During a critical leadership succession period in a publishing house in Côte d’Ivoire, the new CEO, Jules Ouoba, needed urgent help. Survival was uncertain, yet crucial for Centre de Publications Evangéliques (CPE), the largest Christian publisher in French-speaking Africa. Bob Reekie, Media Associates International (MAI) co-founder and president for many years, moved in to assist.
Several interactions later, a new leaf of hope came to CPE. It sprang back and began publishing life-changing literature.
For more than twenty-five years MAI has been training publishers, editors, writers, designers, and booksellers in Africa and around the globe. Publishing professionals from within the continent and beyond have volunteered their time and talents to impart techniques, sharpen skills, and deliver much-needed encouragement to launch new Christian publishing endeavors and resuscitate ailing publishers that could have flopped.
The Church in Africa has exploded in the last century, increasing the need for literature that can help it address critical issues such as discipling believers, battling AIDS, overcoming poverty, and stabilizing democracy. Church leaders also need written materials to help bring reconciliation and hope to those suffering from the scars of tribal enmity and other divisions.
Africa is the world's youngest region—children under 15 make up more than forty percent of our people. I meet with publishing leaders around the continent who are recognizing the need to encourage the next generation to read and to provide Christian teaching through quality literature.
The Influx of Western Literature
One of the sharpest issues that has confronted African publishers is the lack of locally-created and culturally-relevant material in the wake of the influx of Western literature. A significant majority of the books sold in Africa, including those in Christian bookstores, have been produced in the West, rather than by local writers.
Some African publishers rely upon the sales of book rights they have purchased from Western publishers to sustain their businesses. “The books are already well edited and neatly packaged, making things simpler for us,” one publisher said. Further benefits include operating with a leaner staff and cutting down pre-press capital, authors’ advance royalties, editors’ remuneration, and designers’ and illustrators’ fees. The books are printed in China or India, where printing costs are manageable, making them affordable and profitable.
Another advantage is the popularity of the authors. According to one publisher in Kenya, whose annual list includes eighty percent foreign titles, “The more famous the author, the higher the sales.” As a result, local authors are overlooked. This imbalance is a great cause for concern. Even publishers who rely upon foreign rights recognize the need to develop and publish local authors.
“It’s now our policy to reserve up to twenty percent of our titles for local authors, and this will increase with time,” one publisher asserted, evidencing an encouraging attitude. However, in order to create more effective and lasting advances in locally-produced literature, Africa requires training of writers, editors, and publishers, as well as advocacy to influence government policy.
Barriers to Locally-Produced Reads
Publishers in Africa face additional obstacles. When a young publisher in Kenya considered Christian publishing as a vocation, he was warned that it wouldn’t be viable due to the poor reading culture in Africa. Not intimidated, the publisher surveyed major bookshops and discovered that, indeed, Africans do read. They simply want value for their money and are willing to buy well-produced books. And this is what he set out to do.
Content is just as important as marketing technique to attract readers. “When you scratch where people itch, they will respond,” a publisher of motivational books asserted when discussing fast-moving books. He debunked the notion that Africans don’t read, arguing that when a book addresses the felt needs of people, people will read it.
Admittedly, mediocrity has been the bane of some publishing houses in Africa; however, this trend, like the so-called poor reading culture, is changing. At a workshop in Ethiopia last year, several participating publishers resolved that quality publishing—in content, printing, packaging, and presentation—was the way to sustain Christian publishing in Africa.
Also, many African publishers grapple with marketing and selling the books they produce. “Books are published for readers in the marketplace, not for warehouses,” one publisher lamented. “But our books move rather slowly.” This challenge of distribution is not insurmountable, however, as African publishers are embarking on book launches and community outreaches and utilizing modern technology to increase book sales. “Keep no stone unturned,” one publisher urges, “for no success is easy to achieve.”
On the financial side, rising costs of printing materials and services prevent some publishers from going to press with books that are ready for publishing. It is the same reason they’re unable to accept good manuscripts, thus frustrating authors. As a result, subsidy or self-publishing is prevalent. “Now that I publish my own books, I make profits and don’t have to wait to have my books published,” a marriage counselor in Ethiopia said.
