 86,000 new titles published in the UK in 2009 sold an average of 18 copies and more than 90 per cent of editions sell fewer than 3,500 copies. 

This would never happen in Africa. Here, a growing middle class, more flexible marketing and sales options, and a strong need for the physical book are making sure that books remain relevant across the continent.

According to a recent Economist article, millions of Africans are living longer and earning more and they are starting to demand consumer products in their own image – including music, books and movies. So, while a few African writers might gain celebrity status by publishing in the West, they won’t always sell as many books as they initially imagine. There are many reasons for this, but one is that Africans want to see themselves in what they consume.  Like Western readers, they will read their own writers before they read other non-African works. For example, Lola Shoneyin’s “Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives,” which was longlisted for this year’s Orange Prize, has sold over 3,000 copies in a few months because it resonates with the reality of many women.

Because African publishers are only now beginning to rebuild their tradition of selling books, they are not tied down by expensive legacies. In the West, bookshops and other distributors can take up to 65 percent of a book’s cover price, leaving a much smaller percentage for the publisher and the writer. Stores can also order in bulk (and they often order far more than they need) and return unsold books to the publisher with no penalty. Outside of South Africa, there are very few established methods of selling books, which has meant that publishers can be more innovative in directly targeting readers. There are no rules, literally, in selling books to readers. In the West, most books have a specific window in which they are meant to sell, otherwise they risk being taken out and pulped. On the continent, there are no timelines. The books on the backlist – older books that still continue to make strong sales – are just as important as newer titles and continue to be promoted.

While the West is fretting about the e-book revolution, in Africa, it’s not even a factor for the majority of people. Although changing slowly, there is still a large technological gap on the continent. Much has been made about the growing “Facebook generation,” but the truth is that only a small percentage of people have access to the internet and fewer still have access to e-readers; millions of people will live their lives without ever seeing a computer, let alone a Kindle.  In countries where constant electricity is considered as a luxury, there is still an enormous need for the physical book. In tiny villages across Nigeria, families can still point to their palm-oil stained copies of classic books. And the fact that copies of our books have been sighted in the remotest of villages in Nigeria shows that the physical book is still very much important here.

Finally, publishers on the continent (outside of South Africa, perhaps) are unlikely to pulp books because not many are published in the first place. African markets are so saturated by second-hand and ready-to-pulp titles from the West that those rare high-quality indigenous titles that are published become passion projects.  And nobody pulps passion.


  • for me there is nothing like reading fiction in a physical book. its just not that interesting online.

    Posted by amaka on August 01, 2011
  • I’m one of many people who believe this whole-heartedly….

    We love our physical books. There’s nothing like the wonderful satisfaction of “flipping” through the pages of a book. Absolutely satisfying!!!

    Also, there is the problem of “bandwidth” in Nigeria. And technology wise, we have not attained that “tech-savvy” status (not many people have access to internet, or can afford it). Even with the advent of User-friendly phones and their browsing abilities.
    Asides all this, I can’t and I’m unwilling to give up that sweet feeling of leafing through the pages of a books. Nor, the feeling of lying in bed (or any comfortable space) with a book in hand, a cup of tea/coffee (or any poison of choice), while enjoying a tale or gleening wisdom off of a book. Whether, thriller, suspense, horror (my favorites), action, biography or even a “serious book”. Infact, whatever the genre, and i’m sure I’m not alone on this. Absolute sheer bliss….. (sigh)

    Posted by Jane on April 18, 2011
  • Such an interesting topic. I found this via the Africa Unchained blog. My two cents: Isn’t there a huge disconnect going on here? How can there even be talk about books or e-books in Africa without acknowledging such a glaring contradiction….most books in Africa are only available in languages (english and french) that most Africans don’t speak (or certainly not sufficiently literate in)!

    Posted by RB on May 11, 2011

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