[EN] Interview with Mr. Alexander Nderitu - African e-book pionner - by Ulrich Talla Wamba
This month, « La Grande interview » is pleased to welcome kenyan Nderitu into its tribune; writer, poet, and e-book specialist in Africa.
Publishers & Books: Who is Alex Nderitu?
Alexander Nderitu: Alexander Nderitu is a poet, novelist and playwright from Kenya, East Africa. My birthday is April 23rd, which is also William Shakespeare’s birthday and UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day. Apart from writing fiction, i am a literary and theatre critic, and a progressive rap music promoter.
P&B: You are considered by several actors in the book chain as one of the pioneers of the digital book in Africa. In 2001, you produced an e-book. First of all, what definition can you give to the e-book? What is the genesis of this initiative ?
AN: An e-book is any book that exists in digital format as opposed to print. Most people know me as an ‘African e-book pioneer’ because I published my first novel, ‘When the Whirlwind Passes’, online in 2001. The way it came about was quite interesting. I wrote two novel manuscripts when I was in college but back then it was very hard for leisure reading to get published in my country. The few publishers in existence published school materials almost exclusively. I didn’t want to write school materials, I wanted to entertain readers. I wanted to write thrillers like the novelists I read growing up. I had a subscription to two foreign writing magazines and through them I came to learn about this experimental e-book space that was just emerging. Various IT companies were offering authors ‘ebook conversion services’ and some famous novelists like Stephen King had been roped into releasing some stories in electronic format. In the UK, a lady called Patricia Le Roy had been Booker shortlisted for her e-book titled, Angels of Russia. That was the first time a virtual book had been considered for such a prestigious prize. I had studied IT in college so I converted one of my manuscripts into e-book format and posted it online as a free download in 2001. After several hundred downloads, I moved it to a commercial platform called eBookMall.com, in 2002.
Since then, Amazon has emerged as the industry leader in the e-book space although there are many other players in the field, including Lulu and NOOK. Afro-centric online e-book platforms include DigitalBack Books, EKitabu and Bahati Books.
The question of reading books is linked to that of famine and poverty. How do you push people to read books in the poorest and most remote cities?
There’s some truth to that statement.
I remember being at a literary festival where the panelists argued that ‘books in Africa are a middle class thing’. If you attend the mushrooming African book clubs and literary salons, you’ll notice that they are middle-to-upper-class groupings. In South Africa, the first book clubs were predominantly White. High-quality print publications are expensive. There are entire schools in poor regions of Africa that don’t have a library, so how can the individuals in such a region purchase novels? In Kenya, we have initiatives such as StoryMoja’s Start-a-Library that deliver books to needy schools. And the school libraries should have a portion of ‘supplementary reading material’, not just text books. Literature is important. It tells us who we are as humans and teaches us a thing or two about the world we live in.
Many publishers remain hesitant, in the possibility of embarking on the digital book. What block them ?
Publishers’ main concern about digital books is, and was, piracy. There was also a lack of information in the early years so publishers were understandably apprehensive. Some adopted a wait-and-see attitude. However, digitization was inevitable and various technologies have helped curb criminal activity such as piracy. These include proprietary book formats and Digital Rights Management (DRM). Ebooks have so many advantages over print books, and are so much cheaper to produce, store and distribute, that digitization is inevitable. A publisher without a digital division is stuck in the Stone Age.
Many initiatives to promote digital reading and the e-book exist. The most visible one is undoubtedly Worldreader which is today a reference on the continent. Do you think that African entrepreneurs should turn to it absolutely?
Worldreader was formed in 2010 after one of the co-founders travelled to Africa and realised how difficult it was for the locals in the area where he was holidaying to access print books. Having worked for Amazon, he knew that there were Kindles and other e-readers that would allow the school children to access thousands of books cheaply. Worldreader has partnered with many publishers and libraries across Africa since then, spreading both e-readers and digital content. Now they even have an app that allows anyone in the world to read thousands of books for free. African entrprenuers involved in literacy, literature and publishing should absolutely look up to Worldreader and if possible partner with them in order to raise the literacy level in Africa as a whole. Japan has a literacy level of 100%. Imagine that !
West Africa and East Africa stand out in this move towards digital book technology. A summit «Digital Reading Summit» is organized in these geographical areas to investigate deeply this question. What are your observations for this type of meeting?
The Digital Reading Summits are held in Ghana and Kenya and are organised by Wordreader and their partners. It’s a great event for publishers, librarians, authors and other book industry stakeholders to meet up, get updates on digital trends, brainstorm, and network. Delegates come from neighbouring countries to attend the Summits. So far, over 150 publishers from across the continent have attended Worldreaders’ capacity-building Summits.
We met several publishers who refuse the digital book for the moment. They evoke almost the same reason, the piracy of the digital book. What’s your do you answer to them?
A few days ago, I was at an event where Worldreader launched their LEAP 2.0 Report, which regards a nationwide partnership they had with Kenyan libraries, and I posed a question to the Chairman of the Kenyan Publishers Association concerning the bottom-line impact of ebooks several years since publishers ‘went digital’. He said that despite the earlier fears that the publishing sector had, they have now reaped handsomely from digitization and realised that the risks are lower than previously percieved. They are also able to get very detailed statistics, unlike with print publications. Back in 2015, the theme of the Naibobi Book Fair, which is organised by the Kenya Publishers Association, was ‘‘Let’s Go Digital’’. There are many security features that can be built into e-books. For example, it is possible to ‘borrow’ a digital book from the e-library at Nairobi’s Goethe Institut, and after the specified time, the book will no longer be available on your device.
