e-Commerce Innovations in the Book Publishing Industry: Opportunities for the Developing World.

William Wresch

College of Business Administration

UW Oshkosh



Book publishing is currently dominated by the US, the UK, and Germany.  Few books are exported by the developing world.  Developing nations face high production costs, various degrees of government opposition, limited local readership, and racism.  Recent developments in information technology have created opportunities for small publishers in the developing world.  One approach is micropublishing, using desktop publishing tools and photocopy equipment to independently bring books to market.  A more significant development is e-books, which offer writers and publishers an opportunity to “publish” books without the high costs of printing and shipping.  A third approach being attempted is the creation of new publishing houses using information technology to cut publishing costs.  All three responses are having initial successes, but much more progress needs to be made.



Book publishing is a huge and growing worldwide industry. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) monitors international trade in cultural goods. UNESCO’s research points to an industry with international sales that have nearly quadrupled in dollar-value in the last eighteen years, growing from $7 billion in international trade in1980 to $25 billion in 1998.  Unfortunately for much of the world, UNESCO’s figures also show an industry that is largely one-sided.  The US is responsible for one-fifth of all book exports, and one-fifth of all newspaper and periodical exports.  Combined with Germany and the UK, the big three account for 47% of the world’s book exports (UNESCO 2000).


The unevenness of book publishing can be seen even more strikingly by examining the situation of individual countries.  The table below lists imports and exports of printed matter (books, newspapers, and periodicals) for a number of countries in Africa for the most recent year available.




Trade in Printed Materials (UNESCO 2000)





Algeria - 1997



Chad - 1995



Congo - 1995



Egypt – 1997



Ethiopia – 1995



Kenya – 1996



Malawi -- 1995



Morocco -- 1997



Nigeria – 1991



South Africa – 1996



Zimbabwe – 1997




As the table indicates, Algeria imported nearly ten million dollars in printed materials in 1997 while exporting just seventeen thousand dollars of the product.  Egypt and South Africa did somewhat better in exports, but still imported far more than they exported.  Then there are countries like Ethiopia, Chad, and Nigeria where exports were virtually zero.  A ratio of ten to one of imports to exports is common for African countries. 


One hopes that if books aren’t being exported, at least they are being produced and consumed locally.  But that is not the case in much of the world. By the recent count of a University of Namibia professor (Chisenga 2000), just 1.3% of the total university library collection there was produced in Namibia.  Like much of Africa and much of the developing world, book publishing there barely exists.


Why is book publishing so restricted in the developing world?  There are at least four barriers faced by third-world companies seeking to participate in this industry: high production costs, government opposition, limited local readership, and racism.


Jane Katjavivi, President of New Namibia Books, illustrates the production problems publishers face.  She established her company in 1990 and has been very successful in bringing out a range of trade and educational titles.  But it hasn't been easy.  Production costs are high.  Part of the costs come from high paper prices (it must all be imported), high printing costs (all of the local presses are small and slow), and high editorial expenses (few people in Namibia have editorial or design experience).  So it costs her more to produce a book in Namibia that it did when she was working as a publisher in the UK (Katjavivi 1994).


Governments can be significant aids to publishers by sending school textbook contracts their way, but they can also become quick enemies of publishing houses if local despots begin to feel the books being published threaten their lifetime reigns.  The Committee to Protect Journalists publishes an annual list of “Enemies of the Press.”  The 1999 list included China’s Communist Party propaganda department which shut down book publishing houses for “challenging party orthodoxy” (Leynse 1999).  Other means of silencing publishers are high taxes and restricted import licenses on needed printing equipment and supplies.  The most significant barrier to publishing recently has been the imprisonment, exile, or murder of authors.  A small sampling of exiled authors include Valentin-Yves Mudimbe of Zaire, Mongo Beti of Cameroon, and Abiola Irele of Nigeria.  One observer fears that Africa is losing the capacity “to produce another generation of Soyinkas, Ireles, and Mudimbes.” (Osha 1998)


Beyond high expenses and government opposition, book publishers also face limited local readership.  Readership can of course be limited by obvious factors such as poverty and illiteracy, but it can also be limited by language.  It is not surprising that the US and the UK are both major book exporters.  They share the same advantage – English.  Publishers in both countries publish in a language that is the first or second language to the largest number of people on earth.  Publishers in developing countries can follow suit and publish in English, but then they may have very limited local readership.  Or they can publish in the local language and forego any chance at international sales.  There is no good answer to their dilemma.


Lastly, there can to be no question that some cultural products are simply devalued based on the race or nationality of their authors.  Evidence for this can be drawn from publishing statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  It found that while 4500 children’s books were published in the US in 1997, just 88 were by African American authors (1.9%) with another 88 by Latinos or about Latino themes and just 66 about Asians and Asian Americans (1.5%) (Lee 1999).  Actual sales of books in this country make the race disparity even more stark.  Book Industry Trends puts total African-American book sales for 1998 at $320 million out of a total of $35 billion sold in this country (Ali 2000).  This is roughly eight tenths of one percent of the total.  If average Americans will not buy the books of African-Americans, what chance do African authors have of making sales in this country?


