Digital publishing in Africa

[caption id="attachment_1257" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Image from UK Guardian"]

Last weekend I was in a taxi in Abuja and began chatting with the driver about my favourite subject: books. Now, my city is a fairly literate one – with many of its residents being civil servants with some level higher education – so it wasn’t surprising that my taxi driver was well-read. What surprised me was that he did most of his reading on his phone.

The driver, let’s call him Dare, had a collection of nearly 50 ebooks on his smartphone – a modest model that costs about a quarter of his monthly salary. Most of them were free downloads of classics such as Plato’s The Republic, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. He also had a collection of self-help titles like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The 48 Laws of Power and The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. What he didn’t seem to have were any books by Nigerian and African authors.

While the e-book is taking over the book markets in the UK and the US, I had always thought it’s penetration into Africa would be slower because of the digital divide between those who are wired and those who are not. The digital divide is real, but it seems that the economic power of the continent’s growing middle-class is rising faster than I expected.

Worldreader’s digital publishing seminar in Ghana earlier this year shows there’s a lot of commitment and excitement about digital publishing on the continent. Here in Nigeria publishers have also begun to dive into the digital waters. For example, Cassava Republic Press aims to have e-versions of many of its adult and children’s titles available by the end of the year.

Digital publishing has a number of benefits. Already small-scale experiments in Ghana have proven that digital e-readers actually boost literacy and reading levels in children by providing them with a wider range of reading materials. And widely available cheap or free e-books are returning out-of-print classics and overlooked backlists into the limelight.

However, e-books as we know them may not be the best way to reach the broadest range of African readers. E-readers like Kindles and nooks which have not been adapted for the region are still too fragile and expensive for the majority of African readers. And alternatives suggest that African publishers should work to format our titles for cell phones, particularly on modest smartphones that run Java. Even Dare preferred PDFs that he could download easily onto his phone over specialised e-book files.

What I will say is that the digital trend isn’t going away, and if we want our locally-produced books to get into the electronic libraries of people like Dare, then we publishers on the continent need to strengthen our moves to establish ourselves in what is a fast-emerging African market.

The future is now!


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