Raphaël Thierry

The current environment is particularly rich for debating and discussing the relationship between the African publishing industry and the international book market. Do African publishers know that they owe Caroline Broué, the radio journalist who made a massive gaffe with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently, some major media coverage about the existence of a publishing industry in Africa?

It all started in January 2018 when two regrettable questions immediately cast a shadow over what could have been a pertinent interview with leading Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This exchange that took place in Paris at a cultural event hosted by the French Institute and was aimed at highlighting Nigeria’s literary prosperity in order to show that this country was a global, literary hotspot. The media had a ball following this unfortunate moment, which as Adichie rightly put it, reflected “very poorly on French people.” Le Figaro, L’Obs, Libération, CNN, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Vanguard, among others, euphorically extolled the existence of booksellers in Nigeria. Some pointed at a sort of French racism and others went to verify that bookshops actually did exist in Nigeria. All of them, however, evoked various aspects of an African publishing industry in a continent with 54 countries and 1 billion inhabitants.

This controversy reminded me of a roundtable I had attended at the 2013 Paris Book Fair. The French Institute had invited a manager from the Hachette International’s French publishing group who said that “it is not an easy task to stay optimistic about the publishing situation in sub-Saharan Francophone Africa” where “there are none, or a very few booksellers in the 20 countries where I am working.” He also gave a figure of “a dozen or so bookshops worthy of their name for a population of about 200 to 300 millions inhabitants.” The International Association for Francophone Booksellers would certainly have appreciated such unpleasant talk because what emerges here is the complicity between the media and the representatives of major book providers in Francophone Africa.

Of course, this does not mean all journalists unanimously proclaim the weaknesses of African publishing. Kidi Bebey’s article published by Le Monde Afrique highlights the efficiency of the work taken up by several companies and associations involved in the Francophone publishing sector. Most of these were represented during the Frankfurt Buchmesse 2017 (entitled “Francfort en Français”), and Bebey reminded us of their actions in defense of a Francophone publishing diversity. I have observed that most of these publishers and collectives (Afrilivres, International Alliance for Independent Publishers, L’Oiseau Indigo Diffusion) are pretty much frequent participants to workshops, conferences and other meetings that have been organized for at least a decade now by the Bureau International de l’Edition Française and the International Organization of la Francophonie. Soon after the Adichie fiasco, the International Alliance for Independent Publishers took advantage of the moment to publish an op-ed declaring their independent publishers as true promoters of Francophone diversity and recalling also the multitude of publishers and collectives dedicated to defend “Bibliodiversity in French.” A few days later, the column was re-published by Le Monde Afrique and his time it was signed by more members of the alliance and it was really a pity that the op-ed only involved one institution.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, there is indeed a publishing market in Francophone Africa (even though it is economically dominated by French publishers), and there are also several people who spend their lifetimes promoting it! And out there, you might even find bookstores, publishers (print and digital), libraries, and also, believe me, some Nobel Prize laureates of literature. The problem is that we happen to be in 2018, continuously reinventing warm water, wasting our energy reminding everyone of things that we shouldn’t have to remind anyone of.

In Europe, events dealing with African publishing still concern the African book industry as a whole. Do we ever speak of European publishing as a whole, American or Asian publishing as a whole? We keep targeting “African publishers’” and never mention editorial lines, bestsellers, national data, literary debates, and the political strategies to access one or another market. When it comes to African publishing, we always speak of resilience, never of agency. We sadly keep generalizing, marveling about these African exotic cultural mysteries; wonderful Africa, with your miraculous creativity we never manage to separate from your economical difficulties…Truly, Africa remains that eternal Orient to us, the incorrigible French people.

Caroline Broué’s tactless, unfortunate, and anachronistic question is nothing but the visible side of a Francophone publishing iceberg made up of superficial cultural diversity or “bibliodiversity.” In the meantime, decades of external pressures, soft power, philanthropy, political interferences, if not outright imperialism float around within this immersed, vast iceberg. It has been acknowledged that since the 1950’s, France has played a troubled role within the African publishing industry. The Francophone institution was never quite the counter-power needed to balance the relations between France and French speaking African states. Here, its important to remember that Léopold Sedar Senghor made a huge contribution to the foundation of Francophonie by publishing all of his books in France simultaneously. As President of Senegal, he supported the creation of Nouvelles Editions Africaines (NEA) in Dakar, and split NEA’s assets between Senegal and French publishers. I have nothing against Senghor and feel great respect for his status as literary symbol as well as for his contribution to Presence Africaine’s cultural revolution. That said, I cannot help but think that Senghor like so many other African writers (Alain Mabanckou among them) never really put the actual question of French publishing’s imperialism in Africa on the table.