The summative effect of these four barriers is an industry that is concentrated in a few countries, and focused on the words of a minority of the world’s people.  In short, this is an industry in need of change.


The impact of digital media


Those watching the industry with the hope of opening it to more voices believe that for the short-tem, things will get worse, not better.  They point to the seemingly endless consolidation of the industry.  One African-American author describes the consolidation through her own experience: 


New American Library, for example, where I first worked in editorial, was owned by Times Mirror when I arrived.  A year later, it had been acquired by Dutton.  Now Dutton is under the Pearson umbrella along with Viking, Penguin, NAL, Putnam, and Berkeley.  It’s too much to keep up with anymore.  Simon Schuster is owned by Gulf Western, which also owns Madison Square Garden and sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic.  Now S&S is part of Viacom and under the same umbrella as Scribner’s and Prentice Hall, and so on and on… (Adero and Madgett 2000)


While the author quoted above was referring to the US publishing industry, she could easily extend a description of the consolidation to include international publishing groups like Bertlesmann AG of Germany.  Bertlesmann is not only buying up traditional publishers (Bertlesmann owns Random House in the US among others), but is buying book stores as well (Bertlesmann owns 40% of BarnesandNoble.com) (Verton 2001).


With this kind of consolidation in the industry, under-represented authors see themselves with fewer publishing options.  Their response?  Use new technologies to create three new publishing alternatives.


Micropublishing.  Self-publishing has long been common for the world’s poets.  Says African-American poet Malaika Adero, “Poets have always resorted to self-publishing, and it has been more respectable for a poet to self-publish than a novelist.” (Adero and Madgett 2000, p34a)  She goes on to describe the usefulness of new desktop publishing tools.  Another African-American writer talks of taking such publications and inventing new distribution channels.  “We ought to sell our books like they sell AVON, Tupperware, and Mary Kay – person to person, church to church, door to door. “(Ali 2000) 


Micro-publishing has some advantages for authors.  While publishing costs vary, an individual using photocopy equipment available across most of the world, can probably produce five hundred or a thousand copies of a volume more cheaply than a major publisher can, and can market and advertise the volume more cheaply at that volume as well.  Government opposition remains a problem in some parts of the world, unless one assumes sales of a few hundred or few thousand volumes can be done without government notice.  Limited local readership becomes less of a problem since limited production can match limited readership.  Racism is also less an issue since the participation of people from other cultures or nationalities is unanticipated and unnecessary for the self-publisher to be successful.


Of course the obvious flaw in such micro-publishing efforts is the fact that books will never leave the local community.  Selling books door-to-door and church-to-church doesn’t get books across borders.  Global balance of trade figures will go unchanged and the larger world will never be affected by the ideas being presented.


e-books. e-books and other web-based alternatives are a second solution.  Recent trade figures complied by the Federal Reserve Board indicate that the World Wide Web is having a significant impact on world trade and is opening up new – and more distant – markets for many companies.  They found “the impact of the web has been strongest for poorer countries, suggesting that nations with fewer initial trade links can reap larger relative gains from the Web – assuming they have made basic infrastructure and technology investment.” (Koretz 2001, p32) 


The web seems to offer an additional advantage for book sellers in that it provides not just a means to reach customers with product information, but with the product itself.  Paul Coates, publisher of Black Classic Press, asserts ebooks bring a “tremendous good” for minority authors and publishers – “global markets, diverse content, titles remain in print forver…” (Ards 2000,  p78)  African-American book publisher Steve Cannon, publisher of Gathering of the Tribes magazine, plans to release three e-books by the fall of 2000 (Ards 2000).  He sees the new medium as a way to cut out the middle man, thereby increasing profits for producers and lowering costs for readers.


While much of the early interest in ebooks has come from underrepresented American minority authors and publishers, e-publishing has the potential to reach writers and publishers around the globe. There is a well-documented global digital divide which reduces participation around the world, but the number of internet connections being established indicates many millions of writers in the developing world at least have the potential to use this new medium.  For example, Sub-Saharan Africa has been able to add two million Internet connections in just one year (1.14 million in 1999 to 3.1 million in 2000) (Nua 2000)


The potential benefits of e-books to third-world authors and to under-represented minority authors in this country are many.  First is the reduction in publishing costs.   These costs are not reduced to zero, since any electronic publishing effort should include both page design and copy editing costs.  But the actual cost of printing a book is eliminated, and as already stated, these represent significant costs in countries that need to import paper and need to use older, smaller presses. 


A second major advantage to e-books comes in distribution.  While shipping systems are being improved around the world, few countries can ship with the ease of the US, and obviously no country can ship for free.  With web distribution, all publishers can now ship their products for the cost of a web connection.  Web costs are significantly higher in the developing world, but costs are coming down, and are of course much lower than the cost of actually shipping a box of books.


