Africa is a continent of 54 countries and some 1.4 billion people, speaking—and sometimes writing and publishing—in hundreds of languages. The book business on the continent is diverse and eclectic. We convened a group of several top practitioners to get a sample of the triumphs and challenges they face.
These include Sulaiman Adebowale, the founder and director of Amalion, an independent publishing house in Dakar, Senegal; Colleen Higgs, publisher of Modjaji Books, an independent feminist press from South Africa; Jessica Powers, publisher of U.S.-based Catalyst Press, which focuses on African titles; Sandra Tamele, publisher of Thirty Zero Nine, a press dedicated to publishing translations, based in Maputo, Mozambique; and Rachel Zadok, founder of Short Story Day Africa, an organization that creates a global platform for emerging and established African writers.
Questions were initially posed by Ed Nawotka, senior international editor of Publishers Weekly.
Can you tell us a little about your publishing house and its priorities?
Sandra Tamele (ST): Trinta Zero Nove was born out of an unmet need. In 2018, I had three volumes of short stories translated by the young women and men I challenged in the scope of our annual literary translation competition and no publisher was willing to invest in, despite my many pitches. So I decided to establish the first publisher dedicated to literature in translation, to celebrate 30/09 international translation day, first from English and French into Portuguese, and currently from any language into the main four Moz languages: Macua, Sena, Changana and Portuguese. We prioritize books that are representative or by females, debut authors or authors from the LGBT+ community, or people with disabilities. And making our books accessible and affordable for most.
Colleen Higgs (CH): Modjaji Books is a small independent publishing company, with a focus on publishing southern African women writers. We’ve been going since 2007 (15 years) and have published nearly 200 titles in that time. We have aimed to make a space for southern African women to get published, in particular voices that have not been “heard” by the mainstream, and about perspectives and experiences which have been marginalized. We publish novels, short stories, memoirs, poetry, and a few other titles that don’t fit neatly into those categories. We’ve experimented with multilingual texts, and books in Kaaps Afrikaans.
Sulaiman Adebowale (SA): Amalion was founded in 2009 in Dakar to publish works on Africa that straddle the thin line between ideas and stories that the history of the book trade had organically or deliberately separated and purposely presented as the viable option, except of course if you are a mega corporation and so big and can afford to have and own separate publishing houses and imprints to cater to specific areas of specialization. The advantage in that is great, with or without enormous resources at your disposal.
I felt and still feel the market here needed to be more open to not just the diversity of voices but also viewpoints, which can get lost in compartmentalization and categorization: academic, social sciences and humanities, literature, YA etc.; and get trapped in networks and spaces that rarely connect, despite their content encompassing, complementing and overlapping one another in the perspective of the reader. So Amalion publishes knowledge in all its forms, stories, narratives, biographies, poems, art books, monographs, etc.
Jessica Powers (JP): Catalyst Press is a North American based company with worldwide distribution and we focus exclusively on African writers and African-based books. We publish children’s and adult titles, but lately we’ve been gravitating towards more children’s titles in part because sales of children’s books are dramatically better and they are what’s keeping the publishing company afloat. We publish in all genres.
Rachel Zadok (RZ): It’s interesting that I was invited to participate in this roundtable because SSDA isn’t a publisher in the conventional sense. We’re more of a development project for African fiction writers and editors, with a publishing aspect. SSDA only publishes short story anthologies of the collected long-list from the Short Story Day Prize for African Short Fiction, and from the other projects that we run. And soon we won’t even be doing that. In the past, we’ve published in partnership with Catalyst Press (before them New Internationalist), and we’ve published in print locally and in ebook format on the continent, while Catalyst Press has published our anthologies in the US, UK, etc.
However, due to the funding pot for projects like ours becoming smaller and more controlled by political agendas, we’ve negotiated with another local indie publisher, Karavan Press, to publish our work locally going forward. Which makes us some kind of publisher hybrid, I suppose. We still keep total creative control of any books we publish, doing everything from editing to typesetting to cover design. It’s basically printing, distribution, and marketing that we leave to Catalyst Press and Karavan Press.
