Mobile booksellers keep Addis reading (Ethiopia)


By Mahlet Workyayehu | Addis Fortune January 10, 2017

Everywhere you go in Addis these days it seems that books are available to buy, whether it is from a book stand around Addis Ababa stadium and the National Theatre or from book shops or book vendors. Also it is a common sight to have people carrying around books on the roads and selling them to people sitting in cars or people walking on the streets. This is a new trend that has taken over the city. A few years ago the book market and readership was not widespread like it is today.

With the country’s literacy rate at 40pc, readership in Addis Ababa is growing. More and more people are developing the habit of reading in their spare time or making time in there busy schedules to read. Reading books has become common for people in all walks of life, “now people hanging out at bars and khat stores are buying books from us.” says Addis, a book vendor The cost of books in Addis, with the average price of a fiction novel book by a local author coming in around 80 Br, has increased in the past two years. A couple of years ago the price of a book was 30 Br.

These days the new generation is more fascinated with technology. More and more youth are using smartphones and using the internet to do everything. If they are not glued to their phones, it is the TV set watching shows and sports.

The people credited for expanding the readership of books in Addis are the mobile vendors. They walk around with books in their hands stacked all the way up to their neck, approaching any and everyone to buy a book of them. There are close to 1000 mobile vendors roaming the streets of Addis.

With the country’s literacy rate at 40pc, readership in Ethiopia is growing.
Addis is a mobile vendor, he has been selling books for five years. Although he is not literate, Addis knows all the titles of the books he carries, whether it be in Amharic or English. Since the recent announcement of the state of emergency in the country, in October, business has been tricky. The price he used to get the books from the stores have increased, and sometimes books that people want to read is not available. Some of his colleagues have also left the business due to the pressure from security guards in areas like Dembel, Bole Deldi, and in front of any big Hotel that tourists frequent. “We are treated like thieves and banned from some high-class tourist areas,” says Addis.

He hopes that an association for mobile vendors can be formed in all weredas that will unite them and stop this harassment from security guards so that they can freely sell the books.

Most readers in Ethiopia are interested in reading books centered on politics or iconic novels. Addis explains that “books written by legends such as Alemayehu Gelagay and Adam Reta are hard to find since they are very old. When we find these books we sell them for a higher price because it is rare to get our hands on them.”

“Recently, book publishers have been reprinting the classics and making then available for readers. They have been selling very fast since they have a huge fan base.” He adds

Yonas 32 is a book vendor located right next to the historic National Theatre. On a sunny morning, he is standing next to his books displayed against a concrete wall and on the floor over a thick layer of durable plastic. He is quick to greet his customers with a smile and offer his recommendations on the books his customers might be interested in reading. “I have been doing this for six years, the profit is not that good, but I enjoy selling books,” he said. Yonas has witnessed the price of books soar in the last