Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 28, November 2001 


The Internet, e-commerce and Africa's book professions


Hans Zell
Hans M Zell is a publishing consultant specialising in scholarly and reference book publishing, and journals publishing management; Glais Bheinn, Lochcarron, Ross-shire, IV54 8YB, Scotland. +44 1520 722951 (tel), +44 1520 722953 (fax), email:

More and more African publishers are now making use of the Internet, and many have established a presence on the World Wide Web. Meanwhile the first e-book ventures are currently being launched in Africa, although currently limited to publishers in South Africa. It is also good to see that a recent issue of APNET's African Publishing Review 1 contains several articles on the impact of new technology on the publishing trade.

There are, of course, still many caveats as they relate to the use of the Internet in Africa and this has been the subject of much discussion and debate. There are several Web sites devoted to the development of the Internet in Africa, Internet connectivity, and the telecommunications infrastructure. There are also a growing number of online discussion groups that focus on issues of Internet access technology, Internet skills, information needs, and the development of African Web content and African Internet portals.

Most report that, despite good progress in recent years, low income and poverty is still the main barrier to Internet growth in Africa, together with a weak telecommunications infrastructure in most countries. High connection costs and punitive telephone call costs through local Internet Service Providers (ISPs), coupled with the high costs of international bandwidth for delivery of Web pages, are cited as the other major obstacles.

Further problems stifling the Internet in Africa, according to the US Internet Council in its State of the Internet Report 2000, are `low computer penetration, illiteracy, lack of trained personnel, disinterest, and a failure to understand the benefits of Internet access'. 2 This last observation is certainly true and, among book professionals in Africa, there are probably still many who do not fully appreciate the benefits of Internet access, or who may not have had an opportunity to find out for themselves just how much information is now accessible to them for free.

Understanding the benefits of Internet access

Some of the opportunities and benefits that the Internet, and the World Wide Web more specifically, offers to publishers and NGOs with publishing activities are summarised below:

The Web can provide international visibility. Publishers in Africa establishing their own Web sites could find that it can become a powerful global marketing tool for reaching a much wider audience (both local and international) than was possible at relatively modest cost.
The Internet is a vehicle that can assist publishers in targeting many special interest groups to promote their books, or provide them with addresses for mailing-list research and development. There are various ways to exploit the Internet for distributing information or for niche marketing, reaching what for the most part are fairly tightly focused interest groups; this can be achieved, for example, through postings to online mailing lists and discussion groups.
The Internet can assist publishers to find partners for co-publishing ventures; or help them to be up to date with what the competition is doing. Moreover, the Web now also offers the opportunity to exchange information, and to buy and sell rights through cyberspace.
The World Wide Web is a wonderful resource for editors working in publishing companies or working freelance. It provides quick access to dictionaries, thesauri, style guides, and many other tools for professional editors. It is a huge general resource of information, allowing free access to numerous online reference works, databases, news sources, and much more. By providing access to such a huge amount of information and knowledge _ currently over two billion unique indexable pages _ using the Internet can be an empowering and liberating experience.
Finally, one still often overlooked benefit of the Internet is that of self-training in various publishing skills. Many publishing skills can now be taught online through publishing distance education courses, which are, other than the cost of time spent online, mostly accessible for free. This could be beneficial both for training of in-house staff as well as for training of freelancers.

However, before publishers can make effective use of the Internet as a marketing tool and information resource, or as an aid for research, they first need to learn the basics of using and searching the Web, for example how to devise effective search strategies to track down the information or the resources they seek. It is very important to have a broad understanding of the search engines, and to select the right tool for the job. It is also essential that any publisher who wants to take advantage of the opportunities offered must get a proper feel of how the Internet works, and how it could function as a marketing tool. There are no shortcuts to this, and anyone who is serious about the Internet must be willing to invest in the time required to come to grips with it.3 I estimate that this will require, for a start, at least 60-80 hours of online time exploring or `surfing' the Internet. There is also the need to add time necessary to keep up with changes and developments in the Internet.

Establishing and promoting a Web site

Over the last couple of years, quite a number of African publishers, NGOs and research institutions with publishing programmes have established Web sites. Publishers' sites from over 20 African countries are on the Web, with South Africa taking up the largest number. While it is beneficial to have any kind of presence on the Web, however modest, to take advantage of useful international visibility, many of these Web sites are unfortunately rather dull and uninteresting, are not apparently kept up-to-date, or are not offering much information that is likely to attract visitors beyond an initial visit, if indeed they get visited in the first place. Some are also poorly designed or structured, are difficult to navigate, or have bloated graphics and far too many images on some pages that in turn create long download times, especially within Africa. In some cases, the Web site designers seem to lack a proper understanding of the functions of a Web site, the nature of their main target audience, the kind of information that should be provided, and the benefits that are likely to derived from a Web presence. Others may have well-designed and interesting Web sites-but no one knows about it! Creation of a Web site is only one aspect, and the first step, but without adequate Web site promotion they will not attract any significant traffic.