As for our priorities, we focus on developing emerging African writers and budding fiction editors, and creating platforms for fiction that is perhaps more experimental and unexpected. Our ethos is subvert, reclaim, reinvent. Subvert what it means to be an African writer, reclaim space for non-conformist African voices, and reinvent African short fiction so that writers can tell their stories without the pressure of writing to an idea of what an African story should be. What we want is for the writers we work for to get recognition and find a path for their writing once they leave us, and so far we’ve been pretty successful in achieving that. Many of the writers that first found a home with us have gone on to win big prizes, sign with agents and publishers, or win sought after residencies.
Tell us about two or three titles (no more) that have been successes for you domestically and/or internationally.
ST: We launched our first collection on 30/09/19 and were hit by the effects of the pandemic. Therefore for most of our existence we were unable to hold any book launches. The literary translation competition collection and its five books are my favorites. Volume V, Happy Naked People by Kateryna Babkina, was translated from Ukrainian into six Moz languages, a one of a kind edition. The second is the collection As sete por quatro, in celebration of 7 April, Mozambican Women’s Day, that features seven debut writers translated into the four main languages. It has been requested by several international libraries and many local readers.
CH: Do Not Go Gentle by Futhi Ntshingila has been the most successful. We sold Portuguese rights to Dublinense in Brazil, who sold onto Trinta Nova Zero (Sandra Tamele) in Mozambique. Also to Catalyst Press (Jessica Powers) in the US and French rights to Bellevue Editions, and they sold the translation to 10/18, a literary mass-market paperback publisher.
Futhi’s third book was published by PanMacmillan in SA and recently won an award at Sharjah as well as awards in SA. This points to an issue that we as small independents face. We put an author on the map, and then they move to a bigger, better-resourced publisher. Futhi has an agent and many rights have been sold for the new book.
Bom Boy by Yewande Omotoso was shortlisted for the first Etisalat Prize along with NoViolet Bulawayo, who won, and Karen Jennings, who last year was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Bom Boy was also short-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction award and won a SALA award in that same year. The book has been prescribed here in at least one university, and Yewande took on agent after that and her next books were published internationally to critical acclaim. We sold West African rights to a Nigerian publisher, and then to Catalyst in the US.
SA: La dette odieuse de l’Afrique: Comment l’endettement et la fuite de capitaux ont saigné un continent by Leonce Ndikumana and James Boyce is a book about how foreign debts are central to the development of African economies, in fact to every other sector of African lives. The book really captures the essence of Amalion’s role in disseminating knowledge on Africa beyond restricted academic networks.
Excellent scholarship, concise and written specifically in a way that the general public can read without the need for a university degree. Another book by them will be released by Amalion next year, Sur la trace de la fuite des capitaux hors d’Afrique: Les pilleurs et les facilitateurs, that takes a closer look at the capital flight angle.
JP: We’ve been really thrilled with the reception for Niki Daly’s LOLO series of early reader books. We’ve published four of them. They’ve all been Junior Library Guild selection books and the fourth title, Fly High, Lolo, was just named a School Library Journal Best Book of 2022. We’re also super pleased with the reception of Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s literary novels—we’re publishing the third, Quality of Mercy, next year. She was named a recipient of the Windham Campbell Prize from Yale in 2022, which was a huge honor for both her and for the press.
RZ: The first title that got us noticed outside of Africa was our second collection Terra Incognita. It’s a collection of speculative short fiction and was reviewed by the LA Review of Books. This led to us signing our first publishing deal outside of Africa, and getting us funding. I think the latest title, Disruption (2021) has done really well. Idza Luhumyo’s story, “Five Years Last Sunday” won The Caine Prize, and we’re sitting on news about “The Mother” by Jacob M’hango, also from Disruption. Then I suppose it would be a toss-up between Water and Migrations.
What has been the reaction to your publishing house on the international scene?
ST: We gained international visibility and have been invited to several book fairs around the world. We are often flooded with B2B meeting requests since we are mostly buying translation rights. But there is also a growing interest in Moz authors that we showcase and are in the process of representing as agents too.
CH: A hugely important step for us was participating in the Frankfurt Invitation program in 2011 and 12. I learned so much from everyone I met, in particular the other small publishers. I was able to attend the Fair every year till 2018, thanks to PASA/DTI funding, sharing a stand with African Books Collective, and self-funding as a trade visitor. I think Modjaji has been recognized as doing something important in various ways and places. We have sold rights, and we have been featured in various articles about African publishing, and African women publishers.
