Publishers, authors confront literary dilemma as printing costs escalate, hold books hostage
Two weeks ago, local bibliophile Abiyot Terefe (name changed upon request) stepped into a cozy bookshop nestled in the heart of Sidist Kilo. With anticipation in his eyes, Abiyot had pre-ordered a carefully curated selection of books, and the diligent shopkeeper had gathered them all in advance.
The shelves were brimming with literary treasures. The shopkeeper had stocked a total of 62 books, satisfying Abiyot’s voracious appetite for knowledge. From the rich tapestry of Amharic to the eloquence of English, these books spanned generations, with some bearing the marks of time and others new. After skillful negotiations and generous discounts, the grand total came to 34,000 birr, averaging 548 birr per book.
Interestingly, the highest-priced tome on the list commanded a princely sum of 2,000 birr, far exceeding its cover price of 705 birr.
Abiyot, an aspiring writer himself, says, “The pricing is not determined by the book’s value but rather its availability in the market. Books that are in high demand among readers are not printed in large quantities due to the authors’ inability to cover the rising printing costs.”
Alemayehu Gelagay, a venerable figure in the Ethiopian literary landscape, draws attention to a grave concern plaguing the industry. He says he has witnessed printing prices escalate rapidly without restraint first hand.
Alemayehu draws parallels between the soaring prices of printing and the broader economic inflation gripping the nation, recalling his own book’s printing costs nearly quadrupled – from 31 birr to 131 birr – between its first and second editions in a short time frame.
He attributes these unsettling fluctuations to the exorbitant prices of imported paper, the scarcity of foreign currency, and the stranglehold of local importers.
“Despite the government’s move to remove the 15 percent value-added tax (VAT) on printing services, the price of paper continues to fluctuate at the discretion of importers, exacerbating the challenges faced by publishers,” he explained to The Reporter,” he said.
Adding to the disquieting panorama, a disconcerting practice has emerged among certain private printing houses. These establishments’ unilaterally lower rates absent formal policies – deemed an illegal and unjust move undermining their dual responsibilities to both business and empowering citizens, according to Alemayehu.
Importers’ inclination to prioritize other commodities for foreign currency exacerbates the already dire situation. According to Alemayehu, the price of books has skyrocketed, reaching a staggering range of 600 to 700 birr – an astounding 300 percent increase from previous levels.
Stakeholders, including Alemayehu, emphasize the profound societal impact, as many individuals are unable to afford such literary luxuries, resulting in a near-halt in book publications. The strained relationship between publishers and printing houses further compounds the issue, as cash-strapped publishers struggle to make full payments.
In today’s market, publications only proceed when publishers can settle the entire amount, leading to a reduced number of copies produced and an inevitable rise in book prices. The challenges are acutely felt by both parties, as the cost of producing 1,000 editions is now double that of publishing 5,000 copies.
“For the past four months, I have completed my latest book, but publishing it continues to be a daunting challenge due to the daily escalation in prices. Distributors, who often collect books on credit from publishers, introduce an element of mistrust. Publishers hesitate unless distributors pay in full, yet the reality is that most distributors cannot afford to do so,” explained Alemayehu.
The escalating cost of paper constitutes a formidable obstacle for printing businesses across Ethiopia. Publication enterprises, bookstores, sellers, and authors, in particular, grapple with the mounting expenses, which significantly impact their overall production costs, forcing them to make difficult decisions to sustain their operations or halt their publications altogether.
Publishers and bookstores now face the intricate task of striking a delicate balance between producing and selling books at reasonable prices while covering their production costs. As printing expenses continue their relentless ascent, publishers find themselves compelled to increase book prices to ensure profitability and sustain their businesses.
The repercussions of soaring printing costs cast a shadow over the aspirations of printing companies, prompting many publishers to reconsider their reliance on traditional printing houses.
In response, some publishers have turned to social media platforms for book fundraising, seeking alternative avenues to navigate the daunting challenges presented by the current landscape.
Nevertheless, according to Daniel Hailu, publication and communication officer of Berhanena Selam Printing Enterprise (BSPE), the enterprise utilizes diverse publication systems and marketing agreements.
