Book Reviews


Alois Mlambo, ed.
African Scholarly Publishing Essays
Oxford: African Books Collective Ltd.; Uppsala: Dag Hammarskjold Foundation;
and Oxford: International Network for the Availability of Scientific
Publications (INASP), 2006.
273 pp. 29.95/$39.95 pap.
ISBN-10 1904855830 ISBN-13 9781904855835
(distributed in North America by Michigan State University Press)

by Hans M. Zell, Hans Zell Publishing, Lochcarron, Scotland

This volume grew out of a seminar on scholarly publishing held in Arusha, Tanzania in 2002. It was originally announced for publication as The African Scholarly Writers and Publishers Handbook, as a sequel to the much acclaimed African Writers' Handbook, published by African Books Collective (ABC) in 1999, and was billed to contain a series of essays by African academics writing about their experience in getting published and their relations with publishers, together with a variety of resource materials and practical information for academic writers.

The book has now finally appeared, over four years after the seminar, with the title African Scholarly Publishing Essays, but as the title suggests has now been recast primarily as a collection of essays by book practitioners and a number of African academics. The preface to the volume offers no explanation why the original handbook concept was abandoned, although the essay collection does contain a few more practical papers such as Alois Mlambo's "Choosing a Publisher", Mary Jay's "The Book Publishing Process", and Charles Bewlay's "A Publisher's Expectations of Academic Authors". Also useful, published as an appendix in the book, is a reprint of CODESRIA's Guide for Authors, a small booklet published by them in 2003 that contains a great deal of helpful guidance as well as a glossary. However, it is a pity that a more practical handbook - similar in content as that published earlier as a resource for African writers - did not materialize, as a handbook of this nature for African scholars is probably still very much needed, in particular to aid young African scholars who seek to have their work published and break into print.

Having said this, the essay collection offers a rich resource on many aspects of African scholarly publishing today and takes stock of the current status of academic publishing on the continent. It contains a total of 25 papers, and includes an index.

It starts off with Walter Bgoya's perceptive introductory essay "Scholarly Publishing in Africa: An Overview", although it also contains a number of startling claims; for example, in asserting that "the international book market place is only marginally interested in African books", Bgoya says:

the predominant attitude of the European and American book trades from buyers to booksellers to librarians is at best to disregard African intellectuals' input and at worst to deny any place in international knowledge production to Africa and the Africans.

I believe many Africana librarians, for one, would take issue with this claim, and professional groups such as the Africana Librarians Council in the US or SCOLMA in the UK have for long been strong supporters of indigenous African publishing. Bgoya's statement is also irreconcilable with the considerable success African Books Collective (the publishers of this collection) has enjoyed, for almost two decades now, in getting thousands of African-published books, from a very large number of African publishers, on to the shelves of academic and public libraries in many parts of the world. ABC have also enjoyed, albeit to a limited extent, a measure of success in getting a number of major booksellers in the countries of the North to stock ABC-distributed titles, and have persuaded some international library suppliers to include African-published titles in approval programmes.

The fact is of course that the international market place is only "marginally interested" in the publishing output from a very large number of countries, not only books originating from Africa, as this writer knows only too well from his own publishing experience.

In his introductory essay Bgoya goes on to say:

It is indicative of the pervasiveness of this attitude that even when books by African academics are published by western publishing houses, they are mostly ignored; as is evident by the extent of reviews and citations by fellow academics, which is decidedly lower than would be the case if those books were by American or European scholars; or to call a spade a spade, if they were white.

This seems to me another contentious claim. Many ABC-distributed scholarly titles have been reviewed in leading African studies journals, and on the basis of my own experience as a former publisher of scholarly monographs by African authors, I find this claim quite unsubstantiated. Moreover, anyone conducting a few minutes of research using Google Scholar can easily find out that the work of a very large number of African scholars is cited widely, and in some of the top journals and other publications. (See also "Using Google Scholar for African Studies Research", Africana Libraries Newsletter no. 118, May 2006 www.indiana.edu/~libsalc/african/googlescholar.html)

One has to agree with Bgoya, however, when he states that "at another level the low priority given by African governments to their universities does a great deal of harm to their reputation as centres of higher learning", and that the state of many African universities is abysmal, with poor facilities for research, and grossly inadequate and sometime totally outdated library resources, which contributes significantly to marginalize Africa-based scholars, and which hardly encourages home-grown scholarly productions. This is frequently also one of the reasons why many of the younger scholars can find it difficult to place their work in international journals.

