How to Spend a Week’s Wages on a Book

If you read my blog you know that I love Africa. But I will say this: the books there are a bit pricey. In Burkina Faso where I lived, an average new novel (when you can find one at all) has a cover price of 11,000 francs. It sounds like a lot, and it is. For most people in Burkina Faso, 11,000 francs is more than a week’s wages.

That’s right. A week’s wages for a book.

Think of it in UK terms. Minimum wage, £6.50. A week’s wages, £273. Can you imagine spending £273 on one book?

We are fortunate to live in a place where we have access to bookshops, school libraries and public libraries, Kindles and Nooks. We are blessed that we can buy and borrow books without spending a fortune on them.

If you want to spend a fortune on a single book, the place to go is of course Ebay. As you know, there are some very optimistic sellers on ebay. At the time of writing:

  • £273.41 can buy you all 4 volumes of Moral Theology, published in 1713
  • £273.97 gets you a Handbook of Herbs and Spices, published in 2001
  • £273.33 buys you a used copy of Ray Mears’ World Of Survival
  • £271.99 would buy you The Accountants Bad Joke book OR Lumbosacral and Pelvic Procedures

Most of the ludicrously expensive books on Ebay are non-fiction, but I did spot a novel, too. Robert Harris’s thriller The Ghost is currently available at a Buy it Now price of £271.82. The seller of this used book is called Fortune International Ltd (not kidding) and in the smallprint they say: ‘Our company is dedicated to providing you with the best quality, lowest cost products on eBay.’

You can spend a week’s wages on a book if you want to, but thank goodness you don’t have to. We have affordable books all around us. All we have to do is read them.

One week’s wages to buy a book

Am negotiating the sale of ‘Albino Camel’ book rights with an African publisher here at FILO. Sticking point: he is proposing a cover price of 11,000 CFA – that’s almost 15 pounds sterling.

Bear in mind that a typical day wage for unskilled labour here in Ouagadougou is 1,000 CFA and you’ll see what the problem is. Eleven day’s wages for one slim volume.

This is precisely the problem with the publishing industry in Africa, and one of the main reasons that reading has such a minimal place in African culture.

FILO 2010

FILO 2010

This week I’m blogging from Ouagadougou’s International book festival – the ‘Foire Internationale du Livre de Ouagadougou’ (FILO). I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. It’s hardly Frankfurt but it still has a certain buzz.

The most interesting speech at the opening ceremony yesterday was from Pierre-Claver Ilboudo, who exhorted all writers in Africa to persevere with their craft.

Burkinabe writers are facing an uphill battle, Ilboudo said, for three reasons. Firstly, it is hard to write here. The oral culture of Burkina Faso has little time for the written word, and does not provide a ‘serene’ atmosphere for the work of writers. Secondly, it is hard to publish. The financial realities of publishing in subsaharan Africa are grim: it’s a very long way from the manuscript to the bookshop (that phrase works better in French, of course, because ‘manuscrit’ rhymes with ‘librarie’). Every book represents a business risk, and nowhere more so than in Burkina Faso. Thirdly, it is hard to find readers interested in buying (or even borrowing) books.

Ilboudo said that books in Burkina Faso need to be available (bigger print runs) and accessible (lower prices). He  encouraged his listeners to give books as Christmas presents this year!

He called on the state to provide funding for literature in the same way as it does for cinema and music.

He called on writers to be more unified – there are four separate Writers’ Guilds in Burkina Faso. How can the writers of Burkina communicate their ideas to the world if they can’t even communicate to each other?

After Pierre-Claver Ilboudo’s speech, the Minister of Culture declared the book festival well and truly open, and we all swarmed into the exhibition halls to see what we could see. More about the exhibits tomorrow.