Shifting to online publishing: Answer to prevailing literary dearth?

Ethiopia is a country of more than 120 million people, The literacy rate is hanging somewhere between 50-60% while educational enrolment has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two decades or so. The educational system is often criticized for being sloppy, churning out millions of students every year but lacking in its standards and curriculum quality. If we take the capital Addis Ababa, where most of the educated manpower, educational opportunity, and publishing and media houses are found, there are fewer than two or three daily newspapers, half a dozen of weeklies and magazines have long left the battle for the hearts and minds of the people to the exclusive control of social media.

It we look at the number of books published every year, outside educational publishing, the situation is even more deplorable. Books have become luxury items in a city where entertainment facilities abound, young people spend most of their time frequenting cheap outlet that do not build their spirits. If we take the Ethiopian revolution of 1974,the trend in newspaper reading and publishing has gone down and the situation at present is alarming. In the last 50 years after the revolution, the population of the country has grown at an alarming speed even if we do not have readymade data on this point.

As rural literacy is not given much attention, the number of people who read and write has not grown at a speed commensurate with the growth in the number of aggregate population of the country. The military regime under Mengistu is often credited from starting a vibrant literacy6 campaign across the country that had unfortunate been aborted following the revolutionary chaps that came soon after the Zamacha or the Development and Cooperation Campaign was launched followed by the bloody aftermath.

The educated generation of the 1960s and 1970s was said to be a book loving generation but this tradition was limited in scope as youngsters were often obsessed with political literature and Leftist ideology. This was a process that was also short-lived as the end of the tumultuous years of the revolution left their place to the intellectual vacuum that followed it. reading thus became a dangerous enterprise as it was a sign of learning and the pursuit of knowledge a few years earlier. The stagnation in book and newspaper publishing and reading that followed has lasted for many decades as if it was a generational curse.

Yet, the cultural and literary scene has also gone from bad to worse and one of the culprits has been and is the ever rising cost of printing and distributing books and the limited number of printing houses. No doubt that he number of printing enterprises has grown over the last few years while the number of newspapers and books published every year leaves much to be desired. The transition from traditional publishing techniques to online technology might have been one of the contributing factors for the deteriorating situation even though it may not be the sole culprit. While the rest of the world is quickly grasping the immense potentials of online or Internet technology and started to use it for promoting book and newspaper publishing, we can hardly say that we have caught up with the growing trend.

However, conventional publishing is giving way to online technology in a big way everywhere in the world while Africa is following far behind. Ethiopia is also following suit although it can be said to occupy the front seats in e-publishing or electronic publishing technology. According to Wikipedia, “Electronic publishing includes the digital publishing of e-books, digital magazines and the development of digital libraries and catalogues. It also includes the editing of books, journals and magazines to be posted on screen.(computer, e-reader, tablet or smart phone).”

Another definition states that, “Digital or online publishing is the practice by which people use online tools to write, organize, edit and make available all kinds of readable media on the internet.” Digital publishing technology has nowadays gave birth to self-publishing that has become a thriving business elsewhere in the world while it is not started yet here in Ethiopia. There is a sharp distinction between traditional and online publishing. “Traditional publishing is when you work with a mainstream publisher to handle the creative process and distribution of your book. Traditional publishing typically pays an advance and royalties.” Self-publishing is the opposite of this. They give you 100% royalty and control the publication and distribution of your books.

Anyway, the publishing or printing landscape in Ethiopia seem to be undergoing a long process of instability, unreliability and is not generally put on a strongly growth trajectory. The causes for this are well-known. the underdevelopment of the private publishing or printing industry is still underdeveloped due mainly to poor private sector involvement. The Western publishing has thrived on the basis of vibrant private sector involvement since the 18th and 18th century and this has been the driving force behind the spectacular technological growth of the last few centuries.

The printing or publishing industry in Ethiopia is dependent on factors that are out of its control. It is apparently dependent on Western conglomerates that are fast abandoning the traditional or conventional publishing landscape and embracing almost fully the thriving online publishing enterprises with their potentials for fast growth and profitability. It is capitalism that has created billionaires of the publishing and distribution industry in the US with entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon who is sometimes ranked the richest man in America.

The advantages of online publishing and distribution are obvious and their advantages to writers more so. If we look at this point from the point of view of book and newspaper publishing and distribution in Ethiopia we realize that the traditional technique has exhausted its potentials and is weak and stagnating while the self-publishing is not yet started. These days, one can publish and distribute books online in Ethiopia but the constraints are also obvious. The market or online books is insignificant or limited while the availability of Internet technology not yet adequately developed while ownership or availability of cell phones, tablets or desktop computers is limited although demand for new books is considerable. Simply speaking, the internet culture in general and online or self-publishing in particular is almost unknown.

Another big constraint is of course social media that is controlling almost the entire space of the platforms and this is not a suitable condition for the growth of online publishing. Online publishing may be potential a heaven for poor writers but its potentials are limited due to the above constraints. Self-publishing may look like a dream for many writers who may be contemplating of having their own space for publishing their books but it still remains an unrealized dream.

Some of the advantages of online publishing are presented as follows. “Online publishing has greater accessibility in the sense that “digital content can be accessed anytime, anywhere on a variety devices. It has cost-efficiency that is to say it eliminates costs associated with printing, distribution and storage. It has interactivity since it offers a dynamic content like videos, animation and interactive info-graphics.”

However, online publishing has also its disadvantages. “It is difficult to get the reach, meaning that it takes a lot of effort from the side of the writer to get noticed. It is not always affordable. Although the cost of production is less, the pricing is not that cheap. Online publishing is often left unrecognized by the media and does not have the “feel” of books that is available in traditional publishing.

Some observers of the digital publishing landscape add other disadvantages such as technological limitations as online reading is highly dependent on technology. It has negative health implications as digital books are read on devices that emit blue light that negatively impact our health. Online reading is also considered highly addictive, prone to misinformation and gives minimum contentment.

If we look at the issue from the publishing and distribution perspective in Ethiopia, we may assume that online book publishing is bound to take a long time to take roots and thrive. The constrain are greater than the advantages that can only be available under technologically advanced conditions. This does not however mean that it cannot be started right now because digital technology tends to be increasingly inaccessible and costlier through time.

Someone or some company has to start it now although we may not have someone like Jeff Bezos with the genius to ran a global conglomerate. It can however be started at a smaller scale, modestly and grow through time and efforts. Remember that the creative people who invented the latest gadgets started their experiment in garages and small workshops before the they became global titans of the industry. Can online publishing be the answer to the present drought in book publishing in Ethiopia? Well, this may be debatable. Anyway, one day, our young internet wizards may take cue from these people and start their small businesses. Why not?


The Ethiopian herald April 19/2024

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