The African university press – A gloomy picture

In the new digital era, with its demand for skills and knowledge, and new technological opportunities, there is now more than ever a need for collaboration among independent African publishers, and that includes university presses – to share experience, skills and professional know-how, which might then also lead to joint publishing projects.

Collaborative undertakings, networks, co-publishing projects or partnerships, surely must be the way forward: pooling editorial and management expertise, assisting editorial capacity building, sharing production costs, or consolidating strength in production and technical-ICT skills.

The potential benefits of a continental network are indeed numerous. It ought to become “a network of minds stimulating innovation and creativity in African scholarly publishing”, as Francois van Schalkwyk and Thierry Luescher put it in the new research report, The African University Press

Gloomy picture for collaboration

Having said that, and as the study points out too, proposals to establish networks and professional alliances are not new, and many attempts have been made to get such collective endeavours off the ground. A few have been successful – notably the African Books Collective or ABC – but most have ended in failure, or never took off in the first place.

I recently compiled a wee inventory of Pan-African and regional professional book organisations, groups and networks in Sub-Saharan Africa, each with a brief description of their activities (or proposed activities), and indicating their current status.

Like the study, this inventory presents a rather gloomy picture. It is worth asking why so many previous attempts at setting up collaborative networks or associations have failed? This question deserves some further scrutiny before yet another network is launched. One aspect I am still in two minds about it is this: Is there in fact a genuine desire to share?

It is important that any attempt to form a network ought to link closely with professional training and capacity building or development, strengthening publishing infrastructure and skills, and possibly also linking up with departments of publishing and book studies at a number of African universities. There are only five of these.

A skills assessment

Staff at university presses frequently do not have adequate professional skills in the different areas of academic publishing and marketing of scholarly books, much less sufficient know-how in digital publishing. There is also an acute lack of awareness of the latest developments in the field and in global academic publishing.

In my experience in the past (and this may still be the case today) most senior level university press personnel are usually appointed as academic staff, or promoted or re-assigned from an existing academic appointment to a position as head of the university press or director of publications.

The person appointed may well be a highly dedicated and passionate individual with creative editorial vision for list development, but most will not have had any kind of professional training or practical experience in publishing and-or in business management.

So might it be a good idea to undertake some sort of skills assessment?

Web presence

The new study found that only nine (17%) among the 52 African university presses identified had their own website (with a dedicated URL). This is really quite astonishing, as are other dismal statistics the study reveals about availability of online publications catalogues, online ordering facilities, international distribution, etc. All this would seem to point to a low degree of professionalism.

The Wits University Press website is a model of its kind, containing very full information, easily navigated and well-signposted, with full catalogue and ordering information, new titles and a complete backlist, browsing by subject or author, submission guidelines, staff and contact information, a news section and more.

Compared with the websites of some of the other university presses profiled in the study, the contrast could not be more stark.

One could argue that this is not fair, as Wits has been going since 1923, while the others have only been established relatively recently. But what is stopping presses from looking at other university press websites, large and small, in Africa or elsewhere, to find out what they are doing and what kind of web presence they are maintaining? And which parts they might wish to adopt or could learn from, to improve their own web presence? It is not rocket science.

The University of Nairobi Press site is a travesty, with lack of proper author or title details, dead links, blank pages and no images. Kenya’s Moi University Press, on a sub-domain of the university, provides a mission statement and publishing areas but no details of its list or ordering information.

Addis Ababa University Press does rather better and has a web presence as a sub-domain of Addis Ababa University. It has a simple ‘clean’ interface, with an overview page, a page setting out the range of services, details of its governance and the function of its editorial board, as well as an informative page with instructions regarding house style and manuscript submissions.

Clicking on to published books, for instance its sub-section on titles in English reveals an impressive list of 68 published titles released between 1968 and 2016, listing author, title and year of publication.

It presents a diverse of range of books and subjects, with some very interesting and prestigious titles, many of which should be of considerable interest to African studies scholars and African studies librarians, not to mention the two million or more Ethiopians who live in the diaspora.

