A brief first issue introduction.
As this is the first issue, a quick summary of what Publish Africa is, and who is behind the project, and why it's a day late.
Publish Africa is a new bi-weekly email newsletter intended to help generate understanding, offer insights, occasionally report news, but mostly to drive the debate about the future of publishing in Africa. And that means all of Africa, although of course not all at once.
Publish Africa is published by StreetLib, an Italy-based global gateway aggregator and publishing facilitator for digital books, but this is about all books, all reading and all publishing, not just digital.
That said, as the subheader of the newsletter might suggest, there will be an unashamed tilt towards "the digital advantage", because that's where the future of African publishing lies - in a hybrid print & digital publishing model that in the next decade can transform Africa's publishing industry.
What would an Italy-based company know about publishing in Africa?
In fact we're no strangers to Africa. This newsletter is being written from The Gambia, West Africa, where British ex-pat Mark Williams also acts as Editor-in-Chief of The New Publishing Standard, a global publishing industry journal that has since 2017 been published by StreetLib.
And that, by the way, is why the June 27 launch is happening on June 28. Life in Africa is a constant triumph of hope over experience, and nowhere more so than here in The Gambia where the electricity and internet gods often have their own ideas about my deadlines.
StreetLib CEO Giacomo D'Angelo presented on the Blockchain and publishing at the IPA Regional Seminar in Nairobi earlier this month, and we have a lot of on-going commitments to Africa - of which this newsletter is one - which we'll drop into the conversation as we go.
To be clear, Publish Africa is not intended to be a promotional vehicle for StreetLib per se, but where appropriate we will not hesitate to mention what we at StreetLib are doing to further the interests of a 21st century Pan-African, globally integrated publishing industry.
For anyone overwhelmed with curiosity, head across to our StreetLib blog where a post titled The StreetLib Africa Project: Our Path to Nairobi takes a look at our contribution to African publishing over the past six months.
IPA Nairobi in the rear-view mirror
Reflections of the Africa Rising IPA Regional Seminar
The International Publishers Association's Africa Rising Regional Seminar in Nairobi. Kenya, will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most important events in global publishing in this decade.
The foundations were of course laid with the first African Regional Seminar in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2018, but at Nairobi things stepped up a gear. This was by all accounts bigger and better, and sent out a powerful message to the world that Africa was flexing its muscles and intent on becoming a global publishing player.
There were many themes and discussions we'll come back on in future editions of Publish Africa: the importance of publishing and educating in indigenous African languages; the challenges of piracy; the difficulties facing publishers where no government support is forthcoming; printing and paper costs; Pan-African and global distribution; and of course the digital opportunity unfolding.
But that last part - the digital opportunity unfolding - is what this newsletter is primarily about. To look not where African publishing was last year, and not so much at where African publishing is today, but rather where it could be in the near future.
So don't be surprised if a lot of items here seem, at first glance, to have nothing to do with Africa. They have everything to do with Africa. Only by knowing, understanding and appreciating the way digital is transforming book markets and publishing in other parts of the world can we come to fully understand what digital can do for us right here on this vast and beatiful continent.
At which point many here may be asking themselves what relevance digital has in Africa, a continent known to be so far behind the rest of the world that it's only at 35% internet penetration. Even Nigeria, the economic powerhouse of the continent, is only at 55% internet penetration.
Maybe we should go away and do something else for another decade and then come back to digital when Africa's had a chance to catch up, right?
The trouble is, looking the other way is precisely why African publishing is so far behind today. There are some wonderful exceptions, of course, but by and large African publishers have just carried on partying like its 1999 all the way through the first two decades of the twenty-first century.
So here's a reality check.
- Fact: there are more people online in Africa than there are in the United States
- Fact: there are more people online in Africa than in North America
- Fact: there are more people online in Africa than in the whole of Latin America
- Fact: there are more people online in Africa than there are in the European Union
- Fact: as this newsletter is published there are 492 million people online in Africa
- Fact: by 2030 that number is expected to exceed 800 million
Savour those numbers.
Now savour this statement from Publish Africa publisher StreetLib at the IPA Regional Seminar in Nairobi earlier this month, announcing its plans for a Pan-African Digital Libraries Hub (more on that in an item below):
Imagine a near-future Africa where everyone, anywhere on the continent, has 24/7 access to books for education, for self-improvement, for better employment, and for entertainment.
Imagine a near-future Africa where everyone, anywhere on the continent, can read their own country’s authors, their neighbouring countries’ authors, and authors from around the world
Imagine a near-future Africa where a parent anywhere on the continent can select, buy or borrow, and read out loud to their children a bedtime story written in their local language, or even have the book read itself to the child.
