This blog first appeared on the Commonwealth Writers site. Commonwealth Writers is the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation. It inspires, develops and connects writers and storytellers in a range of disciplines.
Reflecting on the recent 2015 Uganda International Writers’ Conference, Dilman Dila considers whether large Ugandan publishers need to do more to embrace digital books.
Statistics say that there will be 334 million African smartphone connections by 2017. So why haven’t mainstream Ugandan publishers embraced digital books? I built my writing career on digital platforms, so when they asked me to participate in a panel discussion on the rise of digital literature and publishing, at the recent Uganda International Creative Writers Conference, I begun asking questions about the book business today.
The major Ugandan publishers profit from supplying print books to the education system; digital books, which they cannot sell to the government, mean nothing to them. Yet e-publishing offers a greatly reduced financial risk when putting out a book, and a potentially huge market – which some publishers are already tapping into. Fellow panelist Melissa Kyeyune runs small press Khamel, and already makes 500 dollars a month for her own books. I recently contributed a novella to digital romance series Drumbeats, from Kenya’s Storymoja – but why are large publishers in Uganda still sleeping?
With the emergence of literature in the digital market, Ugandan writers risk failing to capture the attention of the world. This has happened before. Historically, Ugandan publishers have ignored reading for pleasure, and failed to build an audience for Ugandan literature. But now, the cheap costs of e-publishing offer an opportunity to do something about it. So I started Lawino, a literary e-zine, available as an ebook and video clips, that promotes African and Ugandan literature on the digital stage. High quality submissions, and support from volunteer editors and partner organisations (like the BN Poetry Award) have so far brought two well-received issues. The relatively high traffic generated from social media counters the misconception that Ugandans do not read – on the contrary, it shows a real hunger for our literature.
There is a need to promote the culture of buying literary works, but the infrastructure to commercialise the digital market is underdeveloped. Established global platforms like Amazon have a limited audience in Uganda, because you need a credit card. Local solutions are needed, new ways of marketing and selling books in the African context. Like developing an app that enables readers to use mobile phone money services to make payments, a simple way to facilitate book buying. And, as Louise Umutoni, founder of Rwandan Women Writes pointed out, there are already initiatives beginning to tackle the problem, like Nuntu and ekitabu, ebook platforms tailor made for the local market.
Yet there were notes of caution from the participants. Playwright Charles Mulekwa expressed concern that the lure of easy money could cause a deluge of inferior work, which could do more harm than good to Uganda’s literary scene. 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner Jennifer Makumbi was wary of digital rights management and the legal difficulty of sharing electronic books. Poet Juliane Okot Bitek thought that adverts and subscription notices put off potential readers who expect digital media to be free.
Yet, as Kyeyune noted, the ink and paper used in Uganda can lead to poor print quality – often cited as the reason readers do not buy Ugandan literature. Ebooks represents a new and uncertain territory for publishers, but its reduced financial risk and offer of a product of superior quality, make it a market they must explore. Ebooks are not here to replace printed books, but they may be the most effective way to build an audience for Ugandan literature.