« We need to know how to honour books »

Interview with Aminata Sow Fall and Moussa Konaté, by Taina Tervonen

November 1998.
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Africa has no shortage of would-be writers, but does lack the publishing houses likely to print them. The myths surrounding the European publishers die hard: prestige, audience, promotion – all of which are thought to be better and more efficient over there. What should we make, then, of a writer who, after publishing eight books in Europe, has set off to open his own company in Bamako? Or another who, after a brief detour via Paris, has chosen to go back to the African publishing companies she started out with and, what is more, has decided to publish up-and-coming talents herself? Publishing is a real adventure in Africa, as Moussa Konaté of Editions Le Figuier in Mali and Aminata Sow Fall, founder of Editions Khoudia and the CAEC cultural centre in Dakar, can confirm. Both are determined to produce quality publications, convinced that there is still a place for books produced professionally and out of a love of the job. T.T

Why set up a publishing house?
Moussa Konaté: Firstly because my own novels were all published in France and were impossible to find in Africa. Or, when they were available here, were sold at the inhibitive price of 80 FF in a country where the minimum monthly wage is 200 FF… Another reason also related to my own experiences, was that I started reading when I was quite a young child, and therefore wanted to publish books for children. We thus started out publishing books for young people, which still represent about 80% of our production. We began with translations and adaptations of traditional oral tales, and we are now about to publish fiction for young people. Our specificity is that we publish all the texts both in their original language and in French in two separate publications. It is true that this costs a lot, especially as we have opted for quality publications. All our books are in four colour print. There was a demand, however, and this has enabled us to keep working. We also received a subsidy from a Canadian NGO, although this was only destined for the printing charges which represent 25-30% of the total cost of a book. It was madness in the beginning. There are no publishing structures. We don’t have any trained layout artists, the printers printed newspapers but not books, the illustrators have raw talent or are not at all trained to illustrate young people’s books. As for the paper, only the classic 80 gramme type paper was available. It was a struggle, but things are beginning to fall into place now. Having said that, publishing is still difficult. It has happened, for example, that we draw up an estimate for a book, and just before it goes to print, the price of the paper goes up by 50%…
Aminata Sow Fall: When I left the Direction des lettres et des propriétés intellectuelles in 1987, I thought to myself that I would be free to organize my time, to contribute to cultural life, and so I set up the Centre d’Animation et d’Echanges Culturels (CAEC), a non-profit making NGO. It was a reaction against the idea that the only kind of development is food development. I am not naïve: I knew it wouldn’t be profitable, but it went in the direction of my ideal of culture as spiritual nourishment. It is profitable in human terms. We do not function like a conventional, commercial publishing house. We have no publishing programme. We publish the books we like and we find the money to publish them. No bank in Senegal invests its money in cultural undertakings! I am the one who invests and I am completely aware that it yields nothing concrete, or material, but in human terms, in terms of culture, of intellectual stimulation, of dreams – it is a dream! – of moral satisfaction, it is priceless! We strive to produce beautiful books because we believe that the contents of a book are noble. We need to know how to honour books.
The price of books
M.K.: When my books are published in Mali, they cost a third of what they do in France. They sell quite well in the bookshops.
A.S.F: My latest novel Les Douceurs du bercail published by the Nouvelles Editions Ivoiriennes, was produced according to international standards. As salaries are lower, it is possible to bring out a book for less, even if the materials are imported. That book was sold for around 40 FF in Africa, and for 75 FF in Europe. Normally in France, that category of book would cost around 120 FF. Books have to be accessible to Africans too. There ought to be a price for the North and another for the South.
M.K.: We have two ways of operating. There is the formal method via the bookshops, but we can also try to reach the reader in his/her very home, doing some ‘door-to-door sales’. For our national language editions, we work via the village associations. We also give books on credit, which is quite unusual. We don’t have any other choice, as purchasing power is pretty low. People need to read, but they don’t have the means.
In France, there are several obstacles. The distribution companies are extremely powerful. Objectively, it isn’t really in their interest to take on African books as the market is very limited – your average French person does not read African literature. There is also the technical aspect: books made in Africa are not always of very high quality. Having said that, there is a public nevertheless: expatriates, university students, French people who are interested in Africa. It isn’t huge, but it does exist. I myself am distributed in France to a certain extent because I contact the bookshops, sending copies, or via associations. The specialized African literature publishers distribute their own editions but do not deal with other books from Africa. No one takes any interest in them. They are thought not to be profitable, but I am convinced that there is a literature which exists and which deserves to be known.
In Africa, we are planning to work in collaboration with other African publishing houses. I get the impression that it is the same companies who control distribution in both France and Africa. That causes a problem, forcing you to have go via Paris or to create your own distribution networks.
Publishing in Africa or in Europe?
M.K.: I prefer to be published at home rather than in Paris. At least there I am sure that Malians will see the book and will be able to buy it.
A.S.F.: My first book, Le Revenant, coincided with the Nouvelles Editions Africianes’ installation in Senegal. 3000 copies were published in about May, 1976. By the end of the year, the whole print-run had been sold. La Grève des Battu followed, immediately reaching an international audience. I never asked myself the question of whether I would be known elsewhere if I published in Africa. For me, writing is first and foremost a contract with myself. I am confident in communication between people. If it is a book’s destiny to travel the world, it will! I am highly satisfied with the publication of my books in Africa. I have had good and bad experiences in France. It all depends on the publishing house.
The future of publishing in Africa.
M.K.: We have published a hundred titles in two years. We are going to slow production down now and focus more on more on the commercial side of things, notably on setting up distribution networks in Africa and Europe, via Paris.
A.S.F.: Publishing is a world that is constantly on the move and which is quite sensitive. There is a way of being a publisher, and I think that the African publishers need to be aware of that. Publishing is not a civil service job: you need to be dynamic, to obey the laws of the market, of business, of the field! That requires a knowledge of the terrain, professionalism! And it is precisely not very often that you find all that in Africa. But I am of an optimistic disposition. To get somewhere, you have to work, arm yourself with courage and the desire. A dose of dream is also necessary in this enterprise! You musn’t wait until the means are there, you have to go out to get them.
A market is something you create! Reading is not innate. In the West, you set up libraries, promote books, there are literary institutions, prizes… All of that is possible elsewhere! At present, people with even very limited resources spend their money on concerts. Why not on books? You only need think about it and then to act. Senegal is planning to build a large library and I hope that things will be better then. The Senegalese like to read. I have seen people who, initially, are not at all interested in books written in French but who, having heard about the book, ask to buy it and get someone to read and translate it for them. It is an open door. Senegal is a country of culture and respect for knowledge.

Editions Le Figuier
Set up in Bamako in January 1997. Catalogue: young people’s books, novels, tales, poetry, essays; a hundred or so books.
Works in French and in six national languages. Some of the books are published in both French and a national language.
The best sales are the national language editions. « Mali is indeed an exception in Francophone Africa: the French-language newspapers have a print run of around 3000 copies, whereas the national language papers reach runs of up to 18 000 copies », Moussa Konaté explains. However, there are only 2 or 3 publishers who constantly produce works, the other functioning notably to order. A network of libraries is being built thanks to Opération Lecture, financed by several sources including the Malian State and the French Cooperation services.
Editions Khoudia
Set up in Dakar in 1987 with the Centre d’Animation et d’Echanges Culturels (CAEC) which includes a bookshop, a debating room and a publishing house.
Catalogue: novels, essays. The first titles appeared in 1989, a dozen works since. French-language publications.
///Article N° : 5331


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