Close button
The Guardian
Email YouTube Facebook Instagram Twitter WhatsApp

Failure to support public libraries affects book donation organisations


Hans Zell

The Swiss-born Hans Martin Zell’s journey through Africa’s book trade has been magnificent for the sheer scale of his production and its geographical span. In a conversation with OLATOUN WILLIAMS, founder of Borders Literature, an online book platform, Zell describes his life-path as ‘a bit of a roller-coaster ride.’ Zell’s knowledge of the African book trade, which started in 1970 at University of Ife, Ile-Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Nigeria, is prodigious. This generous and wide-ranging interview is his special gift to Africa, to current and future generations of bibliophiles and industry practitioners

How did the Nigerian book trade fare in the oil boom years of the 1970s when you were working at the University of Ife Press?
Apart from Gabriel Onibonoje’s pioneering Onibonoje Press, indigenous publishing was in its infancy in those days, and book supplies were still heavily dominated by the Nigerian branches of U.K. multinationals. Onibonoje Press and Book Industries in Ibadan, established as long ago as 1958, was probably the first indigenously owned, private sector African publishing house of some size. Good bookshops, holding a wide and attractive range of stocks, were also still few and far between at that time, with the exception of the Ibadan University Bookshop.

I spent three enjoyable years in Nigeria in the early 1970s, occupied in two jobs at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). One, based in Ibadan initially, was to set up a new bookshop at the university’s main campus at Ile-Ife, and the other was to establish a university press. I was very fortunate to be working under an enlightened Vice Chancellor at the time, Professor Hezekiah Oluwasanmi, a man of great vision, who was always very supportive of anything relating to books, reading, and publishing. Supportive of libraries too, I might add. Ife had an excellent university library at that time, lovingly curated by the then librarian, Sesan Dipeolu.

Part of my brief was to train staff both at the bookshops and at the press, who later took over from me when I departed after three years. My successor as Managing Director of the bookshop was the late Wunmi (later Chief) Adegbonmire, with whom I had a most cordial relationship. His career later turned to politics, rather than the book trade, which was a pity in a way because he was such an energetic, motivated and highly dynamic person. Incidentally, I keep on being credited to be the founder of the Ife Book Fair, which is quite incorrect. The man who established that once quite lively and successful book fair was in fact Adegbonmire.


What were the high points of academic and literary life at the university in those days?
Well, they were interesting times, both in the academic as well as the literary sphere. During the early 1970s, many exciting new literary voices began to emerge in Nigeria, writers such as Kole Omotoso, Femi Osofisan, Harry Garuba, Lily Adaora Ulasi, or the playwrights – Wale Ogunyemi, Ola Rotimi, and Zulu Sofola, among others, and some of them published their first works with Nigerian publishers. And among lecturers teaching at Ife at the time was the distinguished literary critic, Abiola Irele. I was sad to hear of his death in the U.S., just recently, at the age of 81. He has been a good friend for many years, a brilliant scholar, an intellectual giant, supporter of indigenous African publishing (and himself a publisher with his New Horn Press), as well as a music lover, cosmopolitan, bon vivant… and even an opera singer too! He will be greatly missed.

At Ife the Vice-Chancellor formally opened a large, brand new bookshop in 1972, and by the time I departed the (then) University of Ife Press had built up a respectable small list of scholarly monographs, as well as publishing three academic journals and a series of law reports. That gave me a measure of satisfaction.

A high point was the International Conference on Publishing and Book Development in Africa that I helped to organise and which was held at the University of Ife in December of 1973. It attracted a large number of participants ranging from publishers, booksellers, and librarians, to writers (a host of them, with Chinua Achebe giving the opening address), literary critics, and academicians. The conference resulted in the publication of a book, Publishing in Africa in the Seventies, published by the University of Ife Press in 1975, which remains an important historical document.

The NOMA AWARD was cancelled in 2009. During its lifespan, it was the biggest publishing prize in Africa. What was your involvement with the NOMA Award?
I was involved in the award – as Secretary to the Managing Committee, the Jury, and as a member of its Board of Trustees – from its inception in 1979 and the presentation of the first award to the Senegalese writer, Mariama Bâ (So Long A Letter), through to 1995, when my colleague, Mary Jay, assumed responsibility. The award ran from 1980 to 2009. I don’t really know the precise reasons why it was terminated by its sponsors, but it probably had simply run its course by that time. You must also bear in mind that the cost involved in an award of this nature is quite substantial, including costs for convening jury meetings, administration, secretarial support, communication, assessment fees and other overheads.