This issue is also taken up by the Zimbabwean scholar Alois Mlambo in his paper "The Case for Publishing African Scholarship in Africa". However, it seems unnecessarily negative and opens with this statement:

Over the past two decades, channels for publishing African scholarship in Africa have declined considerably. Consequently, African scholarship either remains unpublished or is published in the North.

This is another sweeping assertion. Just examining the publishing lists of some of the many African publishers distributed by ABC will show that a very wide and diverse range of African scholarship has been published in recent years. Moreover, African journals, although still facing considerable obstacles, currently seem to be enjoying a period of resurgence, with a number of exciting new literary, cultural and scholarly journals commencing publication over the last two or three years, for example in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and in Uganda. Additionally, many of these journals now receive much wider international attention and dissemination through initiatives such as the African Journals Online (AJOL) project http://www.ajol.info/, or are made available online through other collaborative national and international projects - some of which are described in another paper in the collection, "Journal Publishing in Africa" by Janet Hussein and Pippa Smart - which has dramatically increased access to journals both within Africa and externally, and has significantly broadened the use of African scholarship. Halfway through his article Mlambo concedes that "the publication of scholarly research in Africa has not been entirely non-existent" and mentions the work of the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research (CODESRIA) as an example. Indeed, the fact is that CODESRIA has over the years published a most impressive array of scholarly work, in both book and journals formats, attracting authors from all over Africa and the diaspora. CODESRIA's major contribution to scholarly publishing on the continent, and its vital role in the dissemination of African scholarship, is described in a further paper in the collection, "CODESRIA: Over 30 Years of Scholarly Publishing", by Adebayo Olukoshi and Francis B. Nyamnjoh.

Veteran Kenyan publisher Henry Chakava traces the decline of academic publishing in the East African region in his paper "Scholarly Publishing in Africa: the Perspective of an East African Commercial and Textbook Publisher." Using Kenya as a case study, he explains how the decline has come about, with most university libraries and university bookshops currently in a state of decay, unable to perform their traditional services to students and faculty. Chakava sees partnerships between university presses at the national or regional levels - possibly also involving partnerships with private sector publishers - as the only viable way forward to strengthen scholarly publishing on the continent.

In his interesting paper "African Scholarly Network Press. A Co-publishing Model", James Currey, the well-known African studies publisher, sets out a possible model how a network of African academic publishers, and/or a consortium of academic institutions - using the benefits of new technologies such as digital printing, and relying primarily on freelancers for editing, composition and proofreading - might be able to publish and disseminate work not only of the highest standards of scholarship, but also with the highest standards of editing and production. The proposed African Scholarly Network Press, which would only disseminate electronically, would (1) select work by peer group review, (2) find funding for pre-press editorial and typographical origination, (3) distribute by electronic means, and (4) put the books into the public domain. Although the practicalities of setting up a consortium of this nature might well be considerable, this is something that merits further investigation. Unfortunately, over four years after the Arusha conference, there are no signs that anyone has taken this a step further.

African Books Collective has successfully pioneered the use of, and access to, new printing technology such as print-on-demand (POD), and it is appropriate that the book includes a section on new technologies. Mary Jay describes the ABC experience in digital printing and the benefits it has brought to participating publishers, while Brian Wafawarowa makes a compelling case for increased use of POD to boost African publishing, and to enable publishers to deliver their books more effectively and efficiently to Northern markets. Another contribution, "Publishing through ICTs for Social Justice in Africa", comes from Firoze Manji of the not-for-profit organization Fahamu http://www.fahamu.org/, which has developed a series of extremely useful interactive electronic course materials. Fahamu are also the publishers of Pambazuka News, an electronic newsletter covering news, commentary, analysis and a range of other resources on human rights and development in Africa, which currently reaches a readership of more than 70,000 people every week, most of them in Africa.

