[EN] Conversation with Gersy Ifeanyi Ejimofo l Founder, Director DigitalBack Books by Ulrich Talla Wamba
For this other issue, we went to meet Nigerian Gersy Ifeanyi Ejimofo, Founder and Director of the online library ‘‘Digitalback Books’’. For her, the challenges and opportunities, to be seized by Africa are more important than the challenges ahead. Exclusive interview.
by Ulrich Talla Wamba
Publishers & Books : Show us the ‘‘DigitalBackbook.com’’ platform
Gersy Ifeanyi : Digitalback Books (DBB) is a virtual library platform dedicated to African literature. Over the years, we have curated a comprehensive collection of literary, trade and scholarly books from (on or about) Africa and its diverse diaspora. We partner with libraries - whether public, academic, corporate or community libraries - to extend access to our content via our mobile app. Readers from participating libraries can get online to search and read or read the content offline.
DigitalBackBooks was founded out of a frustration at my inability to obtain copies of the African classics, so many of which have fallen out of print. Even on the continent, the diverse works of our authors are hard to discover or just not stocked in most of the bookshops and libraries. I saw technology as the key to addressing these shortcomings, ensuring that as a people, we can discover our own stories and can share our stories with the world.
P & B: There is more talk on content and especially on profound changes to operate in the practices of publishers. Is this also the case for libraries? How far are these changes?
Gersy : Digital content has definitely revolutionised the publishing sector and forced publishers to rethink many aspects of their business models. By going digital, opportunities open up to bring more works to the market without the considerations around the costs of a print run. The same applies to decisions around ways to bring out-of-print titles back to life.
At DBB we see incredible opportunities to leverage digital content in ways that enable libraries to innovate and redefine their model while remaining relevant to the communities that they serve. Can digital be used to widen a library’s accessibility beyond its current borders whilst consolidating physical real estate? Where retail space is a premium, can a digital-first library strategy lead to the re-purposing of physical space to earn revenue from retail or provide cultural experiences?
Regardless of the industry, digitisation offers opportunities to adapt and yet remain relevant. Digitisation also offers an opportunity for other players to enter the library space. The door has been opened for corporate organisations to support the work that libraries do. Take the example of GT Bank’in Nigeria which runs an «Adopt a Library» in Lagos initiative or Tesco Bank in Scotland’s sponsoring a «Summer Reading Challenge.»
And what about physical books?
I believe publishers should not limit what they produce to a given format or distribution channel. We should be interested in getting great content to the widest market possible. The physical publishing industry in Africa is struggling with high costs not just of production but also of distribution. Digitisation plugs that gap in many ways allowing publishers to focus more on discovering great and relevant talent. We tend to romantize the physical experience of books which I completely understand but here is a fact, UNESCO research puts the library to population ratio in Nigeria at 1 library to every 1,350,000 people. The reality is that for every well stocked, fully functioning modern library in Africa, there are numerous dilapidated buildings that are not fit for purpose. This situation will not change overnight. The question again is, which can we do in spite of the challenges.
How is the distribution circuit of ‘‘DigitalBackBooks’’ going? Who are your privileged partners?
It’s going from strength to strength! Our partners for content acquisition are predominately publishers. The collection contains 1000+ titles from 20+ publishers, and we are constantly signing new partnerships. It’s important for me to also seek out the small, hidden and forgotten gems even more so than the big titles that are already widely available. How many more Adichies and Achebes are out there without that same exposure. I would like to see more content from all corners of Africa in multiple languages and we are getting there step by step. It is encouraging to have both local and global publishing partners who publish Africa-Centric content.When it comes to distribution, we make our content available to public, academic and corporate libraries for their readers to access. We are also looking at supporting book clubs who may be looking for more diverse collections for their members.
Due to the emergence of digitals in the world of music, business models and industry players,will the publishing market face the same fate in your opinion?
They are 2 very different industries, so it is very hard to say and I can really only speak to the publishing industry. Digital has a very important role to play be it in the production, perservation or promotion of books but the strategy you adopt, really depends on what part of the business you are looking at, the conditions you are operating in and the content you are producing. For instance, a digital-first or digital-only strategy for genre fiction makes sense as these are like «fast moving goods» so to speak! Digital also plays an important role for content that can be compartmentalised or is updated regularly like educationally or reference materials.