Just this year I was interviewed by a Stanford professor for a book she is writing about African women publishers. We’ve had recognition from publications and media like Publishing Perspectives and Africa in Words with many articles, reviews, and interviews having been published over the years. So there has been recognition. But publishers don’t survive on recognition alone.
Another important opportunity for us has been Modjaji’s membership of the International Alliance of Independent Publishers. I’ve been the coordinator of the English network for the past 2 years, and again have made friends and met new colleagues all over the world who also take the need for independent publishing seriously.
SA: If by reaction here, we mean international sales, I would say it has been ok. A huge chunk of our sales is international, which is inevitable from the word go as selling beyond Senegal has always been integral in the foundation of the company. We publish in English and in French and authors are based in Senegal, within the continent, and elsewhere in the world. Titles with connections closer to home have the tendency to do well initially during the first year, and later international sales takeover after that, probably as the word go round a bit.
JP: We’ve had some interest in rights mostly to our children’s books—Chinese and Spanish language editions—which has been gratifying. And several books have gone on to become audio books. And I think in Africa, we’re becoming known as a press that does have the best interests of African writers at heart and a good press with whom to place your manuscript. We’re pretty small, though, so it’s hard to stretch our presence too far—we don’t want to stretch ourselves thin.
RZ: Honestly, I don’t really think about an international reaction, probably because we’re not a traditional publisher and we’re focused more on Africa. I’m really far more interested in what Africa can do for itself in terms of the African literary landscape and how to make that happen than thinking about the international scene. I leave that up to Jessica Powers and her team with full trust. There’s a lot of synergy between the aims of Catalyst Press and SSDA, so they’re an amazing partner to work with.
Is there something unique to the challenges you are facing in publishing in your country? What have been your solutions?
ST: I don’t think that we face any unique challenges, despite lacking a publishing and distribution infrastructure for trade books. There is also a perceived lack of reading culture or habits that we try to counteract by publishing books our readers may find more relatable and more affordable than those by other publishers. We are pioneers in audiobook publishing and e-commerce channels with integrated MoMo.
CH: I wouldn’t say our challenges are unique. It doesn’t make them less challenging. It is not easy to distribute books to people and places where bookshops don’t exist, smaller towns, and rural areas. We also start with relatively small print runs. For a debut novel, I will print 300 and then reprint. Because of cash flow issues and a lack of cash reserves, we can’t do big print runs.
Books are expensive here, partly because of this, but also paper, ink, and printing are pricey and even an excellent, highly publicized novel will only sell just over 1,000 copies. This means that a company like Modjaji has had to operate as a “subsistence” publisher, which is extremely limiting. However, thanks to digital printing and social media, we are able to do more than we would have in the past and to “punch above our weight.”
The pandemic and lockdown have been brutal to publishing in South Africa; bookstores closed down, all publishers suffered, but as you can imagine smaller ones really struggled. In SA, our economy is also in bad shape, due to bigger social and political issues, for example, state capture and corruption, high crime rate, poverty, unemployment and so on, which has led loss of faith in the government here.
We have multiple income streams, selling into stores, our partnership with African Books Collective, rights sales and the royalties they bring in, website sales, pop-up book sales, special discounts for a short period of time. We have received donations from private individuals, but unfortunately as we are registered for VAT, which happened because of a huge success in 2017 with a particular title, we now have to pay VAT on all income, even donations.
SA: I can’t see any challenge facing us that is “unique” to the sector here, and not faced by publishers elsewhere to varying degrees. And the challenges peculiar to the business environment are the same for all entrepreneurs on the continent and they still manage to thrive and fail within that same environment, so the publishing sector and publishers just get on with it as well. Beyond the creative aspects to your lists, you dig into the same practical solutions other sectors use. If there are credit card issues for online commerce, you add mobile money options; if the postal system does not work and your customers find couriers too expensive, you use motorcycle delivery.
