AiW note: Justin Cox is the CEO of African Books Collective (ABC). ABC is an African owned, worldwide marketing and distribution outlet publishing books from Africa. It began trading in 1989 as a self-help initiative by a group of seventeen founder publishers who met to address the constraints they were experiencing in marketing and distributing their books outside of their domestic markets.
ABC’s wide-ranging catalogues promote big and small academic presses, children’s books publishers, NGO and writers’ organisations, and literary presses, including Modjaji Books, Deep South and FEMRITE who Africa in Words have featured in the past. They also run the website readafricanbooks.com which profiles the work of African publishers and books.
Cox has a background in books marketing and has previously held positions at Michigan State University Press, HarperCollins NZ, Penguin NZ, and spent two years in the US establishing ABC’s operations. Together with African publishers, he has pioneered the interaction of African publishers with the US, UK and worldwide, particularly developing systems in the digital age.
ABC is celebrating the past thirty years of independent publishing this year, congrats ABC! To mark this momentous birthday, AiW is publishing a series shining a spotlight on those who make up ABC today. Over the coming weeks, we will be talking to some of the publishers from the collective, gathering their Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A series that invites collective reflections on the way the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our work and our communities. Our series begins with a Q&A and Words on the Times with Cox. We ask Cox about the history of ABC, how he got there, his proudest moment, and what’s in store for ABC’s next thirty years…
AiW: First of all, congratulations to African Books Collective (ABC) for celebrating thirty years! Looking back at ABC’s history, how has the collective changed in that time? And what has changed recently since you became CEO?
Justin Cox: Thanks so much for the opportunity to help us celebrate.
I guess the major change, or evolution, for ABC has been the way it is funded. When I joined, the collective was reliant on external funders to keep it afloat, whereas today we are a self-sustaining not-for-profit, or social enterprise. In practice this has meant the emphasis of the work is now on bookselling, rather than also having to look for funds and appeal to that sector at the same time. ABC has spent 15 years with and 15 years without donor funds.
The original intention back in 1990 was that after initial seed funding, the collective would become self-supporting, but that didn’t happen in the timeframe they were expecting. In those days selling opportunities were far more limited, so ABC became reliant on donor funds. This influenced its focus, but gave African books and publishing a strong profile, which has been of enormous benefit even today.
In 2002 I began work with the Nigerian publisher Victor Nwankwo on making Fourth Dimension Publishers books available through print on demand (POD). He wanted ABC to run a pilot project to see whether it could offer a road to self sustainability. The pilot was very promising, and this started ABC on its path to digitization. This meant there was potentially a model of working which could continue once donor funds dried up. When funds did eventually cease, most of the outreach work, which included workshops, publisher exchanges, resource publications, and author tours, could not continue, and out of necessity we orientated more towards book production work and looking for digital channels to make the book available in. There was a lot of development work to do during that time, setting up the systems we now use routinely, and the collective had a bit of a start-up feel, with the added benefit of already having a profile. All of the digital tools we started using were brand new, and we were lucky to have the skills in-house to pursue this approach and the industry partnerships already up and running.
A few years into being self-supporting, I was made CEO after Mary Jay who had been in charge of the organisation for sometime retired. Since then I have continued to focus on output and have increased the number of new publishers with good lists who have joined. ABC also does as much as possible to keep the books flowing and circulating. If a publisher has a production issue, we take care of it, if they need review or author copies sent, we will send them. I like there to be no friction in the distribution and access to the content. For many years, during its funded days, the books were only available from ABC, few wholesalers were dealt with and Amazon had not been invented. Many customers, particularly if shipping across the world from the UK was not an option for them, couldn’t order the physical books from Oxford because of rigid procurement policies. Not so now, everything has really opened up.
What has been your greatest accomplishment or proudest moment with ABC?
I guess I am happy that ABC is on steady ground and that we can continue to offer African publishers this distribution service into the future. This feeling has been a long time coming. A few years ago we were not seeing any radical movements in our sales or output, but during the last two or so years, new customers have made a difference to sales. Additionally more new books were offered, which also obviously shifts things in a positive direction. As a result, we think we are more resilient; we thought this year would be one to weather because of the pandemic, but book sales have been very strong, both print and digital. We have achieved a lot with a small team, but I can’t say I will feel completely accomplished until we are able to increase the percentage of sales we remit to publishers.
Could you tell us about how you came from working at HarperCollins New Zealand, to heading up ABC?
I was looking for a job in the UK and saw an ad for a job at ABC in The Bookseller. I thought it sounded interesting, and I talked to Mary Jay on the phone – then I turned up in Oxford once I was there. I was employed as a marketing officer.