Achievements in African Publishing
Despite the challenges, bright spots in Christian publishing dot the landscape. With the Church in Africa growing numerically, Christian publishers have the opportunity to produce relevant books to nurture its members. Books on ethics, evangelism, leadership, discipleship, Christian education, and other issues that adequately address practical problems confronting African Christians are needed in churches and theological institutions.
Now the world can get a feel for today’s African Church and its leaders in the ground-breaking Africa Bible Commentary. Seventy African scholars contributed to this first one-volume Bible commentary produced in Africa by African theologians. The commentary’s African publisher is WordAlive in Nairobi, Kenya. The director of WordAlive, David Waweru, sensed God’s leading to start a publishing house while attending MAI’s international publishing conference, LittWorld, in England a decade ago.
Some Christian publishers have found their niche in specialized areas. Cluster Publications in South Africa, for example, concentrates on contemporary African issues from theological perspectives. Their “Signs of the Times” series, written in non-academic style, covers topics such as spirituality, economics, gender, justice, HIV/AIDS, and same-sex attraction.
Other publishers specialize in publishing Sunday school curriculum, hymn books, Bible study manuals, and devotional books. One such publisher said, “In the midst of competition, we’ve found our small niche in the local church where we believe we are meeting a need.”
At Step Publishers in Ghana, we produce Christian novels for schools in response to the government’s needs for supplementary readers. I believe this is a wonderful opportunity to reach youth with alternative Christian storybooks instead indecent ones that are capturing their minds.
Denominational engagement in mainstream publishing has become prevalent across the West African sub-region. Over a dozen megachurches have taken advantage of their large numbers to engage in prolific publishing.
One Christian leader doubles as the managing editor of the denomination’s publishing house, which records, transcribes, and edits the sermons and teachings of the church’s lead pastor and prepares them for publication. With large branches of the church established in major cities of Africa, the church engages in continent-wide distribution of their books. In some cases, the publications are used as textbooks by the students of their Bible colleges.
International Publishers Partner Together
Two other recent initiatives to foster African Christian publishing and authorship include HippoBooks and the Dictionary of African Christian Biography.
Started through impetus from Langham Partnership International, HippoBooks is a shared imprint involving three African publishers and Zondervan. Several of Africa’s French-language publishers may also get involved. The vision is to stimulate spiritual and intellectual growth in the African Church by developing books by African Christian authors who address African realities from an evangelical perspective.
Six books have been published so far, with more in preparation. The imprint includes a broad range of serious Christian and theological publications written especially for pastors, church leaders, and academics.
The Dictionary of African Christian Biography is an electronic database with biographies of African Christian leaders, evangelists, and lay workers chiefly responsible for laying the foundations and advancing the growth of Christian communities in Africa. An international team of scholars and church leaders—primarily Africans—is facilitating the project. Contributors are drawn from academic, church, and mission communities in Africa and elsewhere.
Since work began in 1997, more than 1,912 stories have been compiled. Entries are available not only in English, but also Swahili, French, and Portuguese. The Overseas Ministries Study Center of New Haven, Connecticut, USA, provides administrative and technical support.
Capturing the Insider’s View
An email from Lillian Tindyebwa, co-founder of the Uganda Faith Writers Association (UFWA) and MAI training partner, sums up the need for uniquely African stories:
It is urgent that our stories are captured and written to give the insider’s view of our modern faith versus the one of our fathers, to try and create a heritage for the future generations. People who have written about Africa often talk about our mellow heart, the joy and laughter in our bright smiles, and sometimes about our pain. What is not captured, however, is our faith—how we live our lives in the light of God’s guidance and grace.
There are profound stories of the ordinary person’s endearing faith, which compels them to smile even when they are not sure about the next meal. It is those stories about how we overcome such adversity that UFWA is interested in capturing and prayerfully endeavors to empower its members to write.