Ethiopia: The Problems of Book Publishing in Ethiopia – Different Perspectives

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A study published in the International Information and Library Review, the author of the article Metikou Ourgay writes on the history of publishing in Ethiopia between 1500-1900 saying that, “During this period, many works ecclesiastics and some original works by Ethiopians and foreigners had appeared in Geez and other dialects.

The role of missionary societies in the development of the book was also important. Most of the printing press products were kept either in the church archives or in the royal libraries. “

From this study, we can say with certainty that the history of publishing and printing in Ethiopia dates back 600 years, which is quite a long time.

The same author went on to say that “the creation of modern typeface libraries has been totally neglected. Consequently, most of the literate population of the time did not have the opportunity to find out what was published in their own country ”. There is a paradox here. Ethiopia started publishing books 500 years ago, but it did not have a public library until the dawn of the 20th century.

According to historical records, modern publishing began in the 19th century, during the time of Emperor Menelik, as it gained momentum under the reign of Emperor Haile Sellassie who established the first modern printing press, also known as the Berhanena Selam Printing Press in 1914, ushering in a new era of information and enlightenment.

The printing press was established during the reign of Empress Zewditu when Emperor Haile Sellassie was crown prince. Today it is one of the largest and most sophisticated printing presses in the country.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the state of book publishing in Ethiopia. Although reliable and up-to-date data is hard to come by, there were over 125 companies printing and publishing books in Ethiopia in 2017. This is obviously not too much in a country of over 110 million people, with a literacy rate of over 40% and a history of book printing stretching back 600 years.

The situation is even worse when it comes to the number of book publishers. Thirty years ago, the number of professional publishers in Ethiopia was counted on the fingers of one hand.

The seasoned publishers were Ethiopian Book Center and Mega Publishing, and both disappeared from the scene a long time ago when the cause of their demise is not a well-documented story.

Professional publishers are understood to mean publishers whose works had to accept authors’ manuscripts, edit them and cover printing, advertising and distribution costs while paying royalties to the authors.

The two professional publishing houses were also run by renowned publishers like Amare Mammo, a veteran of the Ethiopian literary scene and a full-fledged author who was behind the emergence of famous writers such as Bealu Girma and others who dominated the literary scene in the 1970s and until the change of regime in 1991.

Ethiopian Book Center, which was the publisher of most of the country’s modern Amharic classics, flourished until it was forced to shut down due to a combination of poor publishing policy and decline in income, not to mention the political climate which was not conducive to their sustainability.

The mega-publishers started their business with the coming to power of the EPRDF regime and had a booming business and it took them a few years to transform into the big printing company of the country. It was a company affiliated with what was called EFFORT.

After a few years of activity, Mega stopped publishing books and focused only on commercial printing and that was the fundamental reason for their commercial success.

The disappearance of professional publishing in Ethiopia gave rise to a new publishing phenomenon called “self-publishing” which in turn gave rise to writers who published their books with their own money or to businessmen. individuals who funded the publication of books by popular authors whose works sold well.

A number of small booksellers have also turned into publishers or printers. The publishers of Aster Nega were initially engaged in the distribution of books until they recently emerged as one of the few printers doing well in the business.

There are also smaller printers who occasionally use their print shops to publish commercially viable books. Although writers are the main agents of the book trade in Ethiopia, they are apparently not the main beneficiaries of the publishing industry.

According to many business insiders as well as writers, publishing books in Ethiopia can be a profitable business for printers and booksellers, but this is not the case for writers whose income from their businesses is low. so thin that they cannot even support themselves or their families with the proceeds from the sale of their books. This is also the main reason why there are no professional writers in Ethiopia who can make a living from their books.

The self-publishing business model is not only difficult to maintain but also unprofitable as their books are distributed by booksellers who deduct 30-35% of the price of each copy sold.

Publishing or printing books in Ethiopia is a relatively expensive activity beyond the reach of most writers who depend on these publishers to bring their books to the public. Even in times of relative publishing boom in the past, what writers received from publishers as a royalty was insignificant.

Most writers have more interest in seeing their works published than in making money and this has tipped the balance of interests in the favor of publishers, printers and distributors, some of whom have made their fortunes while writers lead. often a precarious existence.

Another factor that has undermined the publishing industry may have been the absence of international publishing companies in Ethiopia that could otherwise modernize the sector and provide a solid technological and financial base for an international publishing industry. flourishing that could have benefited all stakeholders.

Most African countries that have strong ties to European and Western publishing houses in general are doing well in this area, while the Ethiopian publishing industry remains inward-looking, small. and solely focused on profit.

Despite the small-scale and very restricted operations of the publishing industries, there are a number of young aspiring writers who are trying to bring their works to life by investing the money they have saved or borrowed from individuals. in the hope that their books will sell tens of thousands of copies.

However, in a country of over 110 million people, dozens of universities and millions of young and educated citizens, the culture of reading is still underdeveloped.

Although the literate population estimated at 40% is considerable by African standards, most readers cannot afford the high retail prices of books in Ethiopia.

Thirty or forty years ago it was possible to buy a book for an average price of five birr nowadays, the price of books has hit triple digits and apparently discourages many potential readers from being consumers of these products. . The Ethiopian publishing industry is still caught in a vicious cycle as it was decades ago.

The fact that the country is still unable to produce most of the industry’s inputs, such as pulp, inks and other components, often pushes the cost of printing upwards and puts pressure on them. books beyond the reach of the average reader.

The chain of production-distribution-consumption of books is still controlled by a handful of quasi-monopoly companies that often set the price of books, apparently limiting the growth of the industry.

The lack of a dynamic competitive environment in the business is also preventing the industry from growing as it should or as it was planned for a long time ago.

The lack of professional publishing houses that focus more on book quality than profit has affected the nature and quality of the books currently published and distributed.

Most of these books deal with sensational topics, half-baked political rhetoric and low levels of literary standards that enjoy great popularity thanks to free publicity and exaggerated social media coverage.

From a writers perspective, professional publishers had far more publishing and distribution advantages than the current chaotic environment controlled by hobbyist booksellers turned publishers who prioritize profit over quality in their work and selection. . of books. The couple of professional publishing houses that suddenly disappeared were not just publishers per se.

They were also places where future writers received lessons on how to write better quality fiction, as their coaches in the editing departments were also experienced and trained in the art of writing and writing. editing. This generation of publishers and publishers went bankrupt a long time ago. What has replaced them is a chaotic environment where writers work for those with more money and not a lot of ethics or morals in the way they conduct their business.

Ethiopia is one of the main, if not the most important, countries to have developed its own writing and pioneered the art of publishing and printing, but now ranks lower in the scale of countries that gained independence a little or more than 60 years ago.

Most analysts in Ethiopia’s editorial and literary scene seem to agree that the country did better in the past than it does today in these particular areas. Emperors Menelik and Haile Sellassie were pioneers in pioneering innovation in printing, but what has been added since then can hardly make the country proud of its achievements.

Successive governments have not paid enough attention to this aspect of national life which could well serve not only the spiritual or mental development of the citizens but also the economic development of the nation.

All is not yet lost and the time may have come to restore the lost era of literary enlightenment with the right policies and commitment from the new reformist and business-friendly government.


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