Unfortunately, that is as far as you can browse, and anyone hoping to click on titles in order to read more about each book and its bibliographic details, ISBN, price and availability, much less ordering them, will be disappointed. This is crazy.

Nigerian university presses

The African University Press study did not individually profile any Nigerian university presses. I remain particularly interested in university presses in West Africa, and Nigeria in particular, as I was involved with setting up the University of Ife Press (now Obafemi Awolowo University Press) in the early 1970s, and did consultancy work in the late 1980s to review the operations and publications management of Ibadan University Press.

Moreover, a number of Nigerian university presses were founder members of the African Books Collective, or ABC, which I helped to establish along with African colleagues in 1989. At that time, it could be said that those presses were quite active, with diverse lists, and producing some high quality scholarly titles.

Sadly, the picture today is anything but encouraging. The presses are mostly dormant, have very low visibility and virtually no web presence. Most have produced only a handful of new titles over the last decade or more, and several have published no new books at all.

If the search results can be relied upon, the number of titles currently distributed by ABC are:
Ibadan, 11 titles, all published 10 years or more ago; Obafemi Awolowo, 10 titles, all published 10 years or more ago; and University of Lagos Press, one title, published in 1997.

The demise of the once-fine Ibadan University Press is particularly unfortunate. It currently has a non-functioning website. As for the presses at Calabar, Jos, Lagos State, Maiduguri, Port Harcourt, Unilorin or Usmanu Danfodiyo University, I am not aware of any recent activities, although a search in the Open Library indicates a measure of publishing output for some of them from the 1980-90s to around 2005-06.

The only fully functioning Nigerian university press website, also offering online ordering facilities that I could find is Ahmadu Bello University Press, established in 1973 with an attractive initial list, but nowadays it is primarily acting as a commercial printing press.

Ahmadu Bello University, or ABU, undertakes a variety of both commercial jobs and those meeting the requirements of the university as well as handling jobs for other higher education and government institutions, private individuals and more. It is difficult to tell from their website which titles are under the ABU academic imprint.

Funding for universities, and in turn university presses, has certainly been part of the problem in Nigeria, at least for all higher education institutions that depend on funding from the federal or state governments. The funding problems are particularly acute now because of the sharp decline in the country’s oil revenues, and the dramatic drop in the value of the national currency, the naira.

However, as the study states, the issue of funding is not and has never been the main problem; after all, there were much better times in Nigeria as recently as a decade or less ago, when the country’s oil revenues reached sky-high levels. The main issue is that universities are not and were not entrepreneurial, and nor were their presses.

Some concluding remarks

Most university presses in Nigeria and elsewhere – with the exception of some long-established South African presses – have always had a low profile. The study points out in some examples that part of the reason is that they are simply treated as administrative units of their university, which deprives them of establishing a strong identity of their own.

I strongly support the study’s recommendation that funders should ensure that any grant funds should support the outsourcing of non-core functions such as typesetting, pre-press work and printing and binding, while they should urge university administrators to “create attractive posts for dedicated and passionate publishing personnel at their university press”.

According to the study, an analysis of attempts to communicate “suggests a number of problems with respect to the extent of the ‘online life’ of African university presses and libraries”. Well, that’s putting it rather diplomatically!

The analysis of response rates presents a pretty devastating indictment of poor email culture when communicating with the book professions in Africa. My own experience, over the past three decades or more, has unfortunately been very similar.

If these ‘problems’ and the lack of professionalism persists, I think it would probably be a complete waste of time trying to set up a new network.

In conclusion, I entirely endorse the eloquent statement by Mahmood Mamdani quoted in the study on the function and role of the university, and that of its university press, in supporting the core university function of research.

However, one might wish to add that while the university press is a non-commercial enterprise, it must be run with strictly commercial and business-like efficiency. And that – by the evidence of the many dormant university presses, their frequently low profile and visibility, and their meagre publishing output – is not always the case.

Hans Zell is a Swiss publishing consultant based in Scotland and publisher of Hans Zell Publishing, continuing the imprint formerly owned by Bowker-Saur Ltd/Reed Reference Publishing (publishing activities have now ceased). He has worked, researched and written extensively on publishing and book development in Africa.