In one of the articles in the African Publishing Review issue focusing on ICT, a contributor states, `A Home Page on the Internet can introduce our company's profile and range of products to customers across the continent where it is difficult to traverse', and then goes on to say `since the Home Page is meant for the global market and is looked at by millions of people, acting as the edifice for our enduring relationship with our customers, it has to be captivating, spelling out our message quite clearly'.4

A good Web site should certainly be captivating, but there is absolutely no guarantee that `millions of people' will access the site and look at the information. The common view that the Internet itself will drive success is fallacious; no Web site can succeed without systematic promotion through both online and print media. Although, this can certainly be quite time-consuming, an effective promotion of a Web site is absolutely crucial. Anyone setting up a Web site will first need to publicize the site vigorously and systematically before they can even hope to attract a few thousand visitors, much less millions. Anyone launching and maintaining a Web site must also learn how to create good links sections, how to get plenty of reciprocal links, and how to make visitors come back by providing something varied and interesting, and offering inter-activity between visitors to and owners of the site for example, from discussion forums to conference and vacancy announcements, competitions, author profiles, special offers, how to submit manuscript proposals, etc.

In addition to learning about the Internet and Web site promotion, publishers also ought to have at least a basic understanding of how Web pages work, including HyperText Mark-up Language (HTML, the language and formatting codes used to create and structure Web pages), the role and importance of the server and the browser, and the use of meta tags. It is important to understand what makes a good and user-friendly site, in terms of its design, structure, principles of good navigation, download times, currency, etc. and the use of descriptive meta-tags to ensure that the site gets picked up by the search engine robots.

Online publishing and e-commerce-cutting through the hype

Everybody is now talking e-this and e-that, there is a growing interest in e-commerce boosted by frequently exaggerated claims that you can make a lot of money on the Internet. No doubt some companies are doing good business in certain consumer sectors of e-commerce, but marketing and selling of e-books _ unlike selling electronic journals, which have been around for some time _ is only just taking off in earnest (although there are now in fact thousands of e-books which can be accessed online for free). It is probably also true that electronic commerce for publishers, even in the countries of the North, is still not sufficiently mature and tested.

As with the Internet, there is currently far too much hype about the potentials of e-commerce for books. In his article in the African Publishing Review Alan Ross looks at the pros and cons of the e-book and, among the advantages, he lists 'The prospect of selling millions of copies in a very short time'.5 In support of this, he cites the 'spectacular success of Stephen King's novella Riding the Bullet published on the Internet that allegedly sold 500,000 copies within 48 hours'. King followed this success with a promise that he would write up to eight instalments of another e-book, The Plant. These were issued under an agreement where readers pledge to pay one dollar, later increased to three dollars, for downloading each chapter. The scheme was hailed as a master-stroke in the e-book revolution. Unfortunately the plan didn't quite work out and by chapter two only 70% of the readers had coughed up cash, and, by part four, only 46% had paid. So King has now decided to suspend the novel for a year or two, leaving online readers in a state of limbo, and with a book that may never be completed.

This is probably a good example of how volatile the e-book situation still is. It demonstrates that the harsh realities of Internet publishing do not reflect the hype surrounding it - not least since the very nature of the technology has made it possible, many people do expect most things to be free on the Internet. Therefore, a good measure of scepticism about the hype would not be out of place, quite apart from the fact that selling e-books in the countries of the North is a very different proposition from selling such electronic products in Africa, or in other parts of the developing world.

In another remarkable piece of hype, Johnnic e-Ventures - the Internet division of the Black empowerment company Johnnic, who have acquired a 50% holding in the South African digital publisher comPress, to explore new publishing models and 'to open up publishing to the masses' - posted the following on its site:6

comPress, the first digital publisher in South Africa to sell e-books, has established a strong presence in the emerging market of electronic publishing. By breaking down production and distribution barriers, it has targeted niche markets previously deemed unreachable.
'Publishing, for so long an exclusive domain, is finally being opened up to the masses,'said comPress joint MD François van Schalkwyk. 'What we're seeing is the true democratisation of information dissemination, which will ultimately bring an end to the inequalities of information access which are entrenched by traditional publishing models.'

Using the Internet as a marketing, sales and distribution mechanism, comPress has developed an e-commerce-enabled online catalogue ( through which it sells a wide range of downloadable e-books.