An impossible dream under the traditional paper & ink publishing model.
But with digital the only barrier to making that dream come true is our willingness to make it happen.
Publish Africa is here to help make it happen. To help build African publishing's hybrid print & digital future.
Ebooks delivered the highest percentage of AAP publisher revenue in US adult fiction in 2018
Lessons from around the world.
"Ebooks delivered the highest percentage of AAP publisher revenue in US adult fiction in 2018" was the headline in TNPS this past month as the latest StatShot from the Association of American Publishers was released.
It's a remarkable headline in its own right, at a time when many naysayers are declaring the ebook "fad" to be over. It's all the more remarkable when you consider the AAP figures exclude what may well be about 20%-25% of the total market made up of independent publishers, Amazon's publishing imprints and the many publishers that do not contribute to AAP figures but are heavily focussed on ebooks.
What does it mean for African pubishers?
First that the handful of African publishers that do have ebooks available in the US market may be benefitting. For those that aren't seeing any rewards by being available, I'll come back in future issues to look at some ways African publishers are doing themselves no favours in the US market.
But far more important here is simply the fact that ebooks are doing so well at all. It drives home the reality that digital reading is something consumers want, and it behoves African publishers to offer their consumers the same choices.
Numbers? There's a fuller report over at TNPS, but here's a few to contemplate:
In 2018 the AAP valued the total US book market at $25.82 billion in revenue from 2.71 billion units. If we generously allow that that is 80% of the market then the total US book market can be valued at around $30 billion.
At Lagos last year a value of $1 billion was put on the African book market.
The population of the USA? 320 million.
The population of Africa? 1.2 billion.
But let's stick with that $25.82 billion AAP valuation. The AAP states that 28% of that came from ebooks and 13.7% from audiobooks.
In other words 41.7% of revenue came from digital.
At which point let's bear in mind that the USA has about 312 million people online but has very little room for growth. Africa has nearly a half billion people online and is barely off the starting grid
Nor for nothing is this newsletter called Publish Africa - the digital advantage.
240% increase in reading when school digital libraries connect to public libraries
Africa's embryonic digital libraries will drive African publishing's future.
We stay in the US with this next item, for a lesson in what digital can offer African publishers in the education sector.
"Ebook and audiobook reading increased over 240% when students connected their Sora classroom reading app to their local public library versus students solely accessing their school collection. In addition, student time spent reading ebooks and audiobooks nearly doubled since Sora was introduced to K-12 schools in September 2018."
Read more about the Sora app over at TNPS.
OverDrive is the world's biggest digital library supplier. Among the global digital libraries it supplies is the Kigali Public Library in Rwanda.
Most of OverDrive's action happens in the USA and Canada, but its global momentum is building.
Last year OverDrive saw over a quarter billion digital downloads from eager consumers lapping up OverDrive library ebooks and audiobooks. Tiny Singapore, population just 5 million, saw over one million downloads from OverDrive at its digital public libraries.
A total of 274 million downloads were made just through OverDrive public libraries last year, which equates to an average of 750,000 downloads every day.
Other digital library suppliers also reported a steady rise in downloads as consumer exercised their choice about whether to read digitally or read on paper.
But let’s stick with OverDrive still further, because this summer OverDrive is running its annual Summer Read programme, whereby 18,000 US schools have access to OverDrive’s YA and children’s K12 (the twelve years of schooling from nursery to teenager) catalogue.
Read about it over at TNPS. Here just to quote one teacher from one participating US school:
“I was hesitant to use technology because of the temptation to visit unrelated websites but I allow students to use their laptops during silent reading time and – guess what? They are reading! The students love the variety of book titles and the convenience of accessing on their phone or laptop so if they’re waiting in line or for their ride after school, they can read.”
Of course American kids of all ages will have far more access to smartphones and tablets that most kids in Africa, but that’s changing fast.
More important is the underlying moral to this story. That while many African publishing industry stakeholders are steadfastly looking the other way, earnestly lamenting that they wish more people were reading instead of spending time on their smartphones, the solution is staring them in the face.
Give these African smartphone lovers the option to read digital books on their phones and maybe they will. The evidence from elsewhere around the world certainly says so.
Airtel Africa's imminent IPO
Stakeholders who see smartphones as the enemy of publishing reading need to re-think their ideas.
Airtel Africa's imminent IPO on the Nigerian Stock Market is something to watch with interest. No short term benefits to publishers here, but Publish Africa is looking at the long game, and telcos like Airtel Africa are going to be key players in Africa's publishing future.
Airtel Africa's parent company is Bharti Airtel, operating out of India, and it already has its own ebook store, launched in April of this year. TNPS coverage here.
