The Politics of Academic Publishing on/in Africa
I buy too many books. There, I said it. (admitting you have a problem is the first step, right?). I see it as something of an investment though, and though the books may sit on my shelves for several months before I get around to actually reading them, I do eventually crack open the spine and begin to write all over it with one of my multiple hi-lighters and pens. You don’t want to read a book when I’m done with it.
By and large, the bulk of what I read comes from American and European presses. This is indeed strange because I research African labor history, particularly southern Namibia. Scanning through my shelves this morning, I ratted off a list of presses: Berghahn, Cambridge, Oxford, Chicago, California, Brill, Routledge, Palgrave, Helsinki, NYU, Columbia, UPenn, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin. I then sought out any African-based presses. I have a few from University of Namibia press, UCT Press, Wits, and UKZN Press, as well as a handful from Dar es Salaam.
This is s fundamentally strange thing, but at the same time not so strange. Isn’t publishing with a “established” university press what it takes to get tenure in a history department? Publish with Cambridge and you’re set; publish with Peter Lang, think again. Publish or Perish; that’s the rule of the game. As so many apologists have stated before, “that’s just the way it is.” When it comes to publishing books on African Affairs, however, that statement is not just problematic, it’s downright evil.
Take the renowned African Studies Association, for example. Every year, they hand out the Herskovits Prize for the “most outstanding original scholarly work published on Africa in the previous year.” This prize will get you tenure. Take a look at last year’s finalists; notice anything? Well, first, they’re all white tenured professors based either in the USA (Notre Dame, Minnesota, UCLA) or Europe (Sussex, Mainz). I suppose at least Dr. Candido is Brazilian by birth, though she is based in the USA. In addition, all of the books are published by Indiana, Ohio, or Cambridge.
Take a look at the list of previous winners of the Herskovits Prize. Only about one in three or four winners is African, and not one of the books was originally published by an African press. Only one (via James Currey , UK, was secondarily published: more on that later). This is a reflection of power dynamics in the discipline. Let me say this straight up: African Studies is a white-owned field. At last year’s meeting in Indianapolis, I’d say at least two-thirds of the participants were white Americans (and let’s be real, I’m not helping that demographic at all). There’s nothing inherently strange about that; I mean, the conference was in Indiana. After all, I experienced the same phenomenon at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala this summer. If you look at the Kyoto Center for African Area Studies in Japan, you see trends reflective of Japan’s demographics.
Let me be clear. This would not be a problem if all was actually equal. The problems come from who owns knowledge about Africa (both in a practical, copyright, level – and in an epistemological level). I’m going to be speaking more about the former. By and large, you cannot purchase academic books about Africa in Africa, and it isn’t because people don’t care or don’t want to read them; trust me, they want to. Walking through Windhoek’s four bookshops, the history and social science sections are sparse, and the books they’ve got tend to come from a few specific presses, such as University of Namibia press. You don’t find Ohio, you don’t find Indiana, you don’t find Cambridge, you don’t find any of these at all. And frankly, even if you did, the prices these presses charge are absurd: new books from Cambridge go for USD $90, Palgrave goes for USD $100 – Ohio, who surprisingly does paperbacks, goes for the slightly more reasonably USD $30. I should note that these prices are that high because the main sales outlet are US and European research libraries, not for sale in shops. But it doesn’t particularly matter because they aren’t available in shops anyway.
I would like to reiterate that it is not for lack of demand that Namibians can’t buy books about Namibia. The main literary distribution service, Demasius Publications (now titled Namibian Book Market), has on numerous attempts, tried to import books from these presses for sale in some of the shops in Windhoek and Swakopmund. But the Namibian market was deemed “unprofitable”. Unless the shop owners wish to purchase on Amazon for extraordinarily high shipping costs to resell for virtually no profit, there’s nothing that could be done.
This is the dilemma: foreign researchers are able to obtain more funds to conduct often very innovative research projects. In order to obtain tenure, and therefore more research funds, these professors publish in western university presses (or Palgrave and Routledge, which is a different story). Western presses choose not to sell their books on the African continent because the market is deemed “unprofitable.” African Universities seek to make themselves look more “respectable” in the eyes of western donors, so they encourage their faculty to publish “internationally” in order to obtain tenure and raise the standing of their departments. With less prestigious alma-maters and sites of employment, as well as less research funds, many of these African-based academics fail to get enough material published abroad, most obtain tenure through university service and teaching. Even if they do publish abroad, the materials are still subject to the dilemmas elaborated upon above. A Namibian academic publishing with Indiana University Press will still not have their book available for sale or distribution (beyond the author’s own copies) in Namibia.
Publishing, Tenure, Sales, and Copyright. These are some of the key ways in which academic knowledge about Africa remains securely in Euro-American hands. Yes, South African presses are making headway, although this is primarily texts related to South African affairs. If any of this concerns us, we must take some degree of action. If we are going into academia, we have to take steps to change our department’s tenure procedures. Base tenure on the quality of the text, not only the press; and reward Africanists who do indeed publish on the African continent. And although it might seem, dare I say, “risky,” we should publish our books (and articles, but that’s a different story) in presses that make the books available on the continent. For Namibian studies, there is University of Namibia Press, the Basler Afrika Bibliographien, University of Cape Town Press, Jonathan Ball, James Currey, and a few others. Some of these presses, like the BAB and UCT, also utilize digital printing services to print on slightly less high quality paper, making the sale cost lower. You can buy these books in Namibian book stores and indeed they do sell.
If we wish to be responsible academics, we must not only produce knowledge, but democratize knowledge. This leads to my final, and likely most controversial point. If we care about democratizing knowledge, we must not be afraid to break copyright law and attempt to make available to others their own histories. Let’s be clear, this isn’t breaking American copyright law to provide Americans with episodes of Dexter. This is breaking American and Euro copyright law to provide Africans with academic texts (often filled with primary source materials) documenting the histories of their own countries. Let me be clear: if you as an emerging scholar are OK with the power inequalities described above, you should fundamentally re-evaluate why you are pursuing this career. The digital gives us tools to challenge these relationships. I will leave gen.lib.rus.ec as a controversial example. My project for this CHI Fellowship will provide another avenue.
“Between Equal Rights: Force Decides.”