What business model is your platform built on?
DBB operates on a commercial B2B model. We have commercial terms with both our publishers and with our institutional partners (libraries) for the use of content. Content on our platform can be accessed under several access models; library lending, subscription and direct purchase. We are also able to curate specific collections of works to fit an institution’s genre focus and budget.
Is it suitable for the average African consumer?
Yes, I believe so. The advantage of being a small business is you can be agile. We have been able to learn and pivot relatively quickly to what I believe is the most suitable business model to ensure the widest readership. Whether it is partnering with institutions where a library is using public funds to purchase the electronic resources they need or a bank sponsoring a digital library to a local community, the end consumer ultimately has free but controlled access to purchased content. I genuinely see this model as a win-win for all players.
According to you, what are the challenges of digital books for the development of Africa?
I see less about a challenge and more an opportunity in a region where mobile technology has led to leaps forward in innovation in mobile money, education and health. Why not in book reading?
What does the e-book mean in Africa today? For your virtual library? What is the profile type of your player?
Audio books and e-books are seeing a lot of penetration in Africa, either in retail models or NGO funded initiatives. What we see for DigitalbackBooks is an opportunity to strengthen already existing library institutions with our platform offerings and that is our focus.
Is your catalog stocked with foreign or African books, as well as periodicals? Do you think, given your statistics, that Africa is ready to embark on the digital book?
As has been said elsewhere, «Africa is not a country». It is an incredibly huge, diverse and complex continent. The ability to consume digital content is impacted by multiple factors including internet connectivity, censorship, funding availability and device affordability which differs from country to country.
And the region has already embraced digital content in ways and forms that are just as diverse. Just like not everybody goes to the library in Europe (and many have never been inside one), Africa will also have its communities that DBB will not appeal to. We are focused on the Readers, and there are many of them, this is why partnering with libraries is so important to us.
However, if you are asking me, ‘‘what problem are you trying to solve’’ then I would say we are looking to make Africa’s Stories more discoverable, accessible and as affordable as possible to the Readers out there.
What are the risks of this market?
For me, the greatest risk is, resistance to change. We can get so focused on one way of doing things that we don’t always fully embrace change. This can be especially difficult if we are not born digitally native. I will give you an example; in 2017, I attended the Pan African Literacy for All conference in Abuja, Nigeria. The same challenges cited in research papers published in the 1990s on the book trade in Africa were the same challenges quoted there from academics right across the continent; lack of access to books, limited distribution capacity, acute shortage of relevant local materials, and so on. I would hate to think that in 20 years, we will still be quoting the same challenges but we can’t expect different results without change. Going digital provides a pathway to change.
What can be the contribution of the mobile phone in the development of your activities? As well as for the popularization of the e-book? In Africa?
Digital resources have been around for a very long time. Platforms for academic and educational reference materials have been digitized and consumed via PCs and laptops even before the rapid penetration of mobile internet in the region. Smart phones and other mobile devices have meant that Trade books can now be published in a format that lends itself well to be read online.
The explosion of the mobile devices on the African continent represents a very definite opportunity for us. You might not have access to a functioning library in your community, but you have the ability to tap into hundreds if not thousands of books via a device you carry with you 24/7 in an instant. The potential is just so exciting.
What can be the impact of African mother tongues in the development of reading and education through books?
Africa is linguistically very diverse with well over 1000+ African languages. Having the ability to document and archive what has been written and is available in all languages is incredibly important. I just got back from the SCOLMA conference whose theme this year was preserving literary achives from Africa. It was fascinating to learn more and consider DBB’s potential role in such initiatives.
One last word for our readers?
I would love to see our Discover Africa Stories Collection in every public and academic institution in Africa as we continue the important task of decolonizing the bookshelves in our public spaces. Interested institutions keen to explore collaborating should please to get in touch !
Interviewed by Ulrich Talla Wamba, © OAPE 2018.