A Booming Publishing

A Booming Publishing Business Ignores Writers

Jafar Shifa owns a book store and it keeps him constantly busy. At Jafar Bookstore located at the back of the Ethiopian National Theater, on Ras Abebe Aregay St. in Addis Ababa, he distributes books for retailers and street book venders and also sells to individual customers. Though he started the business by selling books on the streets a decade ago, now he has one of the biggest book stores in the city and “business is very good” for him. He even struggled to find a few minutes to talk to EBR and requested humbly to be called after 9:00pm, when the hectic business hours ended. This is not only the situation at Jafar’s; several other nearby bookstores are just as busy – wholesaling and retailing books. In the past few years, as it is true in many other businesses, publishing and distributing books has shown noticeable progress. This can be explained by the increasing number of publishers and book distributing entities including the street book vendors, who are ‘catalysts’ for this growth.
Ayinalem Bookstore, Aster Nega Publisher and Book Distributor, Tekle Bookstore and Jafar himself among others, not only distribute and sell books but also publish many. Jafar has published a handful of books in the past few years and the outcome has been ‘encouraging’.
Yet the people that make the books possible, the writers, are not really benefiting from the boom.
“Writers are not fairly benefiting from the burgeoning business, though publishing and distributing of books has generally shown a leap forward,” says Gebrekirstos Hailesillassie, manager of the Ethiopian Writers Association. “Several writers have also been able to publish their books and have been encouraged to write more and envision their future”.
The biggest transformation in book publishing however, is manifested in, colossal book publishers such as the Addis Ababa University Press, Shama Books and other similar publishing agencies that engaged themselves aggressively by publishing many books in the past decade or so.
The Addis Ababa University Press (AAU Press) has published 30 books in the past four years alone. Even thought this may not seem like a staggering figure consider that since 1967a total of 74 books had been published by AAU Press. There are also about five books in the pipe line which will be published and will become available to readers where as many others are in the screening and assessment process. Books published by the AAU press, such as the autobiographies and memoirs of pioneer intellectuals and politicians as well as epic histories of Ethiopia and other academic and reference books by distinguished scholars, have been well recognized and become popular among the general public. The recently published book about the 1960s and early 70s student movement and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, ‘Tower in the Sky’ is one example of its success. The first edition of the book was sold out within weeks and the second edition has been re-printed and marketed a few weeks ago.
The AAU Press selects and publishes books which are appropriate for educational purposes and other general knowledge which can bring a positive impact in the lives of people, says Yakob Arsano (PhD), director of the AAU Press. The University Press through its board, evaluators and editors improves the style and quality of the books it has selected to publish and make them appealing for all, according to the director. The culture of reading among the general public in Addis Ababa appears to be improving as well. Yakob cites the massive number of visitors at the annual book fair the University organizes as one gauge of this resurgence. “About 20,000-30,000 people participate in the annual book fairs and about 50 book publishers and distributers take part to show and sell their books,” he told EBR.
The AAU Press pays authors of books it agrees to publish 3,000 birr as an advance royalty payment regardless of whether their books are sold or not. Then when the books are published and distributed every writer is entitled to 10Pct of the total sale on the first 1,500 copies; 12.5Pct on copies of 1,500 to 5,000; and 15pct when a book sells over 5,000 copies. For authors, this is a better benefit than they usually get when they publish on their own or through private publishers.
Writers who would like to publish by themselves or give rights to private publishers generally are dismayed economically, according to the Ethiopian Writers Association. When a writer ‘self-publishes’ they give the rights for distribution and marketing to the bookstores and distributors. They in turn take between 30 and 40 percent of the sales. Often the rest of the money from sales does not cover the cost of printing and the writer ends up with a loss, explains the manager of the Association. Another option is for the writer to give the book to the publisher, who in turn claims all the money from sales until they receive enough to cover the cost of printing and marketing the books. After the costs are covered, the writer is entitled to 30Pct of the sales but chances are very low that they will sell enough books to see much benefit. When writers do sell enough books to earn a small profit, they can wait as long as two years before all the books are sold out and the book distributors give them their share.
A great majority of authors who publish their books by themselves or through private publishers have lost their money, the Association claims. Even those authors whose books are sold in huge volumes get very small benefits. But still the absence of adequate number of publishers makes those authors who get the chance to print their books lucky. It is true that there are many disappointed authors who for lack of money or interested publishers have manuscripts waiting to be published. That is how the AAU press has become a preferred publisher for the better benefit and recognition it provides authors. “We suppress costs and provide readers better quality books with low prices so the books remain affordable,” says the Director. “The Press doesn’t work for profits”.
Amid the challenges of publishing books at the moment, the number of books published in Ethiopia is on the rise. To further catalyze this, the Ethiopian Writers’ Association has set up a revolving funding in collaboration with Artistic, Berhanena Selam and recently the Birana printing presses. More than half a million birr has been allocated to the scheme to support writers in publishing their books and allowing them to earn money when they sell them.
Though the Association wants to help its members publish and distribute their books, lack of finance and the new civil society proclamation hinders it from distributing and opening selling posts.
One of the reasons for the flourishing business of publishing books is the availability of small printing machines in the market that one can set up with few hundred thousand birr. Many of the book stores have now installed these small printing machines to print books. The stores also re-print original and translated versions of classical and very popular books that include ‘The Prince’ by Machiavelli, books of famous contemporary writers such as Paulo Coelho, George Orwell, Graham Hancock, and many other writers and self help books written by the most popular authors such as Myles Monroe, Stephen R. Covey and Rhonda Byrne; can be found from 30-60 birr. No one knows who publishes these books but they are everywhere.
As Ethiopia didn’t sign any of the international treaties protecting rights related to copyright, it doesn’t enforce the laws. That is why many classic works are these days printed using duplicating machines in many underground printing enterprises. The act, though increasing access to books among the generation, it is a mere theft to ones art work and reflects the moral decadence of those who commit it. Its adverse impact in the development of the art of writing will be clearly seen in the long run.
Although printing books has been on the rise, the industry is continuously threatened by the skyrocketing price of paper. All of its paper is imported. This has made the country vulnerable to international price shocks. Moreover, the business of importing pulp and paper is controlled by a few business conglomerates who manipulate prices unreasonably.
One interesting phenomenon of the book publishing and distributing business in the past decade is the street book vendors. They target potential readers in groceries, café’s and on the street. They move from place to place and talk to drivers while they stop at traffic lights; while movie goers’ queue at cinemas, theatre halls and stadiums. The vendors have helped the business by approaching potential buyers in a whole new way. In the past, one had to go to the bookshop to buy books; but now the vendors take the books to the buyer. This job, though it is physically tiresome, has become a means of survival for many youth in Addis Ababa. Several vendors whom EBR approached reported that they make an average of 50 to 100 birr a day.
In the booming book publishing business in Ethiopia, one might wonder why books which contain sensational issues sell most. “Short stories and prose, memoirs of military narratives and political leaders and biographies are the most loved books in the market these days,” Jafar told EBR. He himself has published these kinds of books after consulting with his ‘professors’ and ‘doctors’ clients.
“Book love is your pass to the greatest, the purest and the most perfect pleasure and the habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no end; it lasts where other pleasures fade”, was a famous quote from Anthony Trollope, one of the most successful, prolific and respected English writers of the Victorian era.
On top of offering pleasure, there is a common understanding that reading kindles the imagination and innovativeness of human kind and this can change the lives of people in the most splendid way. EBR


2nd Year • February 2014 • No 12

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