The value of a telco-supported digital books store cannot be overstated. Pretty much everyone has a phone, and with a telco book store you can simply pay for ebooks and audiobooks out of your regular mobile credit. A fantastic opportunity for publishers to deliver content to consumers 24/7 anywhere there is a mobile signal.
Airtel India is in fifteen African markets - see this TNPS post for background. In Nigeria alone Airtel has 31 million subscribers.
Bur don't get too excited. The chances Airtel Africa will launch a digital book store for any of its Africa markets are pretty slim.
Why? The blunt answer is, because most African publishers offer so little digital content it's not worthwhile. To which we can add that most publishers outside Africa don't help with their arachaic twentieth century territorial restrictions.
But that's not true everywhere. Across Francophone Africa the telco Orange already offers a wide selection of digital books in cooperation with the Paris-based digital books distributor YouScribe. YouScribe attracted over five million visitors from Africa in 2018.
For any publishers with French-language content who would like to get some of the YouScribe action, StreetLib is a YouScribe distribution partner.
Let me add here that both Algeria and Egypt have telco-operated ebook stores, so the concept is far from unknown on the continent.
But I'll end this item with a return to Airtel Africa, which just this past week began rolling out its free wi-fi network across 19 public libraries in Uganda.
That's free wi-fi in a house of books where consumers could be downloading digital books if only they were available.
Of course, you don't need a telco to get your books into Africa's digital libraries. But right now it's not easy. However that's about to change, as per the next item.
Pan-African Digital Library Hub
At StreetLib we believe in backing our words with deeds.
Among StreetLib's announcements at the IPA Seminar in Nairobi was our plan to develop a Pan-African Digital Library Hub to facilitate the exchange of digital books across the continent and with the wider world.
Again, this newsletter is not intended to be a StreetLib promotional vehicle, but it is about moving the African publishing industry forward, and by any measure this proposal counts on that point, so without further apology here’s what we envisage.
The StreetLib Pan-African Digital Library Hub proposes to be the focal point for publishers and authors from any country in Africa to upload ebooks, audiobooks, comics, magazines, essays and educational materials in any language including all Africa’s indigenous languages, that will then be instantly available to download by any digital library (public, private, national, provincial, school, college, or university) anywhere in Africa, as paid or as free units.
In addition, the StreetLib Pan-African Digital Library Hub will allow libraries to act as focal points for local authors by offering the StreetLib publisher portal at every library so any author can upload their books and make them available to readers across Africa and around the world, potentially launching many author careers.
Read more about the project here.
Publishers, librarians and other industry stakeholders wanting to get involved in the early stages can in the first instance contact me – email@example.com – and of course we’ll report back regularly here in Publish Africa as this project evolves.
Supporting the UNESCO Year of Indigenous Languages 2019
The cost of production and distribution of indigenous language content, especially for small print runs, can be challenging at best.
Digital can remove much of that cost, and there are ways around the need for every child to have a tablet and for every school to have an internet connection in order to benefit. I'll come back on indigenous languages many times in these newsletter, but here just to share an example from personal experience here in The Gambia of how publishing and education can move forward digitally even in school environments where electricity and the internet are unavailable.
One laptop and a projector screen in a class, or one flatscreen TV with a USB port, for example, will enable a classroom full of children to read and enjoy digital content. The content can be downloaded from a central point and distributed on a USB flashdrive.
Here in The Gambia nursery school educational materials are pretty much non-existent. I’ve just fitted out one of my nursery schools with a flatscreen TV in each classroom. I’ve prepared my own content to avoid copyright issues pending agreements to scan and use existing print materials, and a class of 30 can now comfortably read from the screen on the wall.
We also use free-to-download reading material and video from StoryWeaver, which incidentally is a StreetLib partner.
For classrooms without electricity, as here, a standard 12v battery supplies the power.
Simple examples of digital empowering publishers even where schools have no electricity or internet access. Of course this can be used to deliver quality education to classrooms in colonial legacy languages as well as in indigenous languages.
And the best bit? That one flat screen TV costs about the same as equipping each child in the class with one text book each.
The text books will soon be tattered and need replacing, or become out of date. For primary school each child will require several text books each.
Digital versions of those textbooks can be made available to schools at a fraction of the print costs (no paper and printing costs, no warehousing, no distribution costs) and still leave the publishers as much or likely more profit than the printed books would have brought in.
Schools perform better, therefore kids read more, leading to more sales of more books, both print and digital. A win-win for the publishers, the children, the teachers and society.
Africa's audiobook opportunity
Audio is just one more example of how publishers in other parts of the world are benefitting from digital.
Audiobooks are rarely out of the publishing news in the global publishing arena, but in Africa they are almost unheard of.