There was a lot of outreach work happening when I arrived, and it was a busy office. I worked in Oxford for four years before I decided to head home. ABC then offered me a position running ABC’s North American operation at Michigan State University Press, so I changed my mind and went to Michigan for two years instead. Then I did return to New Zealand and was employed remotely as ABC’s marketing director – very cutting edge for 2007, being employed remotely, but we used Skype. Mary Jay retired in 2012 and I have been CEO since then.
It is strange to think I have been employed by the same company for the majority of my career so far, or even half of my life! But ABC has kept evolving enough to keep things interesting.
AiW: What does your day-to-day look like with ABC?
I spent a fair bit of time communicating, mostly with publishers. I think I could spend forever in the inbox, but I still do some production work and add new titles to our metadata systems, so I have to get out of the inbox and resist the urge to answer everything. Working with the books is great; I like seeing what new books publishers are releasing and presenting them online. I always have a lot of other projects which can be hard to get to with the amount of day-to-day priorities, so we are working with freelancers to help with this and keep things moving.
One of the things that sets ABC apart is that it operates in both the academic and trade book markets, and has a huge focus on global distribution, distributing a range of African publishers – from scholarly and literary presses, to commercial, university, and children’s publishers – how do you decide which presses to distribute on ABC?
ABC is a publishers’ collective, and we like to distribute books from publishers who are committed to publishing as an industry. We don’t like to release one book from a publisher who just shuts up shop later on. As you have noted, we distribute a big range of publishers who have many reasons for what they are doing. ABC carries their beliefs to international markets for them, and if we believe that the content they are producing can find a market, then we will take the books on. We let publishers come to us in the main, and it is good if publishers come with some sort of understanding about how we work and realistic ideas about the appeal of their books in the various book markets. Some publishers might be in touch with us while setting up, and it is always gratifying to see them start publishing if we have assisted with their planning from the start. One thing we don’t like is publishers who come to us with books which they are clearly just wanting to put on Amazon. Sometimes this doesn’t even have anything to do with sales; they see it only as a prestige point for the authors, which is real nonsense because anyone can put a book on Amazon, and your marketing work has only just begun at that point. Create Space and other self-publishing platforms are more suitable for these titles and authors. We don’t have anything against self-published books and authors necessarily, but we advocate for the independent publishing industries, so it would be inconsistent for us to go down that road and a real headache practically. We are happiest when we are representing publishers who want their books to be read. We don’t like to lock content up or price it very highly. Quality control can be an issue, but if the understanding and commitment is coming from the publisher, we tend to believe the ideas should be out there.
How have the interest and sales in different parts of the world changed over the past thirty years?
Massively! Though the US remains our biggest market, the share it used to take has reduced, since ABC is now selling in so many more countries than we did during our first 15 years. The geographic spread of sales has also fluctuated, and it can be hard to pin down exactly where an end user may be if books are sold via wholesalers, but there has been notable growth in China and Germany. Italy had a good year via our global wholesale channels last year, and a couple of years ago South Africa was seeing strong growth in digital sales, which has now flattened off. Many regions have featured at one time or another, particularly when we started with digital content for libraries, which were purchasing our entire collection to get started.
During the COVID crisis, some of our digital content was offered free to scholars and the general public via both Project MUSE and JSTOR. The biggest interest in our content during that period came from (largest to smallest): US, China, Hong Kong, UK, Germany, Canada, Japan, India, Netherlands and France. It is interesting to note that no African countries are featured here. While we were in this period of COVID generosity on the MUSE platform, our digital collection moved up from place 35 as a proportion of usage to 7. So we are hoping this usage proves the usefulness of African published books in the international institutions.
While physical book sales to libraries in the US have collapsed under the disruption of COVID restrictions, customers at home have been buying general books like never before. So it is quite possible that when we crunch the numbers this year, the US will be back up with a higher percentage of sales. I guess for me the long term trend has been the strong interest in China, to a lesser extent Germany, and continued growth in the US where book buyers, libraries and institutions really put their money where their mouth is. It is a rewarding market to be working in, and ABC owes a huge amount to institutions there which have supported ABC’s work from the beginning.
A potential growth spot remains South Africa. There was some promise, but added customs duties and taxes make the importation of books uneconomical, and commercial distributors there have shown little interest in our list or developing a POD or micro-warehouse operation, so we are left with just digital. The e-book subscription platform YouScribe will soon be launching in South Africa with the ABC collection. They are partnering with the telcom company MTN to make the subscriptions easily paid for and available, so perhaps this will be a route for South African customers, who I know from our Facebook page and website query forms would like access to books from their neighbors.
What motivated you to begin the readafricanbooks.com site with the publisher profiles and interviews with writers?
A few things, I guess. The first was to carry on the outreach work ABC has always done since its inception. During its donor days, ABC published a few resources on African publishing, and we wanted to recreate that work online, and to continue to put forth perspectives from African publishers. So often these, and other perspectives and conversations on publishing, may only be heard within a small room at a conference that others can’t attend. We had quite a bit of this material that we wanted to share, and to live on forever somewhere. And also to continue to document recent dialogues and have them available in one place.
