Malawian publisher Celeste Geddes has a major bestseller on her hands. It's a book called "Golden Buttons" by Stephen Kauta Msiska, an outspoken church leader banished back to his village by deceased dictator Hastings Banda. Since Banda died and democracy was initiated in 1994, the book Msiska kept secret for 20 years has become a roaring commercial success, at least in Malawian terms: All 500 copies have been sold.
"We knew we'd make money on the book because Africans are desperate for relevant reading material," said the confident Geddes of the University of Malawi's theology publishing group. She declined to say how much could be made on 500 copies of a book sold for $1 each.
A wide-open niche in a huge market awaits courageous publishing entrepreneurs interested in bringing African books by African writers to African audiences. "If there is to be an African renaissance, there must be an African literature," says Zimbabwean author Shimmer Chinodya. "But 18 years after independence, our school curricula and bookshops still are dominated by Dickens and D.H. Lawrence."
Foreign publishers dominate
Like Mr. Chinodya, other disheartened African writers at the annual Zimbabwe International Book Fair in Harare said publishers get severe vertigo when they look into the window of opportunity for publishing in Africa. It shows in African bookstores. From Kampala to Accra to Johannesburg, John Grisham and Maeve Binchy fill the shelves, along with an eclectic array of remaindered Western how-to books on everything from beating the Canadian tax system to growing roses in English climes.
The Zimbabwe book fair's sales exhibition is dominated by foreign publishers selling, above all, foreign writers telling foreign stories. What really annoys African writers is that those multinationals also do well publishing books on African themes written by English, German, French, or American nationals and then sold back to Africans.
"Think of the amount of money Disney has made from an African story, 'The Lion King,' " says South African author Elinor Sisulu. Her popular children's book "The Day Gogo Went to Vote" encapsulates the most positive story in South Africa's history, the 1994 multiracial elections.
"Why is it Disney has worked it out that there's money in African stories?" says Ms. Sisulu. "Why aren't we Africans making money from our own stories? We cry about lack of resources, and yet we have the stories, and we are not exploiting them."
Ilne Hofmeyr is trying to do just that in her PlayAfrica series of children's works aimed at "creating a family of African children." She gathered authors and singers from across Nelson Mandela's "rainbow nation" to record traditional songs accompanied by part-traditional, part-contemporary stories. Each cassette includes a printed version of the stories, plus explanations of various aspects of each culture. All that for $7, versus $15 or more for a Disney tape, and yet Hofmeyr cannot get her material into the country's biggest chain of bookstores.
"I can't compete with all the Disney products like 'The Lion King,' " says Ms. Hofmeyr, who used her own money to publish 1,800 of her PlayAfrica cassette series; so far, just 200 have sold. "Disney has so much money, and they take up all the shelf space in the big chain stores."
Risk-averse local publishers
Miriam Bamhare, outspoken executive director of the Zimbabwe government's Book Development Council, complains that African publishers are risk-averse, too much under the thumb of the foreign multinationals that own them, and that all they want are fat government contracts to publish school texts originating in the foreign head office.
Publishers, meanwhile, say there is no market for indigenous literature in Africa because of high rates of illiteracy, low levels of disposable income for books, and a lack of interest in African topics. On top of that, publishers argue the African market is too fragmented by thousands of tribal languages to permit the large print runs in a single language necessary to render publishing viable.
Ms. Bamhare has little patience with most of the publishers' arguments. "In Zimbabwe, we have 25 percent illiteracy, which means we have 75 percent who are literate. That three-quarters is enough to support a vibrant publishing industry. When the publishers have tried doing something other than textbooks, they've done it so poorly and half-heartedly that, of course, it failed. A market is fashioned by what is available. We don't have a problem of market but of provision."
That foreign publishers are not looking for African authors is obvious from the shelves in Africa's most lucrative book market, South Africa. For example, the latest and much-lauded history of South Africa is by an Englishman, Frank Welsh, otherwise known as an expert on Hong Kong. One of the bestselling local novels is "Dance With a Poor Man's Daughter," the story of a colored girl in the Western Cape, but written by a white woman.
"However, African authors are slowly winning their place," says Chinodya, whose prize-winning novel, "Harvest of Thorns," has finally made it into the Zimbabwean high school curriculum. "We Africans have come through Christianity and colonialism and war, we have the experience, the complexity, to be good writers, and we have good stories."