JP: For awhile, it felt like we were fighting an uphill battle for people to pay attention to African writing or books about Africa. But it feels like that’s been changing substantially in the last couple of years. And of course, starting from scratch as an unknown independent publishing house, based in El Paso, Texas of all places but publishing African literature—well, I think it took a few years for people to see that we were a press to take seriously. I still think North Americans don’t understand that Africa is a continent, and there are a lot of stereotypes we’re fighting. We keep working to chip away at those stereotypes in part by publishing books people don’t expect to see from the continent, like graphic novels; and through efforts like the annual #readingAfrica campaign.“We need all the publishers of different sizes and persuasions, but especially those that publish books in local languages, experiences of ordinary people with particular visions and angles on the world that aren’t mainstream.”
RZ: I think the biggest challenge is creating spaces for more marginalized voices who haven’t had access to MA programs or perhaps didn’t even have books in their home growing up. South Africa has a pretty robust publishing scene but, for the most part, no one is looking to develop voices, it’s more about the slick and the polished. But not everyone has had the same opportunities, and there is something incredible about looking beyond the expected for a raw spark, because craft you can teach, but that spark is what makes a voice special. And I think that spark is often overlooked until it’s slick and polished.
What is your perception of the impression “African” publishing is making—African is in quotes, as this is a continent with 54 countries and vastly differing publishing ecosystems?
ST: As a literary translator and publisher invested in making Moz/the PALOP read their neighbors, I’m delighted with the African bibliodiversity. Being from a minority, and relatively undeveloped Lusophone market, I’m inspired by women like Colleen Higgs and grateful that she is willing to mentor us newcomers. I only wish it was easier to build B2B bridges within the continent (often it is easier and cheaper to meet at book fairs overseas because of language barriers and the cost of traveling).
CH: It feels to me as if African publishing is having its Latin American moment if I can put it like that. So that is exciting, but there is a still long way to go. And even in South Africa, books in English have to compete with books published in rich northern countries like the US and UK.
I think I have learnt more from Sandra than she has learnt from me. I see all partnerships and conversations with other publishers as extremely valuable. It is a way of sharing insights and knowledge.
SA: That it is important as our contribution to the creative global space of ideas and stories about ourselves and the world. That the sector continue to thrive in the myriads of publishing programs, independent, big small, corporate and the like, so as to provide options for authors to express and share ideas and stories.
RZ: I’m always a bit leery of the idea of African publishing making an impression, because it sort of implies a flavor of the moment idea. As you say, it’s a diverse continent, and it irks me that there’s a section for African publishing, but not one for European publishing. I think it’s far more important to push our writers and get them noticed as individuals, as writers worth reading because they’re worth reading, not because they’re African.
This to me is how we go about changing perceptions of Africa, African writers, African publishers and start creating a connection that transcends that and begins to link reader to writer in terms of human experience, one person to another. I went through a stage of about two years where I read only books written by Indian writers, not because they were exotic but because they were bloody brilliant and I found so much connection to the experience of being human in them. That’s what we read for. I think I went totally off topic there, apologies.
SA: The common humanity in us all that Rachel seems to be drawing out here is critical. And the beauty of shedding restrictive labels open up more opportunities for everyone. However, it is equally critical that we own the label “African publishing,” not just because it is true, we are Africans, and if we do not others will define and (mis)represent that label for us.
Secondly, writers will actually do better across cultures if the African publishing sector is in control, including both commercially and creatively in the narratives. Our products should be seen as different from a business point of view (think for a second of the tons of material and content jostling for the reader’s attention today) but also as our own contribution to the literary diversity of humanity. I love that word “bibliodiversity”!
CH: Yes, indeed Sulaiman, I too love the concept of “bibliodiversity,” something that the Alliance has taken on from South American publishers. We need all the publishers of different sizes and persuasions, but especially those that publish books in local languages, experiences of ordinary people with particular visions and angles on the world that aren’t mainstream.
Is there something that people consistently get wrong in discussing your publishing program or about publishing and reading culture in your country in general? If so, correct this misapprehension for us.
ST: I will have to think about this, but I think I mentioned the misconception that Moz people don’t read at all. In my opinion this is only true in richer, urban settings, but the lack of a distribution infrastructure prevents us from reaching our rural readers.