However, such statements are in stark contrast with an article by Elisabeth Anderson of the Centre of the Book in Cape Town, in which she reports that the majority of the population in South Africa, and especially children and young people, are still hugely disadvantaged when it comes to books and reading, much less owning a computer and having access to the Internet.7

But one must recognise also that the changes brought on by the electronic media, the whole new economics of networks and information, and the availability and free distribution of electronic information on the Internet, are rapidly changing the commercial environment for most publishers in the countries of the North, many of whom are now busy positioning themselves to be able to move over to an online environment. Although it is hard to make predictions with any certainty, professional and scholarly publishing is going to change quite dramatically over the next three to five years.

Secondly, although online publishing may be a less profitable venture for the few African publishers currently involved in it, they will have to establish a presence in the new media arena sooner or later, probably sooner rather than later. They will have to build new routes to new markets, certainly the overseas markets, and will need to give thought to how best to develop products suitable for both print and online formats.

Thirdly, they will need to learn how to position themselves in this shifting market place, and cultivate expertise in a range of areas. This will have to include development of in-house technical and IT skills and/or finding technology partners to develop online products, and manage and sell these products themselves, through, for example, the African Books Collective, or through other external vendors and distributors. Furthermore, if African publishers want to sell books online they will not only need to learn how to manage a Web site, but will also have to understand and develop expertise in e-commerce, and its related areas of liability, security, and protection of the privacy of customers. They will need to deal with aspects such as secure servers, encryption, and automated online payment systems.

Another important decision for African publishers is whether to host an e-books site in-house or outsource it. Rather than doing it on their own, some of the larger publishers in the North tend to license online library companies (for example the NetLibrary at, or YBP Library Services at to distribute their books in digital formats. The publisher supplies hardcopy books or text to the company, who then convert them into digital files for sale as e-books. They are usually sold as part of large collections to academic, public and business libraries, and the revenue accrued from sales is split between the publisher and the online distributor. The supplier employs special digital rights management technology to prevent more than one user from reading an e-book at once, as well as special technology that prevents printing and copying content. Some also provide inventory management.

Keeping up-to-date with the new technology

As mass-based Internet access in Africa is still a very long way away - despite the growth of ISPs, telecentres, cybercaf´┐Żs and improved telecommunications infrastructure in several African countries - all this might sound futuristic, but it will not be the case in five or ten years' time. It is not suggested that African publishers should embark on a dramatic restructuring of their business because of the electronic media, but they must keep abreast with ICT developments-and there is no better way to be kept informed than through the Web.

Technology is moving incredibly fast, and faced with the fact that conventional export markets for print products will continue to shrink, most African publishers, perhaps not surprisingly, adopt something of a `wait-and-see' attitude. However, it is important that they monitor developments, as otherwise they may find it difficult to catch up at a later time when delivery of some of their products over the Internet might become a reality. Although few African publishers, outside south Africa, are currently involved in online and electronic publishing, they may want to become informed about trends and changes in the publishing world, especially the profound changes that are taking place in scholarly communication, education, and training, and how digital technologies are transforming book and journal publishing.

While they might be able to develop attractive and relatively sophisticated Web sites to support their marketing activities, few African publishers, other than the multinationals, or publishing conglomerates in South Africa, will be able to make a major investment in electronic publishing and developing multi-media content in a significant way. And even if they had the resources they might well consider it far too risky.

I also suspect most African publishers would probably not want to attempt to sail through these uncharted waters on their own, and therefore this is something that calls for new alliances, new partnerships with technology providers, and new collaborative ventures for digital publishing.

Eventually, even for small publishers, there may be opportunities to develop some products for delivery over the Internet, and/or re-packaging content in Internet compatible formats. For example this could be `added-value' online products - i.e. through regular updates, or complementary materials to the main product - or tailor-made collections of licensed content (text, databases, or artwork/artistic materials) for niche markets; or African publishers could make available free extracts from books on their Web site, as `teasers' to entice prospective customers to purchase the complete physical product.

Meanwhile, donors might wish to consider how they could empower African publishers to join the electronic revolution, and to assist them in developing products in electronic formats in areas where there might be demand, and which might meet a niche market.

Type of training and capacity building needed

So what type of training and capacity building is most acutely needed?

It is probably unrealistic to expect publishers to become technically proficient and have an intimate knowledge of Web design, and at the same time to become knowledgeable about the Internet, Web content, the use of the Web as an information resource, and acquire an awareness of the benefits the Internet can bring. Most publishers in Africa, as indeed many publishers elsewhere - and despite new Web authoring software and tools that are becoming more and more user-friendly - don't really have the time, and probably not the inclination, to become involved in Web site design and to master HTML coding. Most will prefer to rely on professional Web site designers rather than dabble in Web authoring in an amateurish way, although there may not always be sufficient local expertise for Web site design now. The same goes for the field of electronic publishing and/or e-commerce, areas where they would also need to seek specialist advice. This might include local advice, expertise, and sharing of know-how from businesses in African countries that are already involved in e-commerce, although there are probably not too many of these at this time; many may have Web sites, but are not yet actively involved in e-commerce.

