Bookstores need to have a clear identity to better position themselves

Opines Agnès Debiage, Consultant, ADCF Africa in conversation with All About Book Publishing.


Agnès Debiage, ADCF Africa, is a facilitator. She supports booksellers and the structuring of the book chain in the African continent. As an author, publisher and a bookseller, having lived in Africa for 23 years, she has a global vision of the issues. She likes innovative projects and challenges. Here, Agnès shares more about the African book selling market.

AABP: Do tell us about the countries you have worked in the African continent in promoting Booksellers?

Agnès: For 20 years, I was a bookseller in Egypt (Cairo and Alexandria), working in often complicated conditions (censorship, political regime, currency devaluations, revolution, etc.). At the same time, I accompanied French-speaking booksellers not only in the Indian Ocean, North Africa but also in Sub-Saharan Africa. Even if each country has its specificities, my own daily life in Egypt gave me essential keys to better understand the situation of the bookstores that I support. I have facilitated through an international association that I co-founded many training programs on different aspects of the bookseller profession in countries like Madagascar, Mauritius, Djibouti, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, Benin, Guinea, etc.

AABP: What are the main challenges that booksellers experience?

Agnès: In some countries, local publishing needs to improve (particularly for young people) to be more attractive. For imports, the high cost of French books which are resold between 20 and 40% more expensive than in France in African bookstores is a huge obstacle. The lack of properly trained staff in bookstores and the ability of booksellers to make their spaces more attractive are challenges for years to come.

Bookstores need to have a clear identity to better position themselves and integrate the fact that it is supply that generates demand and not the other way around.

AABP : Do booksellers get any support from the government?

Agnès: Depending on the country, booksellers have little support from their local authorities and bookstores are often seen more as a simple business than as a cultural agent.

France, via the Center National du Livre, supports French-speaking bookstores in Africa. The Embassy of the United States has set up a substantial catalog of American books translated into French at reduced prices and it is no coincidence that these titles are found in most bookstores on the continent.

It is essential to return to real needs as expressed by African booksellers. Governments should listen to them and integrate them in public calls for tenders on textbooks and the supply of public libraries

AABP : What languages and genres of books are maintained in different bookstores you have worked with?

Agnès: I work mainly in French-speaking Africa, the bookstores essentially have books in French with titles in English and local languages. However, the demand for books in English is growing everywhere in French-speaking Africa, it is a reality of these markets which is not currently satisfied.Children books, literature, personal and professional development are at the heart of readers’ requests.

AABP : Do tell us about the workshops you conduct.

Agnès: Today I work in different formats. But my specificity is to always start from the needs expressed by the interested parties because it is their situation and their context that take precedence. The objectives are to professionalize, structure, promote the development and influence of book professionals. One of the other challenges is to weave more links between publishers and booksellers because they have so much to exchange and to connect the different linguistic areas of Africa.

Our workshops focus on structuring the local book chain, strengthen writers, and improve relations between publishers and booksellers, so that they work better together.

Another focus area is training booksellers and publishers on essential aspects of their profession or by individually supporting booksellers to facilitate their strategic development. Finally as a consultant, I also love to work on innovative projects to promote the development of books in Africa.

AABP : As a Consultant and Coach what are the visions you share for the bookseller in the African Content. How can these be implemented?

Agnès: I think booksellers in Africa need to open up a lot more and train themselves to change their vision of bookstores, because their customers demand novelties. If they can’t find them in bookstores, they will look for this novelty elsewhere. This requires network development (in this, Sharjah is a major pole), positivity and commitment even if the situation in some countries is delicate, and the desire to move the lines. The worst enemy of the bookseller is the wear and tear of a professional daily life that is sometimes painful to bear.

The French-speaking booksellers that I accompanied to Sharjah came back reinvigorated /positive with the desire to do things.

AABP : Do share any experience of collaborations and how the booksellers have benefitted.

Agnès: I will give you two examples. I have been engaged for a long time in an associative frame work with booksellers in Madagascar. Today they have a real reflection on their profession, business, development and management that they do not share at the same level with most publishers who have not had the chance of this dynamic.

Last year, I led a publishers/booksellers workshop in Benin: inter professional relations were much relaxed, dialogue and listening began, a distribution structure was created following this 3-day workshop.

In Tunis, a bookstore & cultural space on 5 levels opened and I provided all the initial training of the staff. In a country where there is no training to become a bookseller, you save a lot of time to train your staff to aim for a standard of service and professionalism.

“I wish to reach people who cannot afford books” – Arafo Salah, CEO, Victor Hugo

“My bookstore name is Victor Hugo. It was created in 1995 and it’s in the center town, in Djibouti ‘s capital. We sell 80% of French books, but also English, Arabic and Somali’s, which is the local language,” says Arafo.

Why bookselling?

“My favourite hobby was always to read books. My first job was that of a French teacher and when I saw pupils facing difficulties in reading, writing and even speaking French, I decided to help maximum people by selling old and new books,” tells Arafo.

Challenges faced…

“One of the biggest challenge was to reach those who don’t like reading and those who can’t afford buying books.So I run special promotions and make stands in markets, villages and public places .I propose 50% – 60% discounts at times,” tells Arafo.

