Books

‘It’s a real battle’: African authors fight for publishing independence

Francophone African books are still very often published by French imprints, which can make them hard to get at home. But there is a growing push for change
‘At first African authors were surprised that they could keep their rights for Africa’ … Véronique Tadjo at the 11th Abidjan book fair in 2019. Photograph: Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images

When Cameroonian author Daniel Alain Nsegbe first saw his debut novel for sale in his home city of Douala, the price was so high “you would have to ask someone to stop eating for two days in order to buy the book”. It was around 16,000 CFA francs (£20); the average monthly salary in Douala is £150. The book, Ceux qui sortent dans la nuit (Those Who Go Out at Night) was published by Grasset, a French imprint.

This is not uncommon: Francophone African authors, whether classic or contemporary, are often published by French, not African presses. This arrangement began in colonial times, but continues because of a number of factors that are particular to France. Publishers frequently push for world rights for all books written in French. Many African writers operate without agents, who would usually divide up rights territories on their behalf. Agents are still a new feature on the African literary landscape, meaning that many classics, such as 1953’s L’enfant noir (The African Child) by Guinean author Camara Laye, and Algerian writer Kateb Yacine’s 1956 novel Nedjmaare owned by publishers in France (Plon and Éditions du Seuil respectively). As French publishers continue to control distribution and pricing, classic authors go missing from bookshelves while contemporary authors struggle to get their books in the hands of local readers. And in north and sub-Saharan Africa, there’s also a lack of publishing infrastructure, so local pressesmust battle with issues such as distribution, piracy, cost and staffing – all of which can mean some authors simply prefer to be published in France.


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But a small movement is now under way, led by African authors who have realised that they don’t need to hand over world rights to French publishers. Some are choosing to keep their African rights, ensuring that an African press (or even several) can publish their books locally at an affordable price. Others are opening their own publishing houses, such as Léonora Miano with Quilombo Publishing in Togo. And some are campaigning, like Ivorian author Armand Patrick Gbaka-Brédé, who founded the Front for the Liberation of African Classics in 2019, a collective calling for French publishers to give up the African rights to classic literature.

Nsegbe, who writes under the name Mutt-Lon, was helped by the Paris-based Alliance for Independent Publishers, who renegotiated for him with his publisher Grasset; subsequently, a pan-African edition of Ceux qui sortent dans la nuit was put out by an alliance of seven African publishers in 2017. His most recent book was published by Éditions Emmanuelle Colas in France – but also by Graines de Pensées (Togo), Éditions Ganndal (Guinea) and Proximité (Cameroon).

“I understand now that my books need to be published in Africa as well so that they can reach my readers,” says Nsegbe. Before the pan-African edition, his second novel was published by a Cameroonian publisher and struggled to get distributed. “This isn’t the publisher’s fault, it’s a structural problem with the publishing industry. It’s a real battle.”

It’s a process of negotiation, with the rights people, with the export division, and many publishers are unwilling

“We are working on a process of awareness with French publishers on rights in African territories,” says Laurence Hugues, director of the Alliance. “It’s a process of negotiation, with the rights people, with the export division, and many are unwilling [to negotiate],” she says, adding that smaller publishers were more open to discussion. When they are, the Alliance helps the African publishers, finding funding and ensuring that the books stay affordable, usually priced around £4. In Nsegbe’s case, “he was able to travel to different countries in Africa to promote his book, and he saw the impact it had on publishers and readers.”

Ivorian author Véronique Tadjo asked to keep her African rights nearly 20 years ago when she saw that her books were only affordable to an elite. “At first African authors were surprised that they could keep their rights for Africa and often were afraid to ask them of their French publishers, who can be very possessive,” says Tadjo, who has had positive experiences with her French publishers, Actes Sud and Éditions Don Quichotte.

Developing movement … Hemley Boum. Photograph: Jean-Marc Zaorski/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Cameroonian Hemley Boum was “delighted” to be able to keep her rights for Africa for the first time for her most recent book Les jours viennent et passent(The Days Come and Go), which was published by Gallimard in France and Éditions Éburnie in Ivory Coast. Her previous books were difficult to find in Africa, she says, and when they were, the prices were too high. She says she discusses this problem frequently with other African authors who are concerned about the cost and availability of their work. “With the developing professionalisation of African publishers, this trend [of publishing in Africa] will increase and become long-lasting,” Boum says.

“It’s tricky terrain,” says Pierre Astier of Astier-Pécher literary agency, who, besides fighting for African rights for his contemporary authors, plans to “diplomatically” approach French publishers who own rights to African classics and convince them to revert some rights to local publishers.

It was clear that I should consider it an honour that Gallimard would even mention Clé as the original publisher

Cameroonian editor Marcelin Vounda Etoa ran one of Africa’s oldest publishing houses, Éditions Clé, until 2016. A few years ago, Gallimard, which holds rights to many of Congolese author Henri Lopes’s books, tried to acquire the rights from Clé for his 1971 classic Tribaliques. Vounda Etoa says he suggested a co-edition, but Gallimard refused. “It was clear that I should consider it an honour that Gallimard would even mention Clé as the original publisher,” he says.

“Why would Gallimard publish a co-edition?” asks Jean-Noël Schifano, who in 1989 founded Gallimard imprint Continents Noirs (Black Continents), which has since published 51 authors from African countries. “From the start, we ensured that all books, whether 500 or 1,000 pages, were sold for the equivalent of €9.50 (£8.50) on the African continent.”

When asked if he would consider returning authors’ rights for Africa, Schifano says, “I have never been asked this question by authors. They sign a contract for three books and have absolute freedom. They publish with Gallimard to be recognised, and have an echo on the [African] continent.”

Tadjo says: “I think the movement is still too timid, but it’s a question of adopting the habit, of getting organised, and putting pressure on [French] publishers. They need to make concessions and have a vision. I hope they will get used to the idea. It’s to everyone’s advantage, and good for Francophone literature in general.”

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