On the 9th of May, I had the honour of addressing the International Publishers Association (IPA) seminar in Lagos to discuss, amongst other things, the future of the publishing industry across Africa.
Over recent years I have been amazed by the literary talent that is coming out of Africa. This includes authors like Leila Aboulela, Petina Gappah, Zakes Mda, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Nigeria’s own Johwor Ile.
However, the potential of this continent is not being realized, despite its rich language offerings. This is evidenced by the lack of integration between the African publishing industry and the global publishing market. By fostering closer cooperation, there are huge opportunities to be made.
The global publishing industry is starting to change, however, and there are encouraging signs that emerging markets are starting to play more of an active role in the conversations once dominated by the traditional European publishing markets.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of these markets, and we continue to integrate more effectively with global markets. This integration has been hugely positive, and there are striking similarities between the development trajectories of many of the African publishing markets and the publishing market in the UAE. Indeed, together with African publishers, we aim to offer genuine diversity to the industry and promote our rich and vibrant cultures internationally.
A small country located at the southeast end of the Arabian Peninsula, the UAE by the end of the 1970s published only 6 books per year. In 1971, when the UAE achieved its independence only 48 percent of the adult population was literate with literacy amongst women standing at just 38 percent. In the 1970s, as a newly independent country, there was a concerted effort to restore our lost cultural values and pride by focusing on the publishing industry.
As a result of this drive, the 94 percent literacy rate in the UAE is amongst the best in the world (96 percent for women). We now publish just short of 500 titles per year, and our book exports now exceed $40 million per year.
The UAE has transitioned from a small country with very low literacy levels and almost no domestic publishing industry to become an emergent global publishing hub with a growing national culture of reading. We were able to do this because as a nation we appreciated and understood the importance of the worth and capabilities of people – a belief in human capital.
The news is positive for Emerging Publishing Markets, which now account for 90 percent of the global population under 30, and almost 60 percent of global GDP. These are the readers of the future, and importantly they will have more and more money to spend on books.
The globalization of the publishing industry presents an opportunity for publishers in emerging markets to meet surging global interest in more diverse, original narratives. This trend will inevitably lead to a shift of the global publishing industry from traditional hubs in developed countries to other important secondary hubs in developed and developing countries – the UAE and Nigeria are clear examples of this.
It is in these frontiers where the publishing industry will find its future readers and customers. And while I believe the present is bright for African publishers, I believe the future looks even brighter.
Emerging markets are now drivers of world growth, and it is only a matter of time until these populations and economic trends change the face of the global publishing industry as we now know it.
At the same time, the contemporary culture of emerging economies is growing in influence globally – you only need to look at the success of Nollywood to see that African culture has global appeal and significant export potential – why not replicate this success in publishing?
Bodour Al Qasimi is the Founder and President of the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA) and the CEO and Founder of Kalimat Publishing Group.