US and UK publishers were slow to realise the potential of digital audio. They failed to understand that demand for audio was being determined by the format, not the product.
The 47th AGM of the Ghana Publishers Association has been dominated by financial worries that centre on the failure of the Education Ministry to pay the outstanding 80% it owes to publishers for school textbooks this year.
Reports indicate that, despite an initial payment of 20 percent made in August 2023, the Ministry has yet to hand over the remaining 80 percent of the total amount owed.
Ghana Publishers Association president Asare Konadu Yamoah said: “The contracted publishers and the GPA are urging the Minister of Education, Dr Yaw Osei Adutwum, to release the remaining 80 per cent now. The contracted publishers and the association have been excessively patient and we request the Minister of Education to respect that and be sensitive to the plight of the publishers.”
The AGM had the theme “Book Procurement in Ghana: Resolving Challenges for Industrial Growth.”
Clearly the biggest challenge right now is the government itself, which is also, as in so many countries in Africa, the single biggest customer for publishers.
Back in 2021, the Ghanaian government ceded 100% of the printing of textbooks for pupils in basic schools to local printers. “The whole idea is that we want to encourage and empower the local printing business,” Minister Adutwum said at the time.
But with 80% of the bill outstanding, its clear the printers and publishers are not even covering their costs, while the government sits on the money. So much for empowering local printers.
GPA President Yamoah noted the government’s debt was not the only problem causing concern.
School heads demanded “outrageous” discounts, difficulty in getting payments for books distributed on credit and the low level of government commitment and investment in the procurement of books, according to a report by Emmanuel Bonney in Graphic.
The General Secretary of the Ghana National Association of Private Schools, Justice King Essiel, said: “We must begin to nurture people who would read and then we will be able to make business out of that.”
Ghana’s publishing problems are echoed across the continent, and across many emerging markets globally, where educational publishing, directly or indirectly dependent on the government, is the publishing industry’s primary revenue source.
And because government-approved textbooks are designed to be used as class aids, not as leisure time pursuits, there is no meaningful culture of reading being developed. The few publishers that do publish books for children and adults for pleasure-reading struggle to be viable in a very limited market where few people have learned the joys of reading, and books are not easily obtainable outside of the big cities.
And with the added problem that Ghana is a country of many languages. English is the official language, but there are eleven government-sponsored indigenous languages used in schools across the country. So print-runs are inevitably small, and economies of scale are lost.
Ghanaian publishing is seemingly trapped in a colonial-legacy landscape of educational publishing and literacy challenges. Ghana’s literacy rate stands at only 76%, and by gender female literacy is down at 71% and male literacy at 82%.
But there is at least light at the end of the literacy tunnel. Youth literacy (15-24 years old) is at 90%, with the gender gap narrowed considerably (91.3% male, 89.7% female).
The aforementioned Ghana Book Development Council has played a clear role in that transformation. Last month it reported on book booths it had presented to a number of schools that include 500 assorted reading books that have been “indigenously produced and mostly with ‘settings’ that resonate with the school children.”
Wonderful stuff, Team GBDC. If only this could be replicated more widely.
But the bigger issue still is mindset. Again, the colonial legacy carries a lot of blame, but the industry needs to look forward, not back.
Governments control educational publishing and they control educational policy, but there’s rarely meaningful joined-up thinking. Children are taught to read textbooks, not to read for pleasure. Reading is taught as part of the English (or whatever language) syllabus, but not as a subject in its own right. And certainly for English, phonics advocates have hijacked the agenda, teaching children chimpanzee impressions when they could be reading for fun.
In 2018 Ghana became yet another African country to fall for the phonics con, with the UK company Jolly Phonics offering free training and resources for a limited time. And of course phonics is great for teaching little children sentences like “the fat cat sat in the hat on the mat“, but as developed countries have been learning to their costs, the short term gains if we can even call them that, are soon lost as children transition from specially prepared phonics-friendly texts to “real” reading.
Phonics books of course bring revenue to publishers, but ultimately its self-defeating. But equally, publishers do not set educational policy.
In the UK phonics held sway for a decade or two, and the damage to educational standards is clear. In 2022, a landmark study showed just how badly an obsession with phonics had damaged English teaching in schools.
Phonics teaching totally fails to understand how children learn, and sends them down dead-end roads where they learn a rule and then find the rule mostly doesn’t apply.
Take the digraph “ea“, which Jolly Phonics tells children is pronounced like the “ea” in “eat” or “seat” or “meat.” And so it is. The child then sees the word “break” or “breakfast” or “bear” or “fear” or “earn” or “ocean” or “react” or “area” or “forearm” and carefully “decodes” the word using the nonsense rule they have learned, only to be told no, that’s not right at all.
Children spend so much time “decoding” words, that they lose sight of the meaning of the sentence and the joy of reading. And when they then face “real” reading where most words do not follow the nonsense rules – just try reading this paragraph using Jolly phonics rules – they see reading as just another chore to do at school to keep the teacher happy. Children are, in many cases, simply being taught to pass phonics tests, rather than building up the skills to master (and enjoy) the art of reading as a whole.
