Cigarettes, coffee and strong drink

The market for the printed book is now global; the opportunities for the digital book are almost unimaginable. To be a writer in the English language today is to be one of the luckiest people alive.

…it remains the paradox of the world wide web and the global economy that, while this has been the decade in which millions have found a voice through the internet, only a minority has discovered an audience. Self-expression has been democratised, but books and writers still face that age-old struggle to achieve a readership. How they do that remains a mystery, but in the alchemy of literary success, ‘word of mouth’ remains essential.

Robert McCrum the literary editor of “The Observer” makes some interesting comments on the rapid changes that the world of books has experienced in the transitional decade bridging the 20th to the 21st century. And as an occasional blog writer both these quotes strike close to home! The revolution in book selling – the emergence of global book markets (Amazon) and new technologies (digitization) – will assuredly, as he says, result in an ‘iPod moment’.

McCrum sees the positive developments (in rich countries, and in particular the UK): that the printed book is more than holding its own, in part because of the arrival of new writers (“Zadie Smith generation” – for example, Hari Kunzru, Monica Ali, & Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) who are being strongly marketed on a global scale, and in part because of the emergence of on-line book selling (Amazon started in 1995), which translates into fast delivery to book readers, better pricing, a new lease of life to back catalogues, and developing new book markets. Its a customer focus but with corporate clout – best exemplified by Harry Potter, a world-wide best seller. The rise of book festivals and repackaging of literary prizes reveals how consumerism and celebrity have merged, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘the reading public’. There has been a proliferation of book blogs and book reviews, and an increase in sales of magazines such as  The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Statesman, & The Spectator; but whether this counteracts the tendency to narrow choice as publishers seek ‘winning’ talent rather than nurturing new authors remains to be seen. Likewise, it is difficult to balance the closure of small local independent bookshops with the rise of book sales in supermarkets, railway stations, & airports. Free e-book downloads have become ubiquitous for out-of copyright books (such as provided by Project Gutenberg & The DailyLit). Books are also going green: the average paperback liberates 3kg of CO2 in its manufacture; which of course can be offset by financing tree planting (at eco-libris). Increasing books are printed on certified paper; J.K. Rowlings started with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (although rumour has it that the publisher may have jumped the gun …).

Where do these changes and the uncertainty that surrounds some of them leave book publishing, writers and readers in Africa? The relative lack of disposable income remains the main constraint for book buyers and sellers to enter local let alone global book markets. When we lived in Accra, Ghana, there were only a couple of dedicated bookshops, and a good second-hand bookshop in Osu, plus the university bookshop at Legon. It is much worse if you are in Monrovia, Liberia. Francophone West and Central Africa have benefited at least in the past from large expatriate populations (Abidjan was great for books in the mid-1980s).

Building and sustaining an independent literary culture on such a difficult terrain could be made easier by the digital revolution: in East Africa Kwani is an oasis of hope, and example of how a new generation of writers can find expression, and create a new readership. Self-publishing (for example Lulu), and “firm sale” printing are also new options for small-scale publishing industry. Readers should be able to benefit from sites such as Wikibooks which is a provider of free educational textbooks, and Google Book Search for research.

But access remains the main constraint. Moving away from the concept of libraries as warehouses or museums may attract new sources of funding. Shoring up public libraries, stocking them with e-books (to save internet access costs) for Ipods, mobile phones, USBs would be less expensive than stocking with books – universities can cost-effectively create virtual libraries – whilst seeking more donated & recycled books, and sourcing “low-price” African editions. Replicating the success of audio-book sites such as LibriVox, and Poetry Book Society where poets read their own work, and recording local stories and storytellers in their own languages which builds local demand; linking up with local private FM radio stations and broadcasting these and new stories will generate a new age group of listeners and readers.

Yet copyright means that the top 100 African books remain inaccessible. Search in vain for Wole Soyinka (the first African Nobel Prize for Literature winner – see earlier post) or other top African authors in book websites such as wowio or feedbooks, or manybooks. Perhaps successful African authors could call a moratorium – after, say, 25 years – on their book copyrights?

P.S. McCrum starts his commentary on the publishing revolution reminiscing on  “… a world of ink and paper; of cigarettes, coffee and strong drink” – – very much a different world, different people and values. Globalisation should be a breath of fresh air. And to be a writer in the English language reflects David Graddol’s argument that we are seeing the emergence of a global English, which is upsurping the hitherto native, parochial English [“English Next: Why Global English may mean end of ‘English as a Foreign Language’“, British Council]. But perhaps it is also worth considering Christopher Hitchens’ celebration of smoking and drinking, & their beneficial affect on the muse: It is increasingly obvious, as one reviews new books fallen deadborn from the modem, that the meretricious blink of the word-processor has replaced, for many ‘writers’, the steady glow of the cigarette-end and the honest reflection of the cut-glass decanter.” [For the Sake of Argument, Verso, 1993].

UPDATE: 7 June 2008

From Paul Krugman in the NYT:

…my guess is that digital readers will soon become common, perhaps even the usual way we read books.

How will this affect the publishing business? …the experience of the music industry suggests … once digital downloads of books become standard, it will be hard for publishers to keep charging traditional prices.

Bit by bit, everything that can be digitized will be digitized, making intellectual property ever easier to copy and ever harder to sell for more than a nominal price. And we’ll have to find business and economic models that take this reality into account.

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1 thought on “Cigarettes, coffee and strong drink”

  1. Excellent post, I was not as aware of the troubles in Africa. I’ve heard that Kalahari.net is the African equivalent to Amazon. But the real hurdle as you note is just getting disposable income into the individual in Africa – seems like that will be the biggest challenge to establishing a book culture.

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