The same Alain Mabanckou has taken the floor to refuse the invitation to became a representative at the Francophonie, an institution that insists (too much) on its own universalism although most of the time, its only the French stakes that seem to matter in this debate. Well done, Alain Mabanckou! My only wish is that you ask for one addition to your existing list of publications: Enfances (Childhood), an edited short story collection that you once published in Cameroon with the Tropiques publishing house. I wish you would once again address the audience at the Collège de France to remind everybody there that France was constructed with Francophone writings, including African literature (you did this!). On the one hand, French publishing nourished and revitalized itself thanks to this African ink, capitalizing upon most of the African literary outputs, best-sellers, the “Tout-Monde” events, theories of “Créolité,” World Literature, and Etonnants-Voyageurs festivals. And on the other hand, it always monopolized school programs in Africa as well as media coverage. It’s a new time, and I have nothing against Mabanckou and Senghor, and feel a deep admiration for their talent and work. Yet I do regret some of the stances they have taken.

And so the cabinet of the Francophone institution chant their organization’s goals for the umpteenth time despite their history of leaving only crumbs for the African publishers. They have never taken a stance against French publishing conglomerates that still hold the major part (80%, 90%?) of Francophone Africa’s publishing markets. Sure, its Prix des Cinq Continents (Five Continents Prize) was recently awarded to two novels published by African publishers: an Algerian and a Tunisian. But what change has it brought about in Francophone publishing’s geography? Will this prize bring about a change or will it only reproduce an old tale? Remember the Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Noire (Critics Prize for Black African Literature) which, for two decades, rewarded the pioneering Cameroonian Clé publishers (the first to have translated Wole Soyinka in French) and the Senegalese Nouvelles Editions Africaines (they got the first Noma award for publishing in Africa) before entirely forgetting African publishing much to the benefit of French publishers? What exactly can we anticipate from the organization’s current book festival in Geneva with its “Assises du livre en Afrique francophone”? Can we really hope for a change in Francophone publishing’s vertical structure after the upcoming general meeting about French publishing summoned by Emmanuel Macron? With regards to this general meeting, I would like to point out that it aims to imitate the framework of the literary festival Etonnants Voyageurs which has never given a significant space to African publishing.

Does it not seem that every event and all those involved just seem to be sticking to their usual traditional positions? When in 2017, its still possible for the French Institute to choose the Frankfurt Buchmesse to announce its support for a book donation program in Ivory Coast, can we really say the times are changing? Once again Le Monde has published an anecdotal column from the department chief at the Francophonie. Here, we learn that Francophonie has nothing to do with colonialism: that’s its all about diversity, crossing cultures, starting dialogue, and bridging several communities that have the French language as their common link. Definitely, nothing new here!

Back in eighties, Robert Estivals denounced the neo-colonial relationship between France and Africa when it came to publishing. Robert Estivals passed away in 2016, and from what I know, almost no one in the Francophone publishing world paid their respects to his singular but really clever study on the African publishing industry. There is no need to compose a new narrative: if we only read Robert Estivals again, I think it will become clear that France hasn’t changed its behavior since the eighties, seventies, sixties…

In 1992, Hermann Schulz, a German publisher, asked in Logos journal: “African publishing companies that have admirably withstood competition from British and French publishers rarely have the chance to participate in international book fairs and conferences where they could open dialogue and seek partners […] So where can a German publisher go, except to Britain or France to learn about African publishing?”1

That is right, where? Its very confusing. Several interests have emerged in the past seven decades, at least. These include French publishing initiatives, French-African cooperation, UNESCO, numerous collectives, academic research, NGOs, financial and political institutions, and so on. When Francophone African publishers make it and have access some sort of visibility outside of Africa, (at the Paris Book Fair, for example) they have to deal with that longstanding burden; a pretty heavy one to carry around if you intend to walk freely. In this complex network of power, France always remains the decision-making body, even down to the alternative programs. Maybe these stigmatizing and often discourteous discourses towards African publishing, this petty squabbling and these enclaves at the margins are nothing but a long-lasting legacy of a publishing history in which exchanges were never transversal, and France always preserved its own centralism on publishing, literary, institutional and economical levels.

