ABC – Taking African scholarly books to the world

African Books Collective, or ABC, is an African owned, worldwide marketing and distribution outlet for more than 3,000 titles from Africa – scholarly, literature and children's books. Founded, owned and governed by a group of African publishers, its participants are 180 independent African publishers from 24 countries.

The books are widely disseminated throughout the world, and ABC is able to run a marketing and distribution agency for publishers who are part of the collective on its share of sales.

In the past ABC has had core funding, but it has been self-sufficient since 2007. ABC is a not-for-profit and aims to remit an increasing share of sales back to publishers, as sales increase.

Publishers who are part of the collective share a common ethos of publishing from within African cultures, asserting Africa’s voice within Africa and internationally. They include scholarly and literary presses, and some children’s books publishers: research institutes, university presses, commercial presses – large and small – NGOs and writers’ organisations.

ABC’s development

From its inception in 1990 through to the early 2000s ABC ran a traditional distribution organisation as per the industry model at the time – that is, physical stock was shipped from Africa and stored in a warehouse in the UK awaiting orders from markets in the United States and Europe.

In 2003 a distribution deal in the US was struck with Michigan State University Press and further inroads were made in the market there. ABC was reliant on funding for core costs such as staff and rent; and remittances above commercial distribution norms were passed on to publishers.

In 2002 Nigerian publisher, Victor Nwankwo of Fourth Dimension Publishers, started experimenting with print on demand or POD. He believed POD would pave the road to self-sufficiency for ABC when funding ceased.

He enlisted the help of ABC for a pilot project, digitising his own books, with the hope that other African publishers would follow. The project was very successful, other publishers did indeed follow and POD quickly became a cornerstone in ABC’s workflow and service to participating publishers.

Due to an increased reliability of supply, POD also opened up more wide-reaching wholesale networks for African published books.

Amazon was just getting started in pioneering its ‘long tail’, whereby products in low demand or with low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals a few blockbusters, provided the store or distribution channel is large enough.

This model suited ABC well: in addition to the library market, now individuals could also more easily access African-published books from abroad. Crucially they could also find these books more easily with a quick internet search. In terms of discoverability this was early days but a sign of things to come.

Funding for ABC did cease in 2007; physical offices were closed and some staff could not be kept on. In fact for three months, outside of the US, ABC was forced to close. During those months ABC’s model was redeveloped around POD, with the help of one key commercial wholesale partner.

Rebirth, new strategies

ABC was rapidly reborn as a virtual organisation, although publishers were required to take a reduced remittance. In the process the entire ABC list at the time was digitised, which included a backlist reaching back to the 1980s.

Suddenly, there were 1,000 plus ‘new’ African-published books all over the internet and just a click away. Without the distraction of running a ‘small business’, or accounting to donors, ABC was able to focus on marketing and expanding its distribution channels.

At the same time digital book subscription portals such as Ebrary and EBSCO started to make an appearance and despite leaping into what was then the unknown in the scholarly market, ABC prioritised dissemination over margin.

Rather than restricting access it placed the books in as many channels as it could find. In print the books were published in paperback so prices remained competitive. With a ‘long tail’ of content ABC also developed a ‘long tail’ of vendors and ways for consumers to read books published in Africa.

As a consequence of this work African-published books have, in terms of availability, gone mainstream in markets outside Africa; they are no longer an ‘exotic product’ stored on library shelves and are as easily available as any book published anywhere else.

Income for publishers and ABC has also increased. Discoverability drives sales and access can drive sales of printed books; one channel has not consumed another and the market for African published scholarship is healthy.

Challenges for African publishers

Despite ABC’s successful transition and a stable market for books in the global North, challenges for African scholarly publishers remain and ABC’s governing body is now looking at ways it can strengthen the African publishing industry further.

In the past the collective has run programmes that provided budgets for libraries in Africa for the purchase of African-published books. ABC is now thinking about these issues again, and more generally about increasing access to African-published books within Africa.

African-published books are far more accessible outside Africa than they are within. In fact, it may be true that while African-published books were being made more widely available outside Africa, access to these books within Africa was actually deteriorating.

Reliable library sales are a critical building block for a sustainable scholarly book-publishing ecosystem and currently African publishers cannot rely on these sales from within their own countries; so often ABC hears from publishers that their scholarly books are not ordered by university libraries. This is a serious weakness for publishers, and students of these institutions.

For reasons of tenure and prestige, African scholars often prefer to publish with presses outside Africa. A recent study on The African University Press also revealed many scholars even prefer the services of predatory publishers based outside Africa over African publishers.

A result of this is that African publishers can be starved of bigger sellers, or important content which so often keeps more specialist material afloat. Additionally, this content is often not made available within Africa.

Some bright spots

One bright spot is that many Northern scholars without the pressure of tenure often choose to publish in Africa.

Also, ABC has been lobbying Northern university presses and scholarly associations that are sympathetic to keeping African rights for content published outside Africa available for purchase free of licence fee by African publishers. This makes sense from a business and dissemination point of view, as African based publishers remain the best route to market access within their countries.

Educational books and children’s books remain the bread and butter for many publishers in the collective. Constantly shifting government policy, donor interference and competition from multinational firms can make this market a gamble. It can be a huge distraction from scholarly and literary publishing and the important business of creating a readership for books.

Good work is being done in literary circles to raise the profile of African-produced books, with a vast array of writers’ networks, awards and book fairs, but scholarship does not attract the same attention and it would be easy to assume that there is no demand.

In the last few years ABC has recorded increasing sales from Africa. Specialist library suppliers based in the United Kingdom or Africa do find customers in African countries. Increasingly, individual scholars in Africa are ordering directly from ABC as they discover relevant titles online.

It surely makes sense that content produced within Africa and about Africa would find a readership in Africa.

Lower sales of printed books have been a feature of scholarly publishing across the world and a relatively small market for scholarly books within Africa means technologies must be found in order to disseminate scholarship efficiently in small numbers.

eBook subscription services can dramatically increase access to scholarship, although budgets must be found and maintained to ensure that access remains. Libraries can expose titles to students and scholars but they remain underfunded and although open access publishing will have a role to play, it is unlikely to be a comprehensive one.

The challenge for African publishers is how to take advantage of the ‘long tail’ in the same way ABC has in markets abroad. This is a marketing and distribution challenge.

African publishers have worked collectively in bringing their books to markets in the North, and they can operate in the same way in Africa. By working together to bring down the barriers of access to scholarly books in Africa they can fill an important gap in the market and increase their own options.

Research output in Africa is on the increase. African publishers can educate scholars on the perils of publishing with predatory publishers in the North, and the importance of having their work available within Africa.

Finally, scholarly publishers and librarians can work together to ensure budgets are made available for the purchase of African-published books – books that need to be on shelves or available online in African universities even if they can’t be donated.

Justin Cox has a background in books marketing and is CEO at African Books Collective. Together with African publishers, he has pioneered the interaction of African publishers with the US, UK and worldwide, particularly developing systems in the digital age. He previously worked at HarperCollins NZ, and spent two years in the US establishing ABC’s operations.