In 2019, so no Covid excuses, one in four children in England left primary school unable to read to the required standard, according to DoE statistics.
Imagine it. England, the home of the English language, with children starting secondary school barely able to read English.
Not that the UK government cares. It’s too busy trying to ship migrants to Rwanda to worry about giving its own children a decent education. British publishers will pay the price down the road as the semi-illiterati leave school and mature as book-loathing adults. And a similar story is unfolding in the US.
Here in The Gambia, Jolly Phonics arrived early, and Gambian kids have been taught the phonics way for a long while. Most children start primary school unable to read, and many still cannot read properly by secondary school. In my school we don’t use phonics except as a spelling guide, and we teach children to read for pleasure. Every child leaves my nursery school able to read, and enjoying reading.
Right now UK publishing is riding the highs of past educational policies, back when a reading culture was encouraged, and there’s much Africa’s publishers can learn from this.
At which point, let me return to those Ghanaian literacy numbers.
Youth literacy (15-24 years old) is at 90%, with the gender gap narrowed considerably (91.3% male, 89.7% female).
Clearly that had nothing to do with a phonics policy introduced for KG in 2018. The tragedy is, Ghanaian schools will only start feeling the negative impact of phonics in a few years time, as the early Jolly Phonics students move up the education chain.
But savour those literacy rates. 90% for 15-24 year olds!
That alone should have publishers salivating. This is the digital native generation (Gen Z) that have probably never seen a typewriter or a camera or a “real” telephone with cables, and cannot imagine how life was even possible before mobile phones.
The enormity of which, few in the west fully comprehend. That countries like Ghana (and the same here in The Gambia where I’m writing this post from) have had a very different internet evolution from the USA, UK and Europe. Which is both a hindrance and an immense opportunity.
Apart from government and big business offices, almost no-one even knows what a desk-top PC is, and laptops are for people who need a big keyboard to work at. No-one buys a laptop just to search the web, or use email, yet for Generation Last Century, that was the only way to get online
Most people in Africa have only ever connected to the internet through their smartphone, and for Gen Z, their smartphone is an extension of their very being.
How I envy them. I have a smartphone, but I’m Generation One-Foot-In-The-Grave. I carry a phone so people can call me, if I remember to turn it on. I’ve even been known to make calls. But other than that, I only use it for the Kindle app. I’ve got three year olds in my school that know more about how my phone works than I do.
But what I do know is that I can read books on it and, if I ever get around to buying a headset, I can listen to audiobooks on it. And so can anyone else, anywhere in the world, including Ghana. Likewise, publishers anywhere in the world can reach new readers and listeners anywhere in the world.
Yet emerging market publishers have been slow to wake up to this incredible opportunity. In part that’s because it’s all happened so fast, in an industry that makes the South American three-toed sloth look like an Olympic sprinter.
The reality is that much of Africa and the wider world has entirely skipped that painful desk-top dial-up era, and has gone straight from not having a telephone at all, to having the latest 5G smartphone in their hands.
And because this has all happened in an awareness vacuum, and in a faux-narrative bubble that somehow Africa cannot compete and keep up with publishing industry developments, exciting publishing opportunities are being missed.
It’s easy to fall for the faux narratives that the internet hasn’t really arrived in Africa yet, and Africans don’t read, and they wouldn’t pay for books anyway, and… Yeah, we all know the spiel. Stereotypes are hard to shake off.
Yet the reality is that the second and fourth largest book fairs in the world in 2023 were not in the US or UK, but right here in Africa. Cairo and Algiers take a bow. No US or UK book fair can come remotely close to the the 2.7 million people that attended Algeria’s international book fair this year, let alone the 3.6 million people that went to the biggest cultural event in Egypt.
As for Africa not knowing what the internet is… Yes, Africa is at just 43% internet penetration, and Ghana itself is at just 46% penetration. But across Africa that 43% equates to 602 million people online – more than the European Union, and way more than the USA. In fact, it’s equivalent to the USA, Canada, UK, France, Germany and Italy combined. Over 600 million people with a device that could be used to read and listen to digital books.
So yes, Africa’s publishers are behind the internet curve, but with good reason.
As recently as 2010, just thirteen short years ago, there were only 53 million people online across the whole of Africa. Today, Egypt alone has more internet users than that.
Ghana in 2010 had just 1.9 million people online. So of course Ghanaian publishers were not rushing to get on board with this new fad in the west. Ebooks? A book is not a book unless it’s made of ink on paper. Digital audiobooks? Only the blind want to listen to audiobooks. And with fewer than 2 million people online, why even bother?
Today, Ghana has 16 million people online, and as Sweden has shown with just ten million people in total, 16 million internet users is more than enough to transform a publishing economy.
So yes, of course population size helps, but it’s not a critical factor. The critical factors are around mindset and willingness to adapt and embrace opportunity.
Africa has in the past been home to world-leading education and learning. While Europe was still in the Middle Ages and building its first universities, the Mali and Ghana Empires in the Sahel had world class centres of learning. Like all empires, they thrived and died, but what goes around comes around. And in the modern era, the publishing industry is the key to Africa’s renaissance.
