The 2011 London Book Fair took place at Earl’s Court from April 11 to 13. It is an annual event, the United Kingdom’s major book fair, attracting around 20,000 publishing professionals. Both Jane Morris, my partner in ’amaBooks, and myself were fortunate in being supported to travel to London for the fair.
My experience of previous book fairs has been limited to those in Zimbabwe and the 2010 Cape Town and Jozi Book Fairs. The London Book Fair is very different; books are not available for sale, and, with a £40 admission fee, very few members of the public attend.
The emphasis is on the selling of publishing rights amongst publishers from across the world, together with seminars and talks on issues of interest to publishing professionals and those book lovers who are attending. This year, the discussions tended to concentrate on the impact of new technology and of digital developments on copyright issues. The new growing markets, outside of the traditional major markets of North America and Europe, were also of interest. Russia was the focus of this year’s fair.
A major activity at the fair is the selling of rights amongst publishers. When, for example, a United Kingdom publisher agrees to publish a book by an author, the contract usually involves the publisher acquiring world-wide exclusive rights for that book. But the publisher is not usually in the best position to promote and arrange distribution of the book everywhere, so will try to sell the rights for a particular market, say North America, to a publisher based there. The rights to translate the book into other languages and to then publish in those languages are generally also available.
The UK market is very competitive and few books actually make a clear profit from sales solely within the UK, so the sale of rights is very important. The scale of these rights sales at London can be appreciated by one floor of Earl’s Court being dedicated to rights negotiations.
There were over 500 tables that could be booked on the floor for 30 minutes at a time, and all the tables were booked for the three days of the fair well before it started. The size of the venue can be judged by the organisers advising leaving 20 minutes to get from one side to the other.
For a small publisher such as ’amaBooks the process was somewhat daunting, despite my attending a rights workshop the day before the fair, and we tended to concentrate on more informal discussions with those we thought might be interested in Zimbabwean literature.
We have had some success in reaching agreements with other publishers about making our books available in bookshops outside of Africa. The contract with the UK publisher, Parthian Books, for them to acquire the UK rights for Bryony Rheam’s novel This September Sun was finally signed at the fair. Parthian will be bringing the book out there in September this year, and they are also using their links to make the book available elsewhere and to investigate translation possibilities.
We have also reached agreement with Parthian to co-publish our next collection of Zimbabwean short stories. Our latest publication, Together, stories and poems by John Eppel and the late Julius Chingono, is being co-published by the University of New Orleans (UNO) Press, who will have the North American rights, and by the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Press, who will have the South African rights.
At the Fair we saw the first copy of Together, which was displayed on the African Books Collective stand. During the fair, we also had discussions with publishers and translation organisations about translating our titles into other languages, including those of Zimbabwe.
The majority of our titles are available outside of Zimbabwe on a print-on-demand basis through the African Books Collective, and we were based at their stand throughout the London Book Fair.
The African Books Collective, a collective of publishers from across Africa, are very effective at distributing books to libraries and universities across the world. Some of our titles are available as ebooks, both through e-Library and general ebook sites, such as www.into-ebooks.com and www.scribd.com, and more of our books will be available as ebooks through various online outlets in the near future. Although sales of ebooks are significant in countries such as USA, they have made less of an impact in others, such as Russia.
During a panel discussion on Sub-Saharan Africa in the Age of Digital Publishing, a representative of the Namibian Ministry of Education announced that the Namibian government has a goal of installing computers in every school and every community library by 2014.
Namibia thus seems committed to a transformation to the digital age. For Africa, it seems as if the pdf format for ebooks would be the cheapest and easiest way to get material into schools without the costs involved in transporting physical copies of books. However, there are difficulties with the new technology – with the high costs of equipment and connectivity, and many publishers remain reluctant to digitize their content until copyright and piracy issues are addressed.
While a broadband revolution is currently sweeping East and West Africa with the arrival of optic-fibre cabling, Zimbabwe faces infrastructure challenges, poor electricity supply and poor internet connectivity.
In talking to other small publishers, we were able to compare the situation of publishers of creative writing in Zimbabwe with those in the United Kingdom. There is a substantial book buying public in the UK, but there are a large number of books competing for that market. Small publishers often seem to get support to set up their business and to publish good literature.
In the UK, publishers concentrate on publishing – getting books to bookshops and collecting payment is generally handled by distributors, and there are many bookshops.
In Zimbabwe, publishers deal with distribution, collecting payment from shops and often sell books directly to the public, as well as the actual publishing. There are few bookshops and few of those actually buy books that are not set texts for schools.
The technology of most printers in Zimbabwe needs also to be brought up to date to enable the short print runs, which are appropriate for most Zimbabwean fiction titles, to be published at reasonable cost.
In London there were iPads and Kindles all over, but they are still a rare sight in Zimbabwe and I don’t foresee printed books disappearing from Zimbabwe anytime soon.
Brian Jones, 'amaBooks