SA: That it is monolingual. That a Francophone country would read only in French for instance. It sounds innocuous and of legitimate concern but the assumption is from a very English-speaking perspective, e.g., how many books in French can you sell in let’s say Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa?
RZ: Not really so much anymore. I think so many players in this space have been working on changing outdated ideas for such a long time that the change is now upon us.
CH: Yes, I agree with Sandra, distribution and cost of books makes access to them difficult for rural and poorer people. But as the widespread use of cellphones in Africa has revealed people do read, they find plenty to read on their phones if they are linked to the internet. So we need to engage with that. A project in SA, FUNDZA has published and bought rights to thousands of shorter books and short stories which can be read for free on their phones. It is not because people don’t want to read.
JP: This is really different from what everybody else said but I think in North America, there is a huge push for people to read “diverse” books but diverse books are defined as written by and/or about Americans of different cultural identities. So global literature isn’t included in the definition of “diverse.” Which I find deeply troubling! Diversity that all shares one common strand—an American identity of some sort—is still dipping from the same pool of ideas; we need truly to hear from people with ideas, values, needs, etc from outside of the American gene pool. I’d love to see North American librarians and educators embrace global literature as part of their definition of “diversity.”
What are the biggest challenges you face as a member of the publishing in the “global South” dealing with the North American industry.
ST: When discussing rights agreements, I’m often faced with unrealistic royalties expectations from North American authors and/or their agents. We often waste precious time until they understand our reality in terms of print runs, sales price and timelines. But overall my feeling is that the North is more keen to be published in translation in Moz than the other way round. But agents and publishers are more open now than in 2018.
CH: I’m more concerned about getting the publishing rights here, the North American market seems quite distant to me. A bit like wondering how things work on Mars. If our Department of Arts and Culture took local publishing seriously, they would create a system like the one in Canada where local books that meet a certain standard would be bought in decent numbers for our libraries. I think we have about 2000 libraries in SA. What if they bought 500 copies of new titles that qualified initially? That would change everything.
I’d also really like to find a way to get our books into other African countries. It seems as if it is harder to connect with the rest of the continent than it is to connect with the West. Also as a small publisher, it is expensive to go to lots of book fairs. We don’t have the people capacity or the funding. Although we have had generous funding to go to fairs that we wouldn’t have been able to go to on our own steam, for example the Nairobi Book Fair in 2016 funded by the Goethe Institute and The Geneva Book Fair as part of a special focus they had on African publishing.
SA: I truly believe in the book trade as an essential ecosystem to be maintained and supported so as not just to get books to readers in the most efficient and cost-effective means possible, but also as part of the fabric of our collective human culture and world-view. But, and this is not just North America, including UK and Europe as well, the book trade acts like gatekeepers to what their public can and should be exposed to.
From the titles and authors selected, promoted, and demanded to fit the Northern American and European markets, to the distribution and marketing opportunities available to publishers not based in these territories, to the works that get reviewed in mainstream media etc., they virtually close off what their readers could see, buy and read. It is not year 2000 obviously and there are ways to maneuver around some of these gatekeepers today in 2022, but it remains significant.
How would you like to see the narrative about African publishing and literature change globally?
CH: I think that small presses like Jessica’s Catalyst are making a difference. The whole #BlackLivesMatter movement has had an impact on books from Africa. However, I think that books that have been published by African writers in the diaspora make a bigger splash than books published here. Even the #ReadingAfrica week campaign doesn’t entirely make sense to me here, it is really a campaign for people outside of Africa.
I disagree with Rachel about not labeling African literature as such, I think there is much to be gained by readers knowing that they are reading African literature. It is something to feel proud of that we are African publishers. I feel it gives us all a platform, a place from where our writers can be seen.
SA: By globally, if you mean generally and not as in the world, I would say to be published and read locally by millions and millions of Africans based in every nook and cranny of the continent in indigenous, local, national and global languages. It is a shame if African voices are not read by Africans as much as they continue to read others.
