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Reading the book market

These days, everywhere you go to in Addis, it seems that books are easily available. It is also a common sight to have people carrying around books on the roads and selling them to people sitting in cars, cafes’ or to the pedestrians. This is a new phenomenon that has taken over the city, years ago the book market and readership was not widespread like it is today and members of this generation were severely criticized by the older ones for not reading. But, the issue this time around is not the number of readers or the problem related to lack of printing press or publishers, of course the absence of publishers and printing press is still the bottleneck for the sector, however the major one is lack of quality in most of the books published recently, writes Neamin Ashanafi.

Although books have been around for centuries in this country, ownership and use of them was confined to the clergy and, to a lesser degree, the nobility. According to commentators in the field, distribution of books and mass communication require two essential elements, wide circulation and audience that have reached a critical mass. Since these books were written by hand and took years to produce, even the second copy, the potential for their wider circulation was limited. Worse, since the vast majority of the people were not literate, they lacked mass audience, too. Therefore, despite the existence of books produced manually by scribes for quite long, we cannot say that there was print-based mass publication in Ethiopia until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The late Messeret Chekol (Prof.), journalism and communication professor and author of “The Quest for Press Freedom in one Hundred Years of History of the Medieval Ethiopia”, assert that written materials were seen in the country as early as the 1600s. These were religious books printed in Ethiopia’s liturgical language of Geez and sent from Europe to Ethiopia. According to some accounts, a Swedish evangelist, who had setup shop in the northern province of Eritrea, started modern press works inside Ethiopia in 1863. They were concerned with printing religious books and newsletters. According to other accounts, that same year an Italian Lazarist missionary named Lorenzo Bianceri installed a small printing press in the Eritrean port city of Massawa. Then in 1879, another Lazarist missionary set up a small a press in Eritrea and published a book, entitled “Amharic and Geez Grammar”. Based on the foregoing accounts, what can be said with certainty is that press in Ethiopia was started by European missionaries and that virtually all the products were religious books and newsletters.

Though the work of modern publications was introduced to the country through European missionaries, it is at the same time evident that the history of education, printing and publishing in Ethiopia is not nearly as long as that of producing manuscripts the traditional way.

Many argued that irrespective of the country’s rich and diversified culture and civilization that endures for thousands of years, the development of publishing and printing have not developed to a parallel degree.

In this regard, while many consider the path that the printing and publishing sector has passed through as sluggish and even non-existent, there are others who hold the opposite view.

Those who stand against such argument admit that the development of printing and publishing in the country has been sluggish. However, they argue that there has been improvement over the past few decades. Opponents of this group argue that irrespective of the number of printing press and stiff laws and regulations, the number of publications that hit the market during the 60s, 70s and late 80s were many and of high in quality.

Apart from this, opponents of this group also point to the rising number of street book vendors and bookshops in the past 10 years to support their argument that the sector, against all odds, is reviving.

Currently, it is obvious that wherever you find yourself in Addis, it seems that books are easily available, whether it is from a bookstand around Addis Ababa Stadium and the National Theatre or from bookshops or street book vendors. It is also a common sight these days to have people carrying around books on the roads and selling them to people sitting in cars, cafes or to pedestrians. This is a new phenomenon that has taken over the city. Years ago, the book market and readership was not big as it is today and members of this generation were severely criticized by the older ones. They were saying that this generation is not interested in reading different types of books, which are published both locally and internationally as its predecessors had done.

 In fact, these days the new generation is more fascinated with technology, more and more the youth of this generation is using Smartphones and using the Internet to do everything in its day-to-day activity.

However, now the trend seems a bit changed and different though members of this new generation are using technology and they are also attracted to books and different kinds of publications. The people credited for expanding the readership of books in Addis are the book vendors and the large number of book stores opened in different parts of the city. The book vendors walk around with books in their hands stacked all the way up to their neck, approaching any and everyone to buy a book from them.

Now the issue is not the number of readers or the problem with lack of printing press or publishers. Of course, the dearth of publishers and printing press is still an issue, but the major one is lack of quality (content wise) in most of the books published recently.

Currently, most readers in the country are interested in reading books centered on politics, history, autobiography, and, to some extent, iconic novels like the one written by Adam Retta.

If one critically looks at the book market, one can easily identify that books on history and politics dominate the market. For example, a book by Habtamu Alebachew, ex-lecturer at Mekele University, published a month ago, which focuses on the history and politics of the country, has already sold 5,000 copies and its second edition is coming up.