When these threads are clarified and when we understand that it is all part of one continuous historical legacy, we are able to understand why France hosted only one event dedicated to selling rights to works published in Africa and outside the parameters of the traditional enclave found in Europe. It becomes obvious why the one literary festival in France that hosts African publishers in a fair way is organized seven years apart, miles away from the French capital and involves only one French collective. And when all the pieces of the jigsaw come together, it becomes clear why twenty African publishers were isolated and placed at the edge of the event that was primarily honoring French publishing during the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2017.

If the situation has to change, it has to happen through the rise of a dialogue that is truly multilateral and in which France will only take a seat between everybody else. However this is only imaginable if the discussion can somehow take place between African publishers and French publishers, along with international institutions and Francophone governments, thus somehow reflecting the balance between literature and publishing exchanges.

In the end, the questions I am asking are pretty simple: who is impacted by these conversations? To whom is this work and these events dedicated to? To whom are the op-eds, declarations, and action plans addressed? Fellow citizens? Institutions? French authorities? African governments? World readership? French publishers? Which French publishers? The ones already favorable to the cause or others like Hachette, Gallimard and so on? Or is it targeting organizations funding meetings and workshops with publishers? Is it justifying the collective’s policies, professional agendas or academic strategies that have perhaps (and to our good conscience) been cradled by our postcolonial illusions?

In fact, I think we are still within the same chessboard of interests summarized as a purely “Franco-French” problem, desperately far from the reality of Francophone publishing’s diversity, and with all these literary outputs missing, again and always. Of course, these are certainly not distributed enough in the North and distribution remains a key issue of the African publishing’s visibility in the Northern market place, though more and more publishers find bridges like African Books Collective, L’Oiseau Indigo-Bookwitty, or the International Specialized Book Services).

I remain concerned about the place we continue to give actual African publishing when we should be feeling thrilled by these publishers’ presence in Frankfurt, Paris, Geneva and Bologna and elsewhere. So the rare collectives only represent their own members, French publishing organizations only promote French publishing, Francophone academics exclusively study books published in France, and African publishers get to follow strategies and compromise to find a small place in the Northern market. Those refusing to participate in this chess remain almost unknown outside of their homelands and regions: who has heard of Jano Bakasanda’s Talenta publishing house in Lubumbashi? Why is the mythic Clé publishing in Cameroon so rarely invited to these Francophone events and all these professional meetings?

Yet another concern for me is academic research which I believe should be a little more aware of what is at stake with this African publishing industry, and also be more open-minded towards a publishing industry which develops far from and outside of the obvious networks, and which does not fit into French compromises or anti-capitalist posturing. Only then can research emerge which would study literature published outside of France and theorize on a scale wider than the narrow space of the Latin Quarter in Paris.

I have recently learnt that in October 2018, the African Books Collective will participate in the Frankfurt Book Fair, as well as several publishers from Francophone Africa. In my opinion, it’s a positive sign that a meeting dedicated to the right exchange would be set up on this occasion, joining Emmanuel Macron’s surprise wish to “facilitate licensing of rights from French to French” and to “open the publishing market to literature in French in all its diversity.” Projects able to support ventures like Astier-Pécher or Interkontinental literary agencies already exist, and all they need now is a rightful place. The rest belongs to the global publishing economy, and to the reader’s curiosity.

1. SCHULZ (H.), “Bringing African Literature to Germany”, Logos, vol. 2, n°3, 1992, p. 93.

Originally published in French here. 

Raphaël Thierry is a French scholar and researcher based in Germany. Since 2008, his research has focused on African publishing's relationship to the international book industry. His book Le marché du livre africain et ses dynamiques littéraires : le cas du Cameroun was published by Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux in 2015. He has also co-published a study entitled “Book Donation Programmes for Africa: Time for a Reappraisal?” with Hans Zell in African Research & Documentation in the Journal of SCOLMA. He is currently setting up a project dedicated to analyzing and mapping the publishing structure in Francophone Africa and attends numerous conferences and cultural events where it is possible to defend and broadcast issues on African publishing. Since 2011, Thierry blogs at EditAfrica.