Independent publishers all around the world are very committed people, and it is interesting for anyone to read about people who are behind some of these presses; their struggles and successes, and their really diverse reasons for doing what they are doing. One reason for the profiles, outside of the promotion of the imprints we distribute, is that they may provide a better picture of the African publishing industry, particularly how small and micro presses are using publishing more fluidly to achieve their aims and reach their audiences. From our perspective these publishers are doing a lot to keep Africa’s publishing output up. We have also invited publishers to use the platform to promote their locally based authors, send us their reviews and market reports.
More generally, we have our online store, which isn’t the best place for us to showcase our other work. By having two websites, we increase our presence online, which assists with search results and links rising to the surface a bit more. It will be a handy tool now we will not be out and about so much, and we are wide open to suggestions, collaborations and submissions.
You have written about how in 2007, funding for ABC ceased, leading to the closure of physical offices and some staff not being kept on. This eventually resulted in a remodelling and a rebirth of ABC as a virtual organisation. How would you say that this has prepared you for the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic?
I think our model and ways of working has meant ABC has been protected from some of the impacts. We did have a good 2019, which meant cashflow was ok so long as things didn’t drag on for too long. Many of the within-country, print-to-wholesale channels we use were able to keep trading, and our digital book partners were also very active. The widespread of vendors, formats and markets we work in helps cushion the blow, more than it would if we had physical stock trapped in a warehouse somewhere which was shut. Our staff were not impacted and were able to carry on, as were our publishers who were also busy producing during their lockdowns. Because our remodeling was sort of removing the physical, we are well-equipped to cope now the rest of the world has been forced into the virtual sphere too. I also think books are very resilient in times of strife.
What are some of the new possibilities with this new decade and era for ABC?
Well, as I have mentioned, we find ourselves in a time of relative financial stability, and this will enable ABC to plan with more confidence. We have new board members and a new director. We also have staff retirements planned over the coming years, so we have a lot to think about. As usual the publishers will set the strategy in consultation with staff, but I feel very upbeat about ABC’s future, whatever the outcome there.
I think the demand for content from Africa will remain strong. In the academic space, I think conversations will need to be held between academia and publishers about access to content, particularly now libraries are being pushed to drop print acquisitions wherever possible. Potentially this could result in an increased reach for ABC and the books it distributes.
I am sure the collective will continue to expand into new market places around the world through vendor partners and directly. COVID-19 I think will give rise to a lot of organisations reviewing their spending, particularly around travel and face-to-face meetings. The resources saved while travel is off the agenda can be used for potentially more impactful projects and investments to assist ABC more efficiently carry out its work. I think even after things open up, we will certainly be doing things differently, and probably better.
We are also delighted to be able to share Justin Cox’s Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A set initiated to connect up our communities and experiences of the pandemic around our common focuses and shared interests.
AiW: Tell us a bit about your own work and the ways that the pandemic has affected your plans and/or things on the ground there with you?
Justin Cox: I am Justin Cox and I run African Books Collective. We distribute books published in Africa worldwide: scholarly titles, literature and books for children and young people. We have an online store where customers can purchase directly, but we also work with the wholesale and library trades to make the books as widely available as we can. The biggest aspect of my work that has changed has been the absence of travel to meetings, book fairs and conferences. This has always been a lot of work and cost, so I am enjoying re-orientating what we do and spending money on other areas. I have been thinking about switching things up a bit for some time, and suddenly the timing is right.
In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
I have been working from home for 14 or so years. I have had a lot of time creating the perfect conditions for maximum concentration and productivity each day, all balanced with a healthy dose of free time. However, a week before our lockdown here, my son Nico was born, and now it is complete chaos. I have had to adapt to multitasking between parenting and working, which has reordered my priorities. He is going to be a real handful, so I think I might be making a return to an office eventually, which will be odd. It has been a real shake-up, and I find myself going in the opposite direction to everyone else.
What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
That the books keep coming in! It has always been a buzz each day for me – opening the emails to see who has published what today, to see what is up for distribution. This year, despite all the turmoil, I think ABC may end up offering a record number of books for distribution, which goes to show that nothing can stop those who do what they believe in.
How can our communities support you?
You can help us amplify the availability of the books published by the independent and grassroots publishers we represent, by reviewing them and purchasing them. By ordering from ABC directly, you are ensuring that African publishers receive the most they can from that sale, rather than losing a discount to another seller.
Read ABC’s ‘Publisher Profiles’, which spotlights some of the publishers that they distribute around the world, a few of which will be talking to over the coming weeks.
Keep your eyes out for more Words on the Times with ABC participating publishers!