Commentary - A light goes out for African writing

Nana Yaa Mensah on the end of a great and influential publishing adventure

A link has been severed between African writers and readers worldwide - Harcourt is to publish no more new work in its Heinemann African Writers Series. As of this year, the only new books to appear under the AWS banner will be those commissioned before November 2002. At one fell swoop, another of the few British outlets for African writing has been blocked off, one that has played a central part in establishing the continent's literature in the public imagination. And although Harcourt says it will review its position, it seems that AWS is being put to sleep.

The series was founded in 1962 by Alan Hill and Van Milne with Chinua Achebe. It is hard to overstate its importance to African writing. The launch title was Achebe's great novel Things Fall Apart; William Heinemann had published it in hardback in 1958 and shifted only 2,000 copies in the first two years. Today, there are more than 12 million copies in print, in 50 languages.

AWS was conceived as a paperback list; from its base in the UK, it would sell writing from Africa to schools and universities, as the book market in the post-independence countries was largely educational. That did not detract from the central idea: AWS was about the literary novel and key works of non-fiction. It set benchmarks for quality of writing and production.

For younger writers in Africa, with an infrastructure barely able to support bookselling across borders with neighbours, let alone to Europe and North America, the moratorium is a lifeline cut off. British and anglophone African readers will go blissfully unaware of good novels produced last year, this year, perhaps next, in 52 countries. And that merely confirms the idea of Africa as a continent with no serious literary culture.

As James Currey, publisher of AWS from 1967-84, puts it: "It's poor and wobbly business thinking." With no new blood and no sense of adventure, the list cannot renew itself. He recalls that when he proposed publishing a translation of the Senegalese writer Sembene Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood, his colleagues argued that no one would buy it - it was too long. The novel came out in 1970. "By the time I left, it had sold 100,000 copies."

AWS initially specialised in West African and anglophone writers. After Currey joined Heinemann, the list expanded hugely, putting out work by Sembene, Bessie Head, Mariama Ba, Mongo Beti and Nadine Gordimer. Soon it was publishing up to 20 books each year. In addition to novels in translation, there was drama and poetry (Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Dennis Brutus, Christopher Okigbo).

When British Tyre and Rubber acquired the list in 1982, however, it decided to bring out only one or two new books each year. Currey moved on to found his own company. AWS was eventually repackaged, but between 1982 and 1987, the firm changed hands four times. The series did not get its wind back until 1990, when Adewale Maja-Pearce became editor. He promoted new writers vigorously, introducing Kojo Laing, Biyi Bandele, Jamal Mahjoub and Chenjerai Hove. The list began to lose its breath again when he left.

Robert Sulley, managing director of the international division of Harcourt, has witnessed at first hand the changes inside Heinemann over the past 13 years. He points to successes: sponsorship for African postgraduate students, charitable trusts in three countries, print-on-demand facilities that ensure as many books as possible stay in print.

"We're actually expanding in Africa. We employ about 90 people on the continent." But he says of frontlist publishing recently: "None of the titles has made any profit and the new books aren't getting on to curricula. AWS forms about 0.5 per cent of our business." The company trades mostly in textbooks.

He also argues that it is often impossible to command review coverage for new books from African writers. "In the past few years, in effect, we've been publishing into a vacuum. What we're trying to do now is devote more effort to promoting our backlist." Changes in structure with each sale or reorganisation of Heinemann have done little to help. But Sulley has sold rights in a batch of novels to Penguin; under the agreement, 15 books will appear under the Penguin Classics imprint. The first titles are already giving AWS a revived presence in British bookshops.

So, once more, a multinational is rethinking the shape of AWS, but the list still does not fit its owner's neat plans. So, once again, we're back to playing pass the parcel, the parcel being African writing. One can argue that young writers who will no longer be able to look to it as an outlet can always place their work elsewhere - and, indeed, that this is healthy. Some would point to the recent success of Ben Okri, Leila Aboulela, Helon Habila and even Biyi Bandele, who now writes mainly for stage and screen. But Okri and Bandele live in the UK; Habila and Aboulela both won the Caine Prize for African Writing, which is administered from London. Both factors play an important part in getting their work commissioned by "mainstream" publishers, producers and broadcasters.

The founders of AWS proved that new African writing could be published profitably and boldly. The climate for the book business may have changed, but that cannot justify killing the spirit of Achebe, Hill and Milne.