Just maybe the IPA could bring the digital distributors to their senses, and maybe too knock sense into the empty heads of the territorial rights departments at the mainstream publishers.

IPA President Bodour Al Qasimi this weekend published a post on Medium looking at the progress – and challenges still remaining – in bringing Africa’s publishers into the global publishing ecosystem.

Regulars here will know it’s a topic close to my heart – in fact TNPS comes to you day by day from Africa’s smallest mainland country, The Gambia – and the haphazard nature of TNPS arriving in your inboxes is testament to the daily challenges an author or publisher faces.

Bodour (as this is a personal post I’ll skip the surname formalities as pretty much everyone in the publishing world knows there is only one Bodour Al Qasimi) has been on my radar since long before the African Regional Seminars took off in 2018, thanks to her commitment to global publishing that in turn arose from her remarkable family background. Not here to dwell on that other than to point to past TNPS coverage –

and note in passing that Bodour’s home country, the UAE, did not even exist until 1971, and was previously the Trucial States, a British protectorate, so Bodour is no stranger to colonialism, the shadow of which still looms large over much of the African continent even today.

And I write that as a British expat in a former British colony. But let’s stick here with Bodour’s message.

In 2018, I began working with a dedicated group of African publishers through the International Publishers Association (IPA) to host a series of publishing events in Africa called the African Regional Seminars. Focusing on sustainable development in publishing, the first ever seminar was held in Lagos, Nigeria in May 2018 and attracted 180 attendees from over 20 countries.

That led to the Lagos Action Plan to “document seminar recommendations and commit to tangible progress” and that in turn to the African Publishing Innovation Fund, funded by the UAE’s Dubai Cares and administered by the IPA. Check out Bodour’s Medium post for much more about this admirable venture.

Bodour continues,

In my conversations with African publishers over the last several years, one positive impact of the global pandemic on African publishing has been the push it has given publishers in embracing digitally-enabled business models. African publishers are increasingly adopting digital publishing and targeting new audiences like publications for the visually disabled. For far too long, audiences with different reading disabilities have gone unsupported and unnoticed. Thankfully, this is now changing in Africa and globally.

Let me add here that Africa as a continent has (as of start 2022, so higher still by now) over 600 million people online – almost double the online population of the United States, and one and a half times the online population of the EU.

So embracing digitally enabled models makes a lot of sense, to an extent. Let me come back on that below. First, back to Bodour.

I believe that everyone has the right to read a book in whatever format is accessible to them. Given the growing strength of several African national publishing industries and its large youthful population, there is no doubt Africa will be home to some of the fastest-growing, most interesting publishing markets in the next decade. The last few years have been a very important watershed in making progress on digital and accessible content in Africa, and I am excited to see what the coming years have in store.

While I share Bodour’s excitement and hopes, and of course TNPS has long flown the flag for digital development in the African publishing markets, I am daily reminded of the cruel realities of publishing life on this oh so wonderful continent that has so much to offer but needs so much more than the IPA and Dubai Cares and friends can ever hope to provide.

Even in the wealthier parts of Africa (and believe me, there are many – show a typical untravelled westerner a picture of many a major African city – Abidjan, Dakar, Luanda, Kigali, Abuja…) and, without any people in the image to give the game away, they would be convinced they are looking at Western Europe or the US) the challenges run far deeper than just the obvious publishing hurdles.

Distribution is a logistical nightmare, even within the wealthier countries, and pan-African is a concept that has yet to even be considered by African publishing. It’s easier for someone in London or New York, Paris or Frankfurt to buy the latest novel from a big name Nigerian, South African or Kenyan author than it is for Africans in neighbouring countries to do so, and similarly books from the African diaspora are often hard, if not impossible to get hold of in the author’s homeland.

And I chose those countries as example of the more economically and technologically advanced African nations. At the other end of the spectrum we have countries like The Gambia, home to one – literally, one – bookstore worthy of the name, but that carries a fistful of locally produced and poorly printed titles alongside books imported from the west at ridiculous expense (which of course will now be even more ridiculous as the global recession bites) such that local people cannot even begin to think of buying.

Digital is of course the obvious solution, but the reality is somewhat different.

Where to buy? How to pay?

Yes, everyone and their aunt has a smartphone, but a large proportion of those have never used the internet for anything beyond social media, and for the few that do, how many have a means to pay for a digital download? Mobile wallets are beginning to gain traction here, but a mobile wallet won’t let you buy a book from Amazon’s Kindle store.

In fact, even if it did, Amazon won’t let you even see the Kindle store here, let alone buy from it. I’m an exception – I have a pre-existing UK Amazon account and associated UK bank card – but if you use a local bank and don’t have an address and zip code (no addresses here – most roads are just sand tracks) then so far as Amazon is concerned you don’t exist.

No, that’s a lie. If you want to watch Amazon Video and you have the means to pay, almost every African country has access, even here in The Gambia. But books? Be serious.

And that’s a story retold around much of the world, but especially here. Print books, ebooks, audiobooks… For most Africans Amazon is a river in South America.

Of course there’s always Kobo and Apple and Google Play. Except, there’s not. And not just because all the same issues arise regarding the ability to pay online.

Apple Music is widely available across the continent, but there’s not an Apple Books store anywhere in Africa. Google Play? Google has two, count ‘em, two Google Play Books operations in Africa – one in South Africa, one in Egypt. And word is there is no intention to change that.