Ghana is certainly showing potential here. We need only look to AkooBooks Audio to see how Ama Dadson is repositioning Ghana as a hub for African digital audio. Across a dozen countries in Africa, YouScribe has over a million subscribers to its digital books subscription service. There are many other examples.
And here’s the thing: The scale may differ, but in principal there’s nothing happening in western publishing that cannot be done just as well, or better, on the African continent. And just as Africa’s internet evolution leapfrogged the dial-up and PC era, so Africa’s publishing evolution can leapfrog and catch up with many elements of western publishing’s evolution.
And one area the continent really needs to catch up on is trade publishing.
Trade publishing in the US and UK dominates the publishing industry. Huge demand for commercial fiction and commercial non-fiction is channeled through high street print sales, and also through online print sales, but also through ebooks, digital audio, streaming and other formats.
This supports not just publishers, retailers and authors, but adds immense value to the wider economy, with books driving content decisions in cinema, TV and other entertainment, as well as providing entrepreneurial opportunities within the industry and beyond the industry.
Self-publishers alone earned US $50 million (GH₵ 599 million) in November, just from ebook subscription. Over the year, the ebook subscription service Kindle Unlimited will have paid out over a half billion dollars (GH₵ 5.9 trillion) to its self-publishing authors.
Trade publishers of course are seeing revenue from print and audio as well as ebooks. But let’s focus on audiobooks, where last year, US trade digital audiobook revenues topped $1.8 billion (GH₵ 21.5 trillion).
The US of course is a big market, but size is just part of the equation.
With 32 million people, Ghana is roughly half the size of the UK. Last year digital audiobook revenue in the UK topped GBP 164 million (GH₵ 2.5 billion).
Could Ghana’s audiobook market be worth half that given the population is half that of the UK? No, of course not. Not yet, anyway. But in ten years time?
Consider: In 2009 the UK audiobook market was worth just GBP 2 million (GH₵ 30 million).
Audiobooks were a sideshow for publishers. Cumbersome cassettes and CDs needed. And hideously expensive for consumers. Digital audio was still a tech-geek novelty. Ebooks were just beginning to make an impact in the US, but still pretty much unheard of in the UK. The UK Kindle store was still a year in the future. The iPhone was just two years old.
So publishers were slow – very slow – to realise the potential of digital audio. And they failed to understand that demand for audio was being determined by the format, not the product. Cassette and CD audiobooks simply do not lend themselves to leisure-listening.
Not their fault, of course. Publishers are not device manufacturers. Publishers are not tech innovators. But western publishing complacently lumbered along with its printed books in bricks & mortar stores mentality, just about coming to terms with the idea that printed books could be sold online in an expanding market.
But digital books? Publishers were extremely wary. Ebooks were bad enough. But digital audio? Only the visually-impaired listened to audiobooks!
But digital audio meant more prospective profits and so publishers reluctantly began producing new audio-content and because consumers could easily listen on their new generation of smartphones, demand quickly outstripped supply. Publishers have ever since been trying to produce enough audiobooks to keep up.
We see the curve clearly in this image from Statista.
But what’s most important here is that this is not revenue from the old pie. This is new money – an expanding pie with audio consumption happening alongside ebook and print consumption.
Most of Africa’s publishers are seeing none of this, because very few of Africa’s publishers are producing audio, and for those that are, the digital infrastructure is not yet in place to reach wide audiences. And yes, country by country many African nations are behind with internet user numbers. But as we see with small European countries like Denmark or Norway or Finland (each fewer than 6 million online) internet populations can be small and still be powerful revenue drivers for publishers.
Now extrapolate for the possibilities. Norway, Finland and Denmark are at internet saturation point. There is no room to grow. Ghana has three time as many people online and is not even at the halfway mark.
The current problems with government payments show clearly the folly of overreliance on any one business model, and of course Africa’s publishers understand that and many do diversify, but there’s so much more opportunity to explore.
I said earlier how the majority of Africa’s population has simply leapfrogged the early internet years and the early mobile phone years and gone from no telephones and no internet to 5G smartphones. 550 million internet users added just since 2010, and not even 50% capacity reached. 5G mobile devices available pretty much simultaneously across Africa and in the richest nations on the planet.
African publishing can make that same leap – we see it already with YouScribe, which reached one million subscribers in a fraction of the time it took Storytel to reach the same milestone.
Western publishing has made all the mistakes, so Africa’s publishing doesn’t need to. African publishing can move forward in leaps and bounds, and potentially even lead the way.
Right now global publishing is at a critical point, with generative AI now an everyday reality, yet many western publishers are so wrapped up in their own legacy problems and long-established and set-in-stone work patterns that they cannot collectively move forward with the AI opportunity.
Western publishers have the luxury of being able to resist change and many are doing just that. Just as they did with ebooks and digital audio and subscription and… The history of western publishing is the history of resistance to change.
Africa’s publishing has the opportunity to grasp the AI nettle and explore its vast potential in ways western publishing cannot or will not do.
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