New media and prospects for African Writing

By Rafiq Raji

There is no African publishing house amongst the World’s 56 largest book publishers. In the Publishers Weekly 2014 world ranking, the top 5 book publishers are Pearson (UK), Reed Elsevier (UK/NL/US), Thomson-Reuters (US), Wolters Kluwer (NL), and Random House (Germany); all with combined 2013 revenue of c. USD31bn (41% the total revenue for the top 56 of USD75bn). We need more published African writers. The World would be greatly served if it had more published African writers. If you take a trip around mainstream bookshops in the developed world, you’d be hard-pressed to find an array of African literary works. There is still a relatively small share of mind of African literature amongst readers around the world. African writing must, however, first gain resonance with its indigenous readership before potentially having global appeal. That is as yet not the case. Low literacy and wealth levels in Africa are constraints. African governments are also not particularly known to be fond of the arts; at least not the type that doesn’t glorify them. Incidentally, genuine African writing is likely to be critical of the continent’s ruling class and thus its writers are often at crossroads with their compatriot big men and women. With the exception of South Africa, most African cultural institutions are either dilapidated or in poor shape. As a result, proximity to the Western literary intelligentsia remains crucial for the African writer who aspires to global acclaim.

World publishing

Fundamentally, a writer seeks an audience and any individual can build such an audience via social media. Thus, new media provide an opportunity to democratize publishing and offer good prospects for African writing. Mobile cellular telephone subscription in African countries is growing (68.1 per 100 inhabitants) but varies widely between countries.[1] Africa still has the World’s lowest penetration on Facebook at 4.7%.[2] And many in Africa and around the World still love the feel of a printed book. A reliable power supply source is also needed to keep mobile devices’ batteries charged. That said, more books would increasingly be read via new media with the hardware of choice being mobile devices. As the barrier to entry into new media publishing is low, competition for readers would be very high. Thus, new media is not likely to change the value chain of the publishing industry. What would likely change instead are as follows. Current publishing giants would either buy up new media platforms, create their own or simply be taken off their game by social media companies. The new power brokers in the publishing world would likely thus be social media giants like Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. A real challenge though would be how to create a sustainable business model that rewards both writers and owners of these platforms.

[1] 2013 Ibrahim Forum Facts & Figures

[2] 2012 Ibrahim Forum Facts & Figures

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