The Noma Award had always hoped that it would act as a kind of catalyst for other book prize initiatives, which might be sponsored by African philanthropists, corporate sponsors or other supporters of the book industries and book development. It took a while, but happily this has now materialized at least to some extent, and there are now a few African sponsored continental book prizes which honour outstanding creative writing as well as supporting indigenous African publishing at the same time, notably the Lumina Foundation’s Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and the Etisalat Prize for Literature.

The Noma Award was offered annually for an outstanding new book published in Africa (during the 12 months calendar period preceding each year’s competition) by an African writer or scholar, in one of three categories: (1) academic and scholarly, (2) books for children, and (3) literature and creative writing. Although literature was one of the categories in which books could be submitted – and works of fiction and poetry have won the prize on a number of occasions – the Noma Award was a book prize, not a literary award, as it was frequently, and mistakenly, described. Any original work, in any of the languages of Africa, both indigenous and European, were eligible for consideration, but translations, anthologies, or edited collections were not admissible. The award was open to any author who is indigenous to Africa, but entries had to be submitted through publishers. Books entered for the prize had to be first published in Africa and the African publisher submitting the entry had to hold the original rights.

Why was the NOMA Award so significant?
The Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, to give it its full name, owed its establishment and endowment to the philanthropic spirit of the late Shoichi Noma, former President of the major Japanese publishing house, Kodansha. As a publisher, he was devoted to international cooperation and had a long-standing interest in collective efforts for the promotion of books and readership in developing countries. Before establishing the Noma Award, he had endowed prizes for the encouragement of literacy and also sponsored an initiative for the improvement of the quality of children’s book publishing through contests and awards for illustrators in Africa, Asia and the Arab states.

It was significant because the principal aim of the award was to be the encouragement of publication in Africa of works by African writers and scholars. The Noma Award thus built a unique relationship with African books and has drawn attention to the scope and vitality of African publishing, and the intellectual vigour and enterprise of African publishers, often in the midst of adversity. For a period of 30 years exposure was given to a wide spectrum of African writing and scholarship, which has provided visibility for a great variety of indigenous African publishing output.

Funding for the $5,000 prize (later increased to $10,000 as from 1996) came from an endowment set up by Mr. Noma, registered with the U.K. Charities Commission as a charitable trust, the interest from which was made available for the annual prize and some of the administrative costs, together with additional financial support from Kodansha.

You helped found African Books Collective – the premier global marketing and distribution platform for African books. What were the challenges of founding and developing ABC? How did you overcome those challenges?
ABC recently celebrated its 25th year of trading, and I’m happy to see that it is still going strong, although it had to significantly change its business model over the years. It had its roots in a meeting of a representative group of 11 African publishers that met in London in October of 1985. The proposal that came out of the meeting met with widespread and enthusiastic support among other African publishers, and after four years of extensive preparatory work, consultation exercises and fund-raising activities, ABC was formally registered as a company limited by guarantee in January 1990, and trading activities started later that year. One of the major challenges was to raise enough funds to get it off the ground until sufficient sales would allow it to eventually become self-sufficient. Part of those funds were raised through membership fees paid by founding members, although that was only a modest amount of £1,000 each (which entitled founder members to favourable terms from net proceeds of sales). The fact that this was seen as a genuine self-help initiative subsequently attracted quite generous donor support for seed funding from a number of organizations.

Having initially been supported by a range of donor agencies for a number of years, a major remodelling of ABC took place in 2007, when it became self-financing, and moved to a largely digital model at the same time. Founded, owned and governed by a group of African publishers, and non-profit-making on its own behalf, it currently acts as a worldwide marketing and distribution outlet for some 2,500 print titles and e-books (scholarly, literature, and children’s books) from over 150 African publishers in 24 countries. It took considerable endurance to build up to the self-sufficiency of the last eight years, with times of financial strain and anxiety, but it remains committed to its ethos to strengthen African publishing through collective action, and to increase the visibility and accessibility of the wealth of African scholarship and culture.

From the impressive chronicle of milestones of the Hans Zell Publisher’s imprint, which milestone has come to mean the most to you and why?
I started off as a small independent publisher in Oxford in 1975. Later the imprint became part of a large publishing group for a good number of years, and I finally ended up as a small publisher again in 2001, operating from a remote village in the northwest Scottish Highlands. I can’t really pinpoint a particular milestone: it has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride throughout; there were some notable successes, but also some disappointments. In more recent years, it has been a period of selling books and reference works in the African studies field in very difficult trading conditions, and in an environment of constantly declining sales and unpredictable markets. The print runs and sales expectations, dropped steadily from year to year from around 1,200 – 1,500 copies to an average of no more than 300 copies.