In one approach, the Enterprise acquires the copyright to publish the entire book and compensates authors. Alternatively, it collaborates with authors in certain cases, sharing income after successful sales of printed publications and establishing a copyright agreement between the author and the Enterprise.
Jafer Book Store, a major book seller in the capital, is experiencing market imbalances due to the increasing prices of paper, which in turn affects customer affordability.
Seifedin Musa, a supervisor at Jafer Book Store, echoes this sentiment, stating that fewer publications result in higher costs for publishers. Some publishers are turning to social media platforms to seek funding, introducing a revenue-sharing model after the book is published and sold.
Seifedin emphasizes the need for mechanisms to boost local manufacturing and calls for increased government efforts in promoting domestic paper and pulp production.
“As a business entity, we are feeling the impact of rising book prices and raw material costs,” he said. “Our primary customers, who are mostly monthly salaried individuals, are now struggling to afford multiple books due to insufficient earnings. Resolving the issues in the printing industry requires the implementation of various measures,” said Seifedin.
The challenges confronting the printing industry extend far beyond the realm of paper prices, encompassing the labyrinthine landscape of raw materials and machinery costs. Daniel says private printing houses also face similar struggles due to global increases in paper prices. He emphasizes the need for local manufacturing of finishing materials to reduce book prices, underscoring the impact of successive paper price hikes worldwide.
“The primary reason for the escalating printing costs is the consistent rise in global paper prices, coupled with the taxes imposed on paper within the country,” he said. Despite BSPE being a governmental printing house, the procurement of printing jobs occurs through auctions, which he says highlights the price difference between government and private printing houses is not substantial.
To encourage publishers, the Enterprise employs various strategies to support the sector, including duty-free import of raw materials, VAT minimization, and a loan service that promotes a six-month payment period for publishers. However, the industry’s reliance on imported materials remains a formidable challenge, with only a meager five percent of the paper supply being met by local manufacturers.
According to data provided by BSPE, the Enterprise set a target of printing 135,522,750 km in the previous year, but surpassed expectations by achieving 136,351,756 km—0.58 percent higher than the goal. During the same period, the Enterprise utilized 2,659 tons of raw material paper.
Furthermore, imported consumption materials such as paint and various chemicals accounted for 84 percent, while only 15 percent was sourced locally. In terms of finishing processes, 2,923 tons of imported materials were used, while the local market covered a mere 517 tons.
Established in 1914, Berhanena Selam currently relies on international imports for 95 percent of its printing paper.
As stakeholders and industry experts advocate for increased support and enhanced strategies to overcome the challenges faced by the sector, it is crucial to note that Ethiopia is home to only two paper manufacturing companies, namely Anmol Products Ethiopia PLC and Wonji Paper Factory, which together meet a mere five percent of the country’s paper requirements.
Conversely, essential raw materials such as paint and chemicals, vital for the final stages of the printing process, are entirely imported.
A local private printing enterprise in the capital, on conditions of anonymity, has revealed that they exclusively procure all printing supplies from local importers, spending nearly 20 million birr on various raw materials for their printing business.
Despite witnessing the closure of numerous printing enterprises due to heightened market competition, especially impacting print media publishers, the local company emphasizes the critical role of “flexible” business mechanisms in maintaining productivity amid a declining market flow.
While the publishing industry has experienced a decline in interest for certain genres, such as biographies, autobiographies, and novels, attributed to a significant 400 percent increase in publication costs, the local company says it has successfully adapted different mechanisms.
“By expanding into diverse sectors such as NGOs and governmental organizations, we have successfully published various printed materials to sustain our presence in the market,” the company says.
However, concerns persist regarding the lack of advocacy and support for the printing industry. In a plea for industry support, Alemayehu urges local paper manufacturers to play a more active role in uplifting the sector, lamenting the apparent neglect from the Ethiopian Authors Association in addressing the problems plaguing the industry, leaving the sector without essential advocacy.
“In a realm where literature serves as a potent conveyance for culture and identity, it distresses me to witness the neglect of an industry that lacks advocates, failing to address its problems as required by organizational structures and being labeled as non-existent,” Alemayehu said.