Success factor…

“The success factor is that as we always do our best for our customers (payment in 2-3 instalments, specials prices for poor people, etc). Many people know that they can lean on us,” adds Arafo.

Road ahead…

“We absolutely need our website. We also need to develop our own books as I’m also a publisher since 2019, so we can offer low prices,” tells Arafo. “I think that we have to do our best by giving satisfaction to our customers, organising books exhibitions with special prices, have good network with schools and institutions etc,” concludes Arafo.

“Our mission is to make books more visible and easily available to all bookstores” -Ange MBELLE, Manager of GVG SARL (distributor), Cameroon

“I manage GVG SARL, based in Cameroon. We distribute books over the country and in other African countries around. Our mission is to make books more visible and easily available to all bookstores. We facilitate the supply to our retail partners. Our offer largely depends on their needs, and include all kinds of books in French and English mainly,” tells Ange.

Why bookseller?

“First of all, I’m a reader! I love books. I decided to distribute books in Cameroon, just because I noticed the difficulty of finding books. I wanted to help make that thing better,” she says.

Challenges faced…

“It’s not easy for us to find our place…. In our environment, neither bookstores nor publishers used to work with an intermediary. They both regularly mistake us for publisher or bookseller, depending on the case,” she says.

Changes you would like to see…

“Improving the circulation of books in Africa (which means more books for more readers) is closely linked to the resolution of reliable and regular transport solutions,” tells Ange.

Your success factors…

“Our sustainability so far certainly lies in our adaptability to local customs, while helping our partners get accustomed to international standards,” tells Ange.

On online selling…

“From my point of view and my observations, both types of libraries have their place in the market and complement each other. They respond to different categories of readers. Those who like to stroll and choose their books in library, and those who do not have time to visit, but wish to read,” shares Ange.

Road ahead…

“We would like to improve our African coverage by opening two new offices in different economic zones,” she says.

“I want to remain a cultural player in my country Mauritania” -Loubna, Librairie Vents Du Sud

“Our bookshop, Librairie Vents du Sud, is one of the oldest bookshops in Nouakchott. Located in the city centre of the Mauritanian capital, it is a French-speaking and generalist bookstore. It offers a large collection of books on Mauritania (history, culture, society, politics, economics, etc.) but also works by Mauritanian Francophone authors. We also distribute the works of Mauritanian authors in Arabic. Other popular genres in our bookshop are personal development, African literature, youth and subsidized books. We only do direct selling and we currently do not have online selling or website,” says Loubna.

Why bookselling?

“In 2009, I took over the management of the bookstore, which was going to close due to financial difficulties. After all the work done since the 90s and all the recognition, I found it inconceivable to close the only French bookstore at the time. I firmly believed in Henri Loevenbruck quote, “A bookstore that dies is not a page that turns, it is a book that closes forever.” And that’s how I caught the book virus and practiced becoming a reference bookseller,” she says.

Challenges faced…

“My biggest challenge is to keep this bookshop open, to develop it, to make books and reading accessible to as many people as possible and to remain a cultural player in my country Mauritania. For this, I must find ways and mechanisms so that the works reach us at the least cost,” she says.

Success factors…

“I think the strength of our bookstore is that we try to do our work as professionally as possible. Our bookshop is recognized as a reference bookstore by the Centre Nationali du livre in France. Our team is constantly in continuous formation. Another strong point is that the reader feels at home by the welcome and family atmosphere that reigns there,” she shares.

Road ahead…

“My objectives over the next few years would be to have a bigger space and to have a range of books in Arabic and English. I also wish to offer even more translated literature and to have a more adequate layout and management software adapted to our business. I also wish to create our website with the possibility of online sales,” tells Loubna.

What more is needed?

“There’s a saying back home that says “one hand can’t clap.” We all have to support us in order to continue to move forward and carry culture. The crux of the matter is funding and professional support,” concludes Loubna.

“My passion is to share the joy of reading and travelling through books” – Voahirana Ramalanjaona, Antananarivo Madagascar

“Mille Feuilles book store is located in Antananarivo Madagascar, it is a book store café where one can find French, English and Malagasy books. We keep many genres: literature, comics, youth albums, young adults novels, professional manuals…etc,” says Voahirana.

Why bookselling?

“I wanted to become a bookseller in order to help my compatriots to grow. Malagasy people are not used to read and there is a lot of efforts to get people used to reading. My passion is to share the joy of reading and travelling through books,” she says.

Challenges faced…

“The biggest challenge I face is to survive: Mille Feuilles has no economic balance today,” she replies. “Competition is tough due to informal Facebook sales and the lack of rules. Besides, public authorities must take responsibility for setting up rules and enforcing them. I regret to say that education is not the priority for the public authorities, while any evolution of a people passes through education first.”

Success factors…

“Mille Feuilles is a pleasant place accessible to all. There are many choices and employees are professional,” she says.

Road ahead…

“To survive first. And to participate in the establishment of rules, then bookstores can help people to grow,” she concludes.

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