That’s not to say they don’t exist. Ghana has Akoobooks Audio and South Africa has AudioShelf - both fast-growing audiobook scenes. But by any measure Africa is so far behind the curve when it comes to audio that it’s frankly embarrassing.
Just this month Sweden’s Storytel launched its audiobook and ebook subscription service in Germany, and later this year will launch in Brazil, Thailand and South Korea. By the end 2019 Storytel will be operational in twenty markets across three continents. TNPS report here.
Its Swedish rival Bookbeat this past week expanded its operations to 28 countries.TNPS report here.
Amazon’s Audible operates in eight markets. There are audiobook operations across Europe, North America, South America, the Middle East and Asia.
In Brazil Ubook is rapidly expanding its overseas presence. See TNPS story here.
What are the chances of Storytel or Bookbeat or Ubook launching in Africa?
Well, South Africa is just within the realms of possibility, but for the rest of the continent publishers have yet to show enough interest in ebooks, let alone audiobooks, to warrant interest from abroad.
The lesson here is that Africa is not an island, yet African publishing so often carries on as if it is, keeping its distance from the world markets and from its own continental neighbours. Is it any wonder African publishing lags behind most of the world?
Yes, of course we can blame the colonial legacy, poverty, illiteracy and host of other excuses, some entirely valid, some threadbare.
But here's the thing. We’re six months away from 2020. Yet much of the African publishing industry is still partying like the twenty-first century has yet to arrive.
Time to wake up and smell the coffee.
StreetLib partners with Odilo
The global book market is just that: global. StreetLib can help you reach it.
StreetLib has literally just today announced its distribution partnership with Odilo.
From the press release:
"With 140 million users across more than 40 countries, ODILO is the latest library content supplier to join the list of StreetLib partners as we continue our mission to make books available to anyone, anywhere on the planet. StreetLib authors and publishers now have the chance to see their titles in the 2 million strong ODILO catalogue that feeds the libraries of 4,500 institutions."
Yes, digital libraries yet again. And I strongly recommend you head across to the press release to see some of the countries where Odilo is doing some of its fantastic work.
Might Odilo put in an appearance in Africa one day? Not if African publishers continue to look the other way instead of embracing the opportunity digital brings.
Looking forward to the IPA Regional Seminar 2020.
The IPA Africa Regional Seminar looks like it is to become an annual fixture, and Marrakesh has been named the host city for 2020.
That’s a move to be welcomed on many fronts.
After Lagos, and then Nairobi, there was an undercurrent of feeling that these events were Anglophone sub-Saharan African affairs, and while there were representatives from across the continent on both occasions the bias was clear. Not deliberate, just driven by the way the Seminars have evolved.
The same criticism might be leveled at this newsletter, of course. It’s only available in English and there is inevitably a bias towards Anglophone Africa for the simple reason my language skills are limited and so, therefore, is my access to data and information.
So I welcome – indeed encourage – anyone and everyone to share any tips, news, insights, data and experiences across the pan-African publishing arena and I’ll do my best to ensure pan-African coverage as we move forward, albeit always of course in a global context.
I’ll leave you with the final item for today: further reading.
Further reading will be a regular winding down selection of recent African and global publishing-related stories there’s no space to develop here but are worth checking out to see the bigger picture of an African publishing industry ready to enter the new decade with new energy, new hope, new opportunities and yes, new challenges. Hey, no-one said this would be easy.
I’m Mark Williams, writing from The Gambia, West Africa. Thanks or joining me for issue #1 of Publish Africa – the digital advantage. The next issue will (fingers crossed) be hitting inboxes on July 11.
It's the end of this newsletter, but here's some essential reading to keep you up to speed with African publishing until next time.
1, Mention Ethiopia to many in the outside world and if they know of it at all it will conjure up images of the terrible famine that hit the country back in the 1980s. Today Ethiopia is one of Africa's tech hubs, and while this QZ report isnt all good news about this exciting country, it should be compulsory reading to understand how advanced some parts of Africa are in the face of challenges its Silicon Valley counterparts could barely conceive of.
2. For a great overview of the last day of the Nairobi Seminar check out Publishing Perspectives with Porter Anderson.
3. Another great overview of the IPA Seminar can be found at the James Murua blog.
4. Also from Publishing Perspectives, a great post dealing with indigenous African language publishing.
5. Mubanga Kalimamukwento Wins 2019 Kalemba Short Story Prize for Zambian Writing. Brittle Paper has the story.
And finally two from TNPS:,
6. The Accra international Book Festival goes global. A report from TNPS.
7. "Nigeria’s booksellers promise vibrant trade, but casting social media as the enemy is not the way to make that happen." TNPS report here.