Actually our all-time best-selling book was not an African studies title, but an Atlas of International Migration by the late Aaron Segal, which was reprinted at least twice if I recall correctly, and we even sold rights to the Chinese! The most successful African studies reference resource was The African Studies Companion: A Guide to Information Sources, of which we published four editions, the third and fourth editions published simultaneously as print/online products, before rights were acquired by the Dutch publisher Brill.

I believe any small independent publisher must try to anticipate and respond to market needs and focus on definite market niches. They must be perceptive to new ideas, set a high standard, and seek to build for their imprint a reputation of excellence. They must create awareness and motivation to buy their products, promote the list as vigorously and as extensively as their marketing resources permit, and provide an efficient fulfilment and customer service. Unfortunately, it must also be added that high standards and publishing vision do not necessarily translate into good sales, nor do highly favourable reviews or honours necessarily generate any significant orders. So small may be beautiful, but actually making a living from a small publishing operation is quite another matter.


On April 2, 2017, The Guardian (Nigeria) published an essay on the troubles of the Nigerian book industry. The title is dramatic, ‘Book Industry Reels in Debt as Publishers, Booksellers Bicker’. What are some of the main problems hampering the Nigerian and African book trade?
First, about The Guardian article: that was primarily about some Nigerian booksellers’ persistent failure to pay publishers for books supplied. Publishers accuse them of failing to remit amounts due even though they have actually sold books supplied to them. Meanwhile, authors continue to put pressure on publishers to pay royalties in a timely fashion even if publishers have failed to receive payment, and with some of them reportedly facing severe cash flow problems as a result. Some publishers say they have written off huge amounts of bad debts and they say that, in practice, they can only pay royalties based on the money they have received, and not for what they supplied.

As for the main problems hampering the Nigerian and African book industries: Well, there are many! It’s important though not to generalise, and the situation varies from country to country. Moreover, publishers of educational and scholarly books face different challenges than those publishing general and trade books, fiction, and other creative writing.

However, the main problems and challenges that are most frequently mentioned are roughly these: High manufacturing costs and, more recently, the considerable costs for developing digital content, a still weak or fragile printing industry in some countries, often resulting in poor standards of production quality, lack of formal distribution networks or systems, unreliable postal systems, poor road networks, high cost of transportation. For small independent publishers in particular, limited capacity and reach, a scarcity of good, well-stocked bookshops and other retail outlets, while some existing booksellers have a poor credit record, selling books across borders and an intra-African book trade is virtually non-existent, with numerous logistical challenges relating to customs, and taxes and tariffs on books in many African countries, among other barriers, and the absence of a widespread reading culture, and a vibrant book-buying public. Meantime, the economic downturn has also affected purchasing power; rapidly declining public library services, many of them now without book acquisition funds and relying on free books shipped by overseas book donation organisations to fill their shelves, and inadequately trained and skilled publishing and book trade personnel.

Others are nonexistence of robust national book policies, or unclear government book policies in most countries, taxation of books in some countries, by way of debilitating tariffs of VAT and import duties, with VAT charges ranging from 14-18 per cent, and the absence of reliable and secure online payment systems. For all publishers generally, a very serious threat is the menace of rampant piracy, and finally, for educational and school book publishers, another new threat is moves by some African governments to introduce and implement a policy of just one officially sanctioned textbook per subject and grade, thus ending the current situation of a multiplicity of books from a variety of publishing houses competing in an open market. It’s a recipe for disaster, in my opinion.

What can be done to heal the rifts, which arise in the book chain, particularly between African authors and their African publishers?
That’s a topic that could easily fill space for an entirely separate interview! A few years ago, I contributed an article about this in The African Writers’ Handbook (a great resource by the way) published by African Books Collective in 1990. It had a deliberately provocative title and was based on a newspaper story by the Nigerian writer, Onuwuchekwa Jemie, a few years earlier, in which he lumped all publishers together as “mostly liars and cheats.” In that article, I identified a number of conflict areas, or potential conflict areas, that have led to the sometimes acrimonious interaction between African writers and African publishers.

I think relationships have probably improved a bit in recent years, especially among authors who publish with what is now a whole new generation of African publishers, small independent imprints, who have demonstrated a great deal of enterprise, creativity, and agility.

