Blurred line between publisher and printer


Originally in the position of a concerned, business-minded ‘patron’ eager to empty cash into publication with potential to generate money, the Malawian publisher seems to have evolved into something else: printer.

The development seems to have confused some people, including seasoned writers. At least this is the impression one got during the commemoration of World Book and Copyright Day held in Blantyre on April 23.

Malawi Pen general secretary, Kingston Lapukeni, observes that the line between the publisher and printer has become so blurred over the years that some would-be authors with manuscripts do not know where to go.


“Surely, there is confusion between the roles of a publisher and a printer, so much so that it has become difficult for those willing to get their manuscripts considered for publication to understand how things work, let alone [understand] the roles of these two [printer and publisher],” Lapukeni observes.

He suggests that players in the industry should civic educate people on the respective roles of the printer and publisher in a bid to avoid cases where would-be writers go to the wrong party, a development that results in time wastage as individuals hop from one office to another in their search for a book outlet.

But seasoned publisher Egidio Mpanga, while acknowledging that there is confusion surrounding the two roles, observes that Malawi could be the only country where this confusion reigns. He says the roles of printers and publishers are well-established in other countries, such that confusion is out of the question.



Book Publishers Association of Malawi (Bpam) president, Alfred Msadala, pins the genesis of the confusion that mars the roles of printer and publisher on one group of people: the missionaries.

“Printing came with the missionaries in Malawi. These missionaries specialised in publishing manuscripts into books. But, somewhere along the way [during periods of less publishing activity], their machines were idle and they started printing secular books. Hence, they became printers and publishers,” Msadala says.

As a result, only a thin line stood between printers and publishers and, over the years, even the thin line has been thinning out.

Msadala may be privy to the story that gave birth to the confusion that surrounds the role of printers and publishers, but Mpanga has examples.

“For example, the late Aubrey Kalitera was an author, he was also his own financier and had printing equipment,” Mpanga explains, emphasising the point that the ‘confusion’ is real.

One of the manuscript editors at Dzuka Publishing Company Limited, Chalo Jawadu, chips in. He says, in principle, the publisher is the wheel that spins the book industry.

“The publisher looks at the financial aspect [of the deal] and is in charge of editing, illustrating, designing [responsibilities], as well as establishing linkages with printers, acting as advisor to the author, [overseeing] sales and distribution. On the other hand, the printer is involved in production of the book— turning a manuscript into a book,” Jawadu says.

Msadala adds that, in a nutshell, the printer is involved in the mechanical aspect of printing. In this case, his role ends at the multiplication of copies, as assigned by the publisher.

But Msadala is quick to point out that the printer is an integral part of the publishing industry, pointing out that the industry encompasses many players.

He says for one’s work to be published, there is need to identify a publisher, who assumes the role of investor and sources capital from banks and other investors. The publisher then identifies a printer, who turns a manuscript into a printed product.

In the process, a horde of other players may be engaged, among them illustrators, artists, photographers, export jobbers, as well as people who ensure that the [hard copy] book gets to foreign users through direct mail. Others involved are those involved in subscription, sales and mass distribution work.

“Do not forget that we also have manufacturers of materials and equipment that is used in the course of publishing books— such materials include paper, film, computer, glue, clothes, printing plates, ink, thread, among others,” Msadala says.

On the other hand, Mpanga adds that other important elements in the industry are readers and consumers.

“By reader, I mean those used to test the market and not necessarily the consumer. When an individual or institution brings a manuscript to a publisher, what happens is that the publisher tests the market by sending the material to people who go back to him and report whether they think the book will sell. We must understand that the publisher is a businessman or woman who wants to generate profit after investing in something,” Mpanga says.

Costly gambling

While the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation indicates in its message for the World Book and Copyright Day that “the book is the link between the past and the future” as well as “a force for creating and sharing wisdom and knowledge”, these facts do not seem to register on public officials who ‘punish’ the industry through heavy taxes imposed on paper.

“In other countries, paper is not taxable and this helps in reducing shelf prices for books. In Malawi, paper is taxed, along with some tools used in publishing, and this renders the cost of books high. In addition, we also have people and organisations who opt to publish their books abroad because it is less costly there than in Malawi. All these factors have a bearing on the publishing industry in Malawi,” Msadala.

Bpam board chairperson, Professor Paskal Kishindo, agrees, and adds:

“In fact, we have realised that, contrary to perceptions that Malawians do not want to read, there is thirst for reading in the country as evidenced by the fact that when you buy a newspaper, everyone wants to read, yet they cannot buy it for themselves due to factors such as cost. Once the obstacle of high pricing is removed, we will not talk of reading culture lacking among readers in the country,” Kishindo says.

Beating tradition

As public officials dilly-dally in making a position on taxing printing paper, however, the book publishing industry has started using options such as digital libraries.

According to a paper titled ‘The future of digital libraries in Malawi: Prospects and Challenges’, access to books is restricted in sub-Saharan Africa.

Assistant college librarian at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine, Diana Mawindo Chitimbe, argues in the paper that digital libraries offer a number of advantages over traditional [hard copy] book libraries.

She says, despite challenges such as low training and human resource, low digital and information literacy rate and inadequate Information, Communication and Technology infrastructure in the country, digital library advantages override disadvantages.

“Advantages [of digital libraries] include lack of physical boundaries, multiple access, and round-the-clock availability. Digital libraries also help in saving space in the library when there is no room for expansion,” Mawindo observes.

Needless to say the printer’s place is unavailable in digital libraries; somehow, and unintentionally, clearing the mist of confusion on the roles of printer and publisher

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