Just married: Mr Publisher to Mrs Printer!

MSADALA —— We also have manufacturers of materials

Later this month, Malawians will join the world during commemorations marking World Book and Copyright Day. RICHARD CHIROMBO analyses one of the trends that have taken place over the years, namely the blurred similarity, or difference, between publisher and printer.

At first, the lines were so clearly defined, so that publishers never encroached into printers’ territory, vice versa.

Then, before money became the centre of the universe, the publisher’s simple job was that of a ‘patron’ out to empty cash into publication projects.


The intent, of course, was to generate funds.

Today, the Malawian publisher seems to have evolved into something else: Printer.

When seasoned writers gathered to commemorate World Book and Copyright Day in Blantyre the other year, this evolving nature of publisher did not escape the attention of players in the book publishing industry.


For instance, speaking before seasoned writers Malawi Pen General Secretary, Kingston Lapukeni, lamented that, since the line between publisher and printer had, somehow, become blurred, would-be authors with manuscripts did 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],” he bewailed then.

There is, clearly, a need for players in the industry to school those not well-versed with issues such as roles of publisher and printer so that the purposes of those in these spheres do not get lost in translation.

Book Publishers Association of Malawi (Bpam) pins the genesis of the confusion that mars the roles of printer and publisher on one group of people: Christian 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,” a write-up reads.

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

A case in point is veteran writer the late Aubrey Kalitera. He was an author, was his own financier and had printing equipment.

However, Salima-based poet Jonathan Kapalinje said there would be no confusion if everyone stuck to their roles.

“In an ideal setup, 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 adviser to the author, overseeing sales and distribution. On the other hand, the printer is involved in production of the book— that is, the task of turning a manuscript into a book so that the final reader can appreciate that ‘there is something worth reading here’,” he said.

In other countries, especially where systems are well set, for one’s work to be published, there is a 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 players may be engaged, among them illustrators, artists, photographers, export jobbers, as well as people who ensure that the book gets into the hands of, or catches the attention of, foreign users through direct mail. Others involved are those in subscription, sales and mass distribution work.

Veteran writer Alfred Msadala, who knows the industry inside out through his association with Book Publishers Association of Malawi, said there were many others involved in the publication of a book.

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

And, of course, there are other key elements in the industry, namely readers and consumers.

The reader, in this case, is not necessarily the consumer but people who test people’s anticipated taste. For instance, 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 or her and report whether they think the book will sell.

After all, the publisher is a businessman or woman who wants to generate profit after investing in something.

In the end, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) does not mind, so long as a book is published at the end of the day.

After all, according to Unesco’s position, “the book is the link between the past and the future” as well as “a force for creating and sharing wisdom and knowledge”.

But, in Malawi, the book faces another challenge, even before it is born: Punitive taxes.

So, while the Malawi Government dilly-dallies in making a position on taxing printing paper, 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 [hardcopy] 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, leaving the challenge of confusion over roles of printer and publisher unaddressed— at least in the Malawi setup.

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