How can the rifts be healed? Perhaps someone could organise a meeting for authors and publishers to come together to start a genuine dialogue in an environment of mutual respect, thrash out the issues, and address the situation frankly, but without undue confrontation. It could well amount to a mutual learning process: for authors to gain a better understanding of the publishing process, and the publishing realities in the current very difficult trading conditions and the rapidly changing publishing environment; and for publishers to learn that protecting author’s interests, and openness with authors will pay dividends in the long term, and likely to lead to much improved rapport and author loyalty. African publishers can only flourish with the support of and respect from writers, but this goes both ways in the relationship.

What are your views about self-publishing and digital publishing?
Most people will probably consider self-publishing a welcome development, but there is also a downside: while advances in technology and the new digital environment have allowed authors to take control of some or even all parts of the publishing process, there are many potential pitfalls, and many self-published books are seriously flawed in their standards of writing, and hastily published without due care. When one purchases a book published conventionally by a publisher, one can reasonably expect that it would have been subject to some scrutiny, editing, re-writing, and proofreading, before it was released onto the world. That is not the case with many self-published books, where the author alone has decided on its merits, and invariably thinks all the world will want to read it! Aspiring writers are constantly told that by publishing in e-book format they will reach audiences no conventional publisher could ever reach, and there are large number of blogs and websites offering advice for start-up writers, who will tell them that they can make millions through self-publishing. The reality is, of course, something else.

A recent study published by the journal African Research & Documentation investigates “whether the activities of overseas book donation organisations have an adverse effect on the local ‘book chain’ in Africa”. I have read your summary of the study in the online resource, Read African Books. The points raised by the ARD study confirm some of my own reservations. Please, share your views about international book donation programmes: the issues involved, and the way forward.
This is a wide-ranging, two-part study that attempts to shed more light on current book donation practices, and provides an overview and profiles of the work of the principal book aid organisations active in Africa. The study also questions why large scale book donation programmes should continue to be necessary today after tens of millions of books have been shipped and donated to African libraries, schools and other recipients every year over the last three decades or more. It examines the status and role of chronically under-resourced African libraries and, in the absence of adequate government support, their continuing dependence on book donation programmes and other external assistance.

Most book donation schemes are well-intentioned, but even the most well-intentioned programmes can sometimes have unintended, potentially negative consequences. As you say, the study sought to investigate whether the activities of overseas book donation organisations have an adverse effect on the local ‘book chain’ in Africa. As the figures of annual book donations from overseas dramatically demonstrate, I believe African publishers have legitimate cause for concern that their main potential markets are flooded with millions of free books every year – a large proportion of them publishers’ overstocks or remainders – which could jeopardise the sales prospects of their own locally produced books, not to mention the damaging effect on the retail book trade.

Supplies of donated books from overseas can significantly suppress demand for locally published books because many governments rely on overseas donation programmes to fill bookshelves in schools and libraries. Proponents of book donation and subsidised schemes usually argue that they help to stimulate literacy and book reading in the countries involved, increasing the potential market for a local industry. Yet many high quality, culturally relevant books published locally may remain stacked in African publishers’ warehouses while huge quantities of externally donated books are distributed to libraries because they are free. The study also found that, at this time, the inclusion of African-published books in current book donation schemes makes up a miniscule proportion of the millions of books that are shipped to Africa by donation organisations each year.


The plethora of book donation schemes – many often poorly planned, not recipient-request led, and inadequately monitored and evaluated – and the gigantic quantities of free books that are shipped to recipients in Africa each year, has created a huge culture of dependency, which presents a sometime quite shocking picture of almost total reliance on overseas book aid organisations. The principal reason why book donation organisations exist, and are still needed, is the persistent failure by African governments, over three decades or more, to adequately support their public libraries.

The Editor of African Research & Documentation is now inviting responses and feedback, for publication in a subsequent issue, and she is also seeking feedback from receiving libraries, and the views of African publishers. Hopefully a measure of dialogue and debate will ensue.

At 16, you became an apprentice bookseller in Switzerland. Since then, you have achieved a legendary corpus of work. Are you finished now? Or is there anything left for you to achieve?
I am no longer on the ground in Africa, but I remain very much interested in the many different aspects of publishing and the state of the book in Africa. Although there is probably still not enough empirical research and data on the African book industries, there is now a rapidly growing body of literature on the topic, which I am documenting and analysing in a new annual series of literature reviews (published in the quarterly African Book Publishing Record, with pre-print online versions freely accessible at my pages). Moreover, and as you will know yourself, another positive development is that there are now a good number of blogs and websites that carry frequent contributions on writing, publishing and reading in Africa, frequently offering genuinely fresh perspectives and insights.
• Williams is the founder of

In this article:
Hans Martin Zell
Receive News Alerts on Whatsapp: +2348136370421

No comments yet