Will e-publishing revolutionise Africa's reading habits?

Author:Seymour, Richard

Given the relatively tiny market for books in Africa, one can come to the erroneous conclusion that Africans do not like to read. Nothing can be further from the truth - books, magazines and all forms of printed matter are devoured whenever they made available and are affordable. The problem has been with the industry itself. However, Richard Seymour argues, the onset of electronic publishing has changed the landscape entirely and Africans could become some of the world's greatest readers - and writers.

The first great revolution in information technology, Gutenberg's printing press, democratised publishing in Europe. Power over the written word was wrested from its traditional base, the Church, and the cost in time and money of spreading ideas collapsed in the aftermath of its invention. The universe of the printed word, as we know it today, came into being ushering in massive social, political and economic changes. Unfortunately for Africa, this technology did not have the same liberating effect on its people. Publishing in the continent was controlled by colonial powers abroad and used to consolidate their positions by means of printing Bibles in European languages, obligating Africans to learn foreign tongues. From then on, Africans received their education from a list approved by foreign leaders. Despite independence, the publishing industry in Africa was not able to take advantage of its newly acquired autonomy. Up until quite recently, it was easy enough to identify a publisher. Gutenberg's printing press democratised information technology, but only to a point. To be a publisher once took more money than most people had. Printing presses are expensive. So much so that very few could afford them. This 'very few' were the publishing industry. However, there has since been a new revolution in information technology as dramatic as Gutenberg's invention: the Web. It turns out that for centuries publishing was left to the professionals because only they could afford it, and not necessarily because they were good at it and no one else was. In both time and money, the Web has collapsed the cost of publishing to the point where it is effectively free. A young man or woman sitting in their room in Lagos or Nairobi writing a blog may not much feel like publishers, but that is what they are. Martin Luther made full use of the new printing press to spread dissent against the Catholic Church. In the same way, bloggers all over the continent have a similar power. One might even say their potential reach is even greater. A single blog, produced for no more than the cost of a connection to the Internet, can have a readership that exceeds that of many popular newspapers.


Even an entire novel can be made available in a digital form and...

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