JP: I think we’re starting to see real interest in books by African writers. There are now several agents who devote themselves almost exclusively to African writers; there are agents who work to sell rights for African publishers; African publishers are attending rights fairs like Frankfurt and Bologna; and readers are starting to seek out African-authored literature. Having said that, though, I still think there’s a perception that African-authored literature should somehow be “serious,” literary.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good literary novel, BUT I also think we need to break out of that mold. Many Africans are writing genre literature. Why shouldn’t we have African romances, African crime novels, African thrillers? We absolutely can—and should—but readers need to start opening up their hearts to it. An exception could be fantasy/sci-fi. People are definitely interested in fantasy/sci-fi by African writers, or at least, Nigerian-American writers such as Nnedi Okafor etc.
RZ: Again, just stop seeing African literature and just see literature.
SA: Jessica, we already do have a lot of the genres cited. Writing and publishing of romance, thrillers, crime etc have been going on for decades on the continent. Certainly their successes are intertwined with the level of the money available for the production and push. That onus is on us, the publishers. If writers submit those genres and we like them, we can and should invest in them. If we cannot do it alone, there’s strength in alliances and networks as Colleen and Sandra rightly noted above.
JP: Sulaiman, absolutely! But outside of Africa, we tend to think about African literature as “very serious,” but just as Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu pointed out in one of our panels last year, Africans have ALWAYS been writing genre literature—it’s just that the publishing empires in Europe and North America have ignored it. And to respond to Colleen, we don’t intend the #readingAfrica campaign to be just for people outside of the continent; we’d love to see the idea take hold locally and become something completely outside of our purview, intent, or purpose. It’s an idea. Ideas evolve and transform.
Sulaiman Adebowale is the founder and director of Amalion, an independent initiative with the mission to publish and disseminate innovative knowledge on Africa to strengthen the understanding of humanity. For nearly three decades in various editorial positions in Africa and in Europe, Sulaiman has been responsible for the management and production of technical, academic and literary titles from commissioning to the dissemination of finished products. Previously, Sulaiman was Managing Editor at the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), Dakar, Senegal, coordinating a multilingual publishing program of journals, book monographs, working papers and newsletters.
As well as being a writer, Colleen Higgs is also a publisher, launching the s ground-breaking Modjaji Books— an independent feminist press that publishes southern African women writers— in 2007. In 2020, her memoir of caring for her mother in the last ten years of her life, my mother, my madness was published by deep south. She was recognized for her work in publishing by the Mail and Guardian, and was featured in their Book of Women 2011 in the Arts & Culture category.
Jessica Powers writes under the name J.L. Powers, and has published 9 books, including 5 books for young adults, a picture book, two collections of essays (she was the editor), and a hiking guide to southern New Mexico/western Texas. In 2017, Jessica launched Catalyst Press, a publishing company with global distribution, which focuses on publishing African writers and African-based books for people of all ages.
Sandra Tamele works as a translator and interpreter in Maputo, Mozambique. She became the first published literary translator in Mozambique with her debut translation of Niccolò Ammaniti’s acclaimed novel Io non ho paura into Portuguese (Ndjira, 2007). In 2015, after a seven year hiatus from literary projects, she designed and sponsored the annual literary translation competition (LTC); in 2016, she founded the Mozambican Translators and Interpreters Association (ATIM); and in 2018, she established Thirty Zero Nine, a press dedicated to publishing translation that debut September 30th, 2019, with a publication of the collected short stories translated in the previous four editions of the LTC.
Rachel Zadok was born in Tel Aviv and raised in Johannesburg. In 2001, she escaped a career in advertising to become a writer, which she describes as being a little like running away to join the circus without the safety net. She is the author of two novels: Gem Squash Tokoloshe (2005), shortlisted for The Whitbread First Novel Award and The John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and longlisted for the IMPAC Award; and Sister-Sister (2013), shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Prize and The Herman Charles Bosman Prize, and longlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Award. She is also the founder of Short Story Day Africa, an organization that creates a global platform for emerging and established African writers.
Ed Nawotka is the senior international and bookselling editor of New York trade magazine Publishers Weekly. He is also U.S. coordinator of Publishers Weekly en Español, which he helped launch in 2020 and is based in Seville, Spain. A widely published essayist and critic, his work has appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker, and other publications. He was the cofounder of international trade web site Publishing Perspectives, a culture columnist for Bloomberg News, and has more than two decades experience reporting on global business and media. This includes several years living in and covering southern Africa. He lives in Houston, Texas.