Alex Nderitu, one notes an impressive disparity of the acquisition of the digital (e-book) by the other geographical zones of the African continent, especially in Central Africa and North Africa. What are the causes in your opinion? Do you have any solutions or recommendations to suggest to these actors?
I think it has to do with tech savvy-ness, Internet penetration and the areas in which e-book organisations like Worldreader are active. Worldreader’s ‘focus countries’ include Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Malawi and Zambia. There is a lot of e-book promotion in Sub-Saharan Africa. Other interested nations should do their research in order to decide the level of engagement they want with digital publishing. And not just digital content, per se. Also Print-On-Demand, online commerce and other technologies that serve the knowledge industry.
With all your experience in the field of digital books in Africa. What are the economic models that work? And what could inspire publishing houses on the continent?
The best formula I’ve seen is where an e-book organisation, commercial or otherwise, purchases publishing rights from authors and publishers and then proceeds to distribute the works to readers and provide statistics to the content owners. I say its the best formula because many authors and publishers prefer somebody else handle the IT stuff while they focus on their key competencies. There are different actors in the e-book space. For example, there are some who only deal with text books which they distribute to schools on devices, CDs and over the Internet, and then pay a percentage of the sales to the publishers. There are also many online bookstores that allow one to upload and sell their books. The best ones are the ones that also have a Print-On-Demand option, like Lulu.com and Amazon, which acquired CreateSpace some time ago. In East Africa, mobile money systems like M-Pesa and MTN Mobile Money are extremely popular so any serious online dealer should seek to incorporate such options into their payment system. It’s also important to make online purchases as fast, secure and painless as possible. The more complicated the payment system is, the more customers you will lose.
What are the estimates of the digital book market in Kenya? Or in East Africa?
I can’t give concrete statistics. E-books, Internet and mobile phone networks being international, there are Kenyans who publish, market and sell their e-books abroad via platforms like Amazon and Lulu.com. However, the Kenya National Library Service has e-readers in all its 62 branches countrywide. Schools have a range of e-learning solution providers like Kytabu, eKitabu and eLimu. Some readers turn up to book clubs with Kindles and other e-readers. Some have downloaded mobile reading apps by Worldreader and other providers. It’s safe to say that Kenya has one of the most advanced digital ecosytems on the continent. There are writers who have never hit print!
What future do you predict for the e-book in Africa?
The market can only get bigger, especially as Smartphone penetration increases and mobile payments become commonplace. There is a reason why digital has taken off so quickly: traditional publishing and distribution is extremely slow and expensive. Book lovers still like to have a book in the hand or a beautiful shelf with a multi-coloured collection, but ebooks offer quick and affordable solutions. With e-books, you can carry a whole library of books in your Smartphone, adjust the size of the fonts, follow hyperlinks and play multimedia clips. If you are an author or publisher, you don’t have to manufacture a single physical book yourself. Thanks to digital publishing and print-on-demand systems, a buyer can order a single physical copy of your book, pay online via credit card or PayPal, and it will be printed, bound and mailed to them even while you’re asleep.
You are a successful writer. Do you think, like some specialists, that «the question of content and the choice of the subjects of books is essential to popularize the book»?
Absolutely. The contents and themes should be relevant to the target audiences. Publishing is a business, you can’t afford to be arrogant. You serve the public. However, the marketing of books, in whichever format, is very, very important. There are millions of books out there so you have to really promote your work or yourself as an author. Good content is not enough. If I have the best cassava in the marketplace but nobody knows that, other cassava dealers might outsell me.
Where do you place the constraints of language (maternal, local) in the vitality of the e-book and the education of young Africans?
Languages are cultural weapons. I recently read somewhere that people don’t just protect their territory using guns and barbed wire, they also do it using languages. Every language is linked to a culture and a community. Unfortunately, most African mothertongues are dying away and African writers are still categorized using a colonialistic reference system: Franchophone writers, Lusophone writers, Anglophone writers, and so on. Kiswahili is one of the few indigenous languages that is actually growing in popularity across the globe. It currently has about 150 million speakers and is a ‘working language’ of the African Union. All literature takes the issue of languages seriously. But writing in a language with few readers could be financial suicide. Most Africans may know their mothertongue but they only read and write in a major language like French, Arabic or English. Digital literature also has to make linguistic adjustments in order to appeal to readers in certain geographical regions. Worldreader, for example, provides content worldwide in 43 different languages, including Swahili, Arabic, English, Spanish and Hindi. I am glad you asked about local languages, though, because I recently completed my first poem written in my mothertongue, Gikũyũ. It’s titled ‘Mathafu ma Carey Francis’. It’s the first in a collection of Gikũyũ poems which will include translations from other languages that I understand.
What proposals could you make at the continental level (in front of heads of state) to encourage them to support these digital enhancement efforts?
We have the data to prove that the e-book revolution has helped, not hurt, the publishing industry. As with physical books, piracy is an issue but is not fatal. According to the Chairman of the Kenya Publishers Association, going digital has effortlessly introduced their content to other African countries. Online, we are seeing a cross-pollination of work and networking of writers. This interview is proof of that. The AU recently oversaw the signing of the Continental Free Trade Agreement by 44 African countries. Let’s not forget the cultural component to this free trade area. Publishers should be facilitated and encouraged to spread the message of a united and forward-looking continent to counter the image of a poor, disease-ridden and war-prone zone. And digital literature can help do that. It travels faster.