A third opportunity created by ebooks is improvements in book promotion.  Where writers previously had to absorb costs for mailings and brochures, they now can use Individual web sites, directed email, and cross-postings as a low cost means of reaching potential readers.  And, given the slowness of mail service in the developing world, the web provides a much speedier means of reaching audiences in the host country and abroad.


While these are real advantages that open the world to the books of authors and publishers who might otherwise be invisible, the e-book effort is not without its own problems.  What may be more daunting to authors is the confusion within the industry itself.  Companies hosting e-book sites seem to be failing fast.  Despite substantial funding from Time Warner Trade Publishing, e-book publisher Bookface.com lasted just six months before announcing its closure in January 2001.  CEO Tammy Deuster explained, “You need significant money up front to build the technical infrastructure that will allow you to reach economies of scale.  We were never able to get the funding to complete that infrastructure.” (Reid 2001, p10)  Other recent failures include IT Knowledge.com which was featured in an Information Today article in early February 2001 and folded by the end of the same month (O’Leary 2001).


Nor are dot coms the only folks having trouble with this business model.  Stephen King attempted to sell “The Plant” (an office plant eats employees at a publishing house) in installments over the web.  The advantage for King was “no printing costs, publisher’s cuts or agent’s fees to take it down.” (Verton 2001, p14)  He also found much less income and blamed the problem on internet users.  “Most internet users seem to have the attention span of grasshoppers… Internet users have gotten the idea that most of what’s available to them on the Net is either free or should be.”


Besides general concerns over this business model, there are technical problems to work out as multiple companies compete to define this technology.  Microsoft has entered the field with its own reader (which oddly enough requires Internet Explorer – not Netscape – to work).  And there are handhold devices like Rocket ebook, Softbook, Gemstar, and eBookMan. At the moment, none of these approaches to accessing ebooks has predominated.  This of course leaves consumers concerned about spending as much as $349 for a reader that may become as unusable as a Betamax video player. 


The result?  While lots of folks will point to the future of ebooks, no one is currently selling books in any real volume.  Farrar, Straus & Giroux was one of the first publishers to put young adult books into the ebook format in August of 2000.  By January of 2001 they had sold fewer than 75 copies each (Maughan 2001).  Simon and Schuster tried its hand with a biography of George W Bush.  In the month following his election, the biography sold “a handful” of copies.  Industry watcher Jupiter Research now predicts ebooks will represent less than 2% of consumer-book sales in 2005 (Brown 2001).


Where does this leave authors in the developing world, or American minority authors who feel their works are currently underrepresented?  They can wait like everyone else for this concept to mature.  When it does, they can hope that reduced publishing and distribution costs enable authors to reach readers in distant lands.


New publishing houses.  While authors can now go directly to readers through micropublishing or web versions of their books, there is still a role for publishing houses.  In addition to the obvious role of book creation and promotion, publishers play a significant role in improving the work of writers – especially first-time authors.   Yet as was noted earlier, publishing houses are currently consolidating under fewer and fewer owners.  One response has been to create new publishing houses – houses which often have a specific mission to publish underrepresented authors. 


X-Press, a new publishing house for Black authors based in London, has been a recent success, started in 1992 with just $2000 (Browne 1998).  It remains a commercial success, able to bring out a series of best-sellers from Afro-British authors.  Here in the US, a recent example comes from Clark Atlanta University, which in 1999 became just the second historically Black college or university to create a university press.  It did so with the help of a $100,000 Title III grant. (Suggs 1999).  Starting new publishing houses may not seem as technologically innovative as putting e-books on the web, but technology is having a significant impact on this avenue of publication. 


As has been noted, publishing houses face significant costs for equipment  The continual drop in costs for desktop publishing equipment can be a marginal savings for these companies, and the internet can be used to send files to anyplace in the world where printing is cheap, or where shipping costs can be saved by local printing.  And in an unusual twist for labor costs, while local copy editors and layout designers may be in short supply (as we saw in the case of Namibia), there is a ready supply of low-cost, free-lance editors and designers in the US.  Just as the US exports much of its computer programming work to high-quality, low-cost countries like India, third-world countries could use the internet to access cheap editors in the US.  And just as e-books can be promoted more quickly and cheaply using email and the web, traditional books can also be promoted in this manner, giving publishing houses access to more potential readers at a lower cost.


So just as we had seen in micropublishing and ebook development, new publishing houses are able to use emerging technologies to find a place for authors and whole countries that have been left out of the book publishing world in the past. Has technology solved all problems?  No.  A few problems, such as access to remote readers, have been ameliorated.  Major hurdles, such as hostile local governments are unchanged.  And some potential improvements, like e-books, are just that – potential.  We are still some time away from the kind of dramatic improvements in book publication and distribution that would allow publishers in developing nations to overcome their current disadvantages.  What we have at the moment are small steps in the right direction.




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