A further article in the section on new technologies, "Opportunities for Electronic Publishing in Africa", by L.O. Aina and Stephen M. Mutula of the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of Botswana, examines the present state of electronic publishing in Africa. At this time this is mostly confined to journal publishing, but the authors believe "it is possible that if attractive electronic business models are developed and Internet infrastructure improved, [book] publishers will be enticed into electronic publishing to capture a potentially lucrative market." However, they offer no suggestions what kind of product this might be. Attractive business models are all very well, but the issue of content development for commercial exploitation still needs to be addressed much more thoroughly. For example is it information-rich digital libraries and archives of scholarly resources, databases of indigenous knowledge, digital collections of photographic images and objects, or sound archives, that might be offered, and which might be something that could provide significant revenue streams for African publishers? Before venturing into such uncharted territory, publishers will also need to bear in mind that any electronic products they might be offering on a commercial basis might well be competing with several digital archives and projects that already exist, are freely accessible, and are generously supported by institutional or donor funding. Examples include Aluka http://www.aluka.org/, the Digital Imaging Project South Africa (DISA) http://disa.nu.ac.za/, or the Contemporary Music and Arts Archive (CAMA) http://www.cama.org.za/index.htm, a multi-media documentary initiative for African arts and culture, based in the Faculty of Science and the Montebello Design Centre at the University of Cape Town.

Other papers and topics addressed in the collection include "Writing, Publishing and Distributing Feminist Research in Africa: the Senegalese Experience" by Fatou Sow, "Why Do African Readers Want Indigenous Publications?" by Kingo Mchombu, science and agricultural publishing on the continent, African language publishing, and there is a also contribution by Fredric Bohm (Director of Michigan State University Press, which markets and distributes ABC books in North America) on "The North American Distribution and Selling of Books", in which he provides some helpful tips and advice how small or mid-sized publishers outside the US might penetrate the North American book markets-a challenge of some magnitude.

The assertions made in a number of the papers in this collection perhaps contain rather too many generalizations or make sweeping statements of the kind described above; and some also recite the well-rehearsed problems seen as the main contributory factors for the difficulties faced by indigenous African publishers, e.g. lack of access to capital, the weak economic base of independent publishing houses, or Western domination of publishing. It is true of course that many formidable obstacles remain, including poor communications and distribution infrastructures, constantly declining African currencies, the dominance by multinationals (certainly still true in francophone Africa), the lack of coherent national book policies and, above all perhaps, the failure by successive African governments to provide positive support for their book industries. Nonetheless, and as is rightly pointed out in the Publishers' Preface, "whilst a few years ago it was not far-fetched to describe African publishing as extremely underdeveloped; it is not a true picture now. Gains have been made, and collective efforts continue to build capacity." There have been setbacks too of course, but it is vital to build on these gains.

Many attempts at collaborative publishing initiatives in Africa have failed, or have collapsed as soon as initial donor support came to an end. However, collaborative ventures, co-publishing projects, and partnerships at national, regional, and continental level surely are the key: pooling editorial and management expertise, sharing production costs and consolidating strength in production skills, jointly exploiting the benefits of new digital printing technology, and sharing marketing and distribution know-how. As South African publisher Brian Wafawarowa has recently put it when speaking at the Cape Town Book Fair in June of 2006 - when he argued that the successful development of indigenous publishing in Africa is possible if only publishers worked more closely together - "we must stop moaning and ask what we can do ourselves".1

Meantime, this book should be an essential acquisition for libraries with African studies and media collections, schools of library and information science, centres of the book worldwide, and all those who share an interest and concern in the educational and cultural development of the continent, and a vibrant and independent African publishing industry.

Note:
1 Cape Town Book Fair 2006, press release http://www.capetownbookfair.com/pressmedia-article-4.php

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