Okay, so Kobo will at least let you see the Kobo International Store from Africa, but try looking for a title and chances are you won’t see it, because Kobo only shows you the titles that the publishers have approved for sale in African countries. Yep, that hoary old chestnut, territorial restrictions.

And the default setting for mainstream publishers is if you’re not a mainstream books market then we don’t want to know. Who cares if you can watch Jack Reacher or Bosch on Amazon Video? You ain’t getting to read the books, and that’s final.

And of course repeat for most of the acclaimed African authors, living in Africa or the diaspora, who are published by western mainstream publishers.

Yes, one can accept it is largely not cost-effective to print these books in China, ship them, back to the UK or US, and then ship them to Africa.

But what in the name of sanity is the reason why the digital version of the same book cannot be made available in the ancestral homeland of the African author the publisher is making a mint off?

Of course there are many other factors at play in the fight to make Africa a level publishing playing field.

Here in The Gambia reading for pleasure is a largely unknown concept. The few that do read did so to pass a school exam, and will never have looked at a book since – a survey I recently conducted of 30 local teachers showed just two that read for pleasure or had read a book that was not part of a compulsory education course.

Three said they would read if they could find books that might interest them. A further two said they would try reading on their phones if they knew where to get ebooks.

Yes, there are freebie ebook sites, but wonderful as we western-educated folks might say we think Austen, Shakespeare and Dickens are, these are not the kind of books that will excite reluctant African readers who would really like to read about African characters in Africa.

In many African countries publishers are making headway with children’s books aimed at African kids, but that’s the exception, not the rule.

Here in the Gambia children’s books, other than the set text books for schools (written, illustrated, printed and published outside the country, of course), are non-existent, and the Primary text books, admirable as they are, do not even begin to fill the gap.

At the TNPS nursery school (from September also Primary) we are considered something of miracle school because all our children can read, but that’s due to my literally having to write every book for them, because there are no pre-school and infants books published here, and the Pandemic put paid to the handful of books brought by kindly tourists heading here for the winter sun.

By writing I mean literally writing, typing up, grabbing some royalty-free images from the internet, and printing them off on a laser jet desk printer and stapling them together. Enough to keep the 220 children at my school engaged, and enough to donate a few copies to nearby schools, but of course home-printed materials and stapled spines don’t last long in small hands and a hot climate, so this barely scratches the surface of the problem, even in this tiny country of just 2.5 million people.

The upside is, having lived here twelve years almost, and a visitor for twenty years plus, that I can write localised material for the children. Meaningful stories set in their own land, with children that look like them and whose names they can pronounce, places they’ve heard of and storylines that don’t involve Peter and Jane at the beach or in the toy shop.

Not, of course, that we’ve any objection to imported books from anywhere in the world. The odd Peter and Jane book that finds its way here is eagerly devoured. And of course expanding the children’s minds can only be done by letting them see the world beyond their own doorstep.

But for much of Africa the list of publishing problems includes there simply not being any local content for children being produced, let alone readily available. And that in turn means there are no budding writers in our schools who will be tomorrow’s children’s authors or Booker prize winners.

Here at least Dubai Cares and the IPA and Bodour herself are cognisant of the problem (Bodour’s own Kalimat began life with the intent of letting Arab children read about other Arab children in Arab settings – not something Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl were hot on).

But the big problems I’m not seeing addressed by the IPA and co, are the mechanics of global book distribution.

Some, like simple poverty, like payment methods, and like governments unwilling to invest in early education (here in The Gambia school is not compulsory) are perhaps beyond the IPA’s capacity to deal with.

On the other hand there are issues like digital distribution and territorial rights where the IPA surely can make direct appeals to the decision makers that are deliberately choosing to limit global access to books.

If Amazon can deliver Amazon Video to all but four countries in the world then clearly there are no technological or political hurdles to making the Kindle store a global operation. Kobo does it, after all.

To be absolutely clear, when I sign into Amazon here via my UK account credentials I can see the Kindle store just fine here in The Gambia and buy any book. But the moment I sign out of my UK credentials the Kindle store literally disappears.

Kobo not so much, but here’s the thing: when I go to the Kobo store as a UK resident I see the whole store. When I sign out and view as a Gambian resident literally millions of ebooks disappear, because some damn fool in a plush publishers’ office in London or New York is following a rule laid down in the last century to serve print interests long before the idea of an ebook existed.

Alongside this we need – we desperately need – more digital platforms that do not originate in the West to serve western interests, and that are not, thinking the Storytel saga here, beholden to the stock market.

If these problems could be solved, the global digital book market would become a meaningful entity and that in turn would allow and encourage publishers and authors in the developing world to digitise more.

Just maybe the IPA could bring the digital distributors to their senses, and maybe too knock sense into the empty heads of the territorial rights departments at the mainstream publishers.

But for a truly global digital books distribution operation to serve the world, that isn’t geared to and beholden to western interests… That would take the vision of the UAE’s book-loving royal families and the combined resources and influence of Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Dubai to make happen.

As I’ve often said here at TNPS, Bodour Al Qasimi as IPA Vice-President and now President has single-handedly changed the global publishing dynamic.

That tenure ends as this year closes, and the IPA presidential baton passes to Karine Pansa, who will of course do a marvellous job, but will have her own priorities and her own flag to fly.

Bodour will of course have her own plans for what comes next as she steps down from the IPA’s number one spot, but we can safely state her crusade for inclusive global publishing will continue, and that she will continue to tout the value of digital embrace to make that happen.