Training and capacity building thus has to be on three distinct fronts: 1. The planning, authoring and creation (understanding HTML, SGML, design essentials, etc.), and maintenance of Web sites.
2. Web content, how to use the Internet, evaluating Internet resources, learning about search engines and portals, search strategies, what makes a good Web site, and how best to promote products online.
3. Electronic/Web-based publishing and e-commerce, the different e-book formats, licensing of electronic products, exploiting electronic rights for print books, and digital rights management.

A fourth aspect of the digital revolution is that of digital printing and short-run print technology. This is potentially very attractive for African publishers, although it requires quite separate training.

As has been suggested above, it is probably unrealistic to expect publishers to become technically proficient in Web authoring or Web site design, or to become experts in the more complex technical aspects of electronic publishing. It would also be unwise to try to provide training - through workshops, for example - on all three fronts at the same time, as there would be far too much to absorb during one workshop. It is vital, however, that training about the Internet must come before everything else, including e-books and e-commerce, and substantial time ought to be allowed in any training programmes or workshops for hands-on practice to demonstrate all the Internet's possible uses. While focusing principally on the Internet, such workshops might also provide at least a glimpse, a very broad understanding, of the fundamentals of e-commerce and online selling, the different categories of virtual shops, payment systems, security, e-business orders processing, and distance selling.

Participants in any workshops might also wish to examine models of book-related Web sites from the countries of the North, for example the remarkable growth of online bookstores, and discuss whether similar initiatives might be undertaken in Africa, possibly as collective ventures or small networks, and providing access to African-published books and journals and home-grown content.

Learning about e-mail and electronic mailing lists
Although use of e-mail is now common among many African publishers, training is probably also needed for working with e-mail as a communication tool for the book professions, and how to make the most of e-mail-whether by editors, for communication with authors, for peer review processes, or by those involved in book marketing.

Electronic mailing lists and online forums, one of the primary forms of interaction on the Internet, are not widely used as yet in Africa, and many people still do not fully understand the benefits, not least for postings by publishers and NGOs to select target groups. Provided postings or announcements are low-key and hype free, this, as is use of e-mail, is one of the most effective and least expensive methods to publicize new publications to tightly focused special interest groups.

Online forum for African publishers
APNET, or another organisation promoting book development in Africa, might also wish to establish an electronic discussion group for African publishers and NGOs involved in publishing, to provide a forum for discussions on topics of common interest, sharing of know-how and information, for announcements about book promotional events, conferences and meetings, and possibly also to provide an outlet for some kind of 'Rights on offer' service.

Possible components of a workshop programme

The components of Internet training workshops for African publishers ought to serve primarily as an Introduction to the Internet and the World Wide Web, but, at the same time, provide at least basic understanding of e-commerce.

It may be possible to draw on the model of 'travelling' Internet workshops for African university librarians organised by the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) and which have been held in several African countries to date, reportedly with considerable success.8 Workshop content and course training materials were developed with the assistance of the Institute for Learning and Research Technology at the University of Bristol, UK, in collaboration with local librarians and facilitators in Africa. It would have to be recognised of course that the needs for Internet know-how and training are quite different for publishers to those of librarians.

In preparation for any workshop it may also be useful to conduct a preliminary survey to determine what particular aspects of the Internet are judged to be most important, or potentially most important, for African publishers and NGOs, from a point of view of using the Web as an information or training resource, to establish contacts with publishing partners on a South-North or South-South basis, as a resource for editors, or as a promotion and marketing tool.


1 African Publishers' Network (APNET), 2000, African Publishing Review, vol. 9, no. 3. [back]

2 State of the Internet Report 2000 [back]

3 For more information about Internet basics, marketing on the Internet, and Internet bookselling, see also Zell, Hans M. (2001), `The Internet for the Book Professions' in Book Marketing and Promotion: A Handbook of Good Practice, The International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP). Available online at [back]

4 Sukumar, Dar (2000), `Technological Developments in Publishing and Book Distribution', African Publishing Review vol. 9, no. 3:7. [back]

5 Ross, Alan (2000), `The Impact of Technology on the Publishing Trade', African Publishing Review vol. 9, no. 3: 2. [back]

6 [as at November 2000]. [back]

7 Anderson, Elisabeth (2000), `The Centre for the Book _ South Africa' The African Book Publishing Record vol. 26, no. 4, pp 255-258. [back]

8 For more information visit [back]

[end]  [BPN, no 28, 2001, pp 10-15.]

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