In the second of our series of interviews with speakers at our Lagos Regional Seminar (held in May), we speak to Ama Dadson, founder of AkooBooks, Ghana’s first publisher and digital distributor of African audiobooks.
Why did you get involved in publishing?
I love books. My parents instilled a love of reading in all of us at a very early age. Ten years ago, my mother, now 86, a children’s book author, started losing her sight and it was then I started to think about how technology could help her to read independently other than reading to her aloud.
I think it’s an exciting time for publishing in Africa. I want to combine my love of literature with my passion for all things digital. In Africa, writers face challenges of extremely low levels of literacy, poor distribution, sales channels restricted to physical book stores, and limited knowledge of digital publishing opportunities. The ability of African writers to be discovered by and know their readers, and to reach a global audience, is very small.
I have a new vision of what I want to do with African books and it starts with getting them on mobile devices such as mobile phones, iPads and tablets. My mother still reads extensively. Although for her, the printed word has gone, the contents remain accessible to her anytime, anywhere.
I want to create a meaningful technology company that solves one of the biggest problems of our continent — illiteracy — and also to demonstrate that women can lead in a traditionally male dominated industry!
How would you describe AkooBooks?
Akoobooks provides African writers and publishers with a platform to transform their books and reach as many readers as possible on mobile phones. We make African books available anytime, accessible anywhere on a wide variety of mobile devices. Young Africans need access to relevant material in languages spoken in Africa. Reading is seen as an activity for academic purposes rather than for pleasure or self-development. The big advantage with audiobooks (for girls especially), is that they can be accessed while performing other activities in their lives, such as working, farming or cooking. Our entire African audiobook product library can be heard anytime, on any audiobook player or any mobile device. Books purchased belong to the buyers. If users don’t have a smartphone or device compatible with the app, they can download the relevant MP3 files. Our business promotes audio literacy in English and local languages on mobile devices, bringing a wealth of ideas and experiences to youth who are illiterate.
Digital audio gives advertisers power to know exactly who’s listening and how, opening up discoverability of African content.
At the IPA Regional Seminar in Lagos in May in 2018 you spoke very optimistically about the market for audiobooks. Why is that?
The audiobook industry, worth over USD$2 billion, is in huge demand. Much of that growth is attributed to the digital transformation in the industry — from how books are recorded (increasingly in home studios) to how they are sold (through subscription or individually on the Internet) and consumed (downloaded to mobile devices).
The bulk of that market is in the West, however, with the explosion of African writing talent and the advent of new digital technologies for distribution, comes the opportunity for Africa to be part of that revolution and to offer new digital publishing services to a global community.
Affordability of mobile data/phone ownership is key here. Our customers may be unable to afford our audiobooks if the costs of mobile data are too high. However, there are now audio speakers that are voice-enabled which are able to be used in a group or classroom setting, e.g. the Echo dot.3. Awareness of ‘Audio literacy’ is a new concept and we will have to drive the adoption of it and the benefits of audiobooks among young Africans.
You also mentioned using audiobooks as an opportunity to translate literature into local languages. Tell us more.
Our programme promotes audio literacy and pilots it in local languages, bringing a wealth of ideas and experiences to people who are illiterate in English. Written text is derived from oral storytelling, so it follows that audiobooks are capturing the enthusiasm of old oral traditions. I see the opportunity to skip the translation phase of books and go directly from English audio into producing ‘straight into audio’ local language versions. The new interpreted local language adaptations can then be transcribed in local languages and form the basis for new local language literature for young people.
Was the Regional Seminar in Lagos valuable to you?
Indeed. One big challenge for start-up digital publishing companies like AkooBooks Audio and OkadaBooks with our new ideas for the African content industry, is the need to make contacts with the established publishing industry to find partners and market our products. Many African publishers are slow to adopt new digital business models and innovative approaches and to learn about new ways of thinking. The seminar was a great opportunity for us to build links with these publishers.
Had you heard of the IPA before the event?
What role do you think the IPA can play in supporting publishers?
It would be great to strengthen links with countries with established publishers, national book publishing agencies, book fairs. The IPA can help support innovators in the African publishing industry with access to mentorship and much needed funding. I know that UAE government launched the Masmoou.com audiobook platform demonstrating its support for the use of digital to spread Arabic culture and knowledge for example.
I think it’s crucial that new African start-ups like ours enter the market, making it easier for African authors to publish from their own continent and to corner the market before the big giant of digital retail, Amazon /Audible, comes along and does it for us!
The IPA can also help us with more public awareness programs in Africa to deal with misconceptions on copyright and digital piracy.
Are there any big differences or similarities you see between the challenges faced by publishers regionally and internationally?
I believe that digital is here with us in Africa and here to stay! Digital distribution (of audiobooks) is one path that could get us over some of the hurdles we face with book distribution and literacy and help raise the awareness and celebration of African authors and books, as Africans get to hear books read aloud in voices and accents they relate to and also in their own local languages.
Digital distribution also generates meaningful data on African book sales, consumption and reader preferences, in a continent where very little information is currently publicly available on book publishing.
The IPA’s two main policy pillars are copyright and the freedom to publish — do you believe these issues are important?
I do. Digital piracy is a huge problem in Africa. Accessing information from the internet is a norm for many young people. Widespread misconceptions about digital piracy (‘its not really stealing, only making a copy’), our weak economies, low incomes, high cost and low availability of books play an important role as well. Then with audiobooks there is the problem of territories and distribution. AkooBooks Audio offers DRM-free (‘cage-free’) audio files.
I think the best way to reduce piracy is to educate people about the harm it can cause and the benefits of buying media legally. The main issue lies with the misconceptions young people have about downloading. I believe if African publishers could embrace the notion of fully utilising the internet and the abilities it offers for distribution, it could be one of the most successful way of adapting to the changes caused by piracy.
Where do you think publishing will be 5 years from now?
In Africa, with the limitations of print distribution and very few bookstores, it’s a no brainer. I’m one of those who eagerly adapted to digital like a duck to water! I listened to Tomi’ Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bones on audiobook weeks before the first print version ever got here in Accra.
I think physical media will be less in demand, young people who are born with electronic devices in their hands and becoming accustomed to paying (and owning) less will have different needs. Publishers will have to embrace new technology and adapt their business models to fit their audience’s pockets. The future will be in platforms like Amazon’s Whispersync. Imagine if one could switch back and forth seamlessly between starting to read a print book at home, continuing the book by listening to the audiobook version in your car on the way to school or work, taking a sneak peek on your phone at school/office, and then finally finishing it off in print at home in bed. As digital products continue to gain a significant share of published African content, I want to be right there in the thick of it!