Apart from that, reprinting classic books is also a new phenomenon and the books are sold out in a short period of time since they have an already established huge fan base.

However, irrespective of the rising number of publications and readers, now the issue is that of quality because the market is flooded with books with poor editing, as texts are replete with grammatical and lexical errors.

There are many reasons attributed for this problem, but the major one is rushing to publish books without proper editing and proof-reading. Since most writers are after making a quick buck, they do not care much about quality. What matters most is for the publication to hit the market, and start making money for them.

Seyfedin Mussa has been trading in books for more than 10 years around National Theater and is someone who takes issue with the quality of the books being published of late. The way he sees it, the problem has to do with the absence of an organized institution that works towards improving the quality of books.

“Most of the editing is done by someone within the circle of each writer, and there is no strong institution that supervises and points out the problems associated with editing, grammatical and lexical problems, and I think this is one of the most worrisome challenges that the industry faces,” he commented.

Apart from this, he argued that group discussions and book clubs to critically assess the quality of books have not developed to the required level. The discussions on books organized by some entities like Music Mayday are not concerned with issues of editing. Rather, they focus on the content and the structure of the book. Therefore, to tackle the challenge the sector faces now, there should be book clubs and discussion platforms to entertain issues associated with editing, grammatical and lexical errors.

Similarly, Ermyas Belayneh, owner of Eneho Books, also questions the quality of books that hit the market these days and said, “There are some books which really challenge readers due to their poor editing and lexical issues. You can find a redundant chapter in a book. For me, this is a pure sign of negligence, and focus merely on hitting the market than worrying about quality.”

There is a translated book by the known writer Sydney Sheldon, entitled “Tell Me Your Dreams”. The problem with this translated book starts right from its cover page, as the word ‘Tell’ is misspelt ‘Tel’. There are lots of books with such erroneous editing, grammatical and lexical problems, Ermyas added.

The problem in this regard is that since there is no  platform to discuss and point out such problems, the manuscript will proceed to the press with its flaws, and we have on few occasions been at the receiving end of customers’ ire.“Sometimes, our customers come to us and demand a refund for flawed books, or to exchange the books with better ones. However, if there were an organized platform to entertain such issues and a venue to connect the author and the reader, such problems might be mitigated or the writers themselves will be responsible for the mistakes,” Ermyas observed.

Mulugeta Alebachew published a new book entitled “MeharebenYayachehu,” (“Have You Seen My Handkerchief?”) some five months ago. This book is exemplary for its superb editing as well as grammatical and lexical qualities.  Even thought the author is a member of this generation, his work is close to perfection in that it is free from editing issues, and the quality of the editing is such that the writer must have spent ample time editing and proof-reading the book before it hit the market.

Like many readers, Mulugeta is not comfortable with editing, grammatical and lexical issues of books that are currently available on the market. He said that, “Though there are few exceptions, many of the books that come to the market these days are almost worthless, and can even tempt one to stop reading Amharic books in future.” 

Irrespective of the absence of an organized editing body and a publishers’ house, the major responsibility lies on the author, Mulugeta argued, adding, “the foundation for the quality of production is the tireless effort from the author themselves, because if the author works diligently, the product that would be presented to the editors will reduce the pressure and the probability of the occurrence of mistakes.” Mulugeta concluded, “Therefore, authors should do their work diligently before approaching both editors and publishers so as to reduce the problems related with editing and other problems.”

Apart from this, there is also another factor that contributes to the problem associated with the issue of quality. The publishing sector is at an infant stage, which brings different challenges for writers, as the role of publishing is non-existent, writers are obliged to find a way to self-publish their works.

There are only few publishers in the country, including the age-old Addis Ababa University Press, the newly established Ethiopian Academy of Sciences Press, which has managed to publish Belatten GetaHeruy’s travel blog to Europe some 100 years back, Shama Books, Book Light, Littman Books and others. The role of publishers is immense in transforming a manuscript to a book form and making it available on the market.

At a publishing company, different people fill the roles of designing, editing, copyediting, distributing, marketing and selling. A self-publisher needs to work on all of that on their own. A self-publisher has to compete on the marketplace, head to head with publishing companies and many other self-publishers.

According to observations by Hohe Awards, in Ethiopia90% of books are published by organizations that do not have publishing licenses and, of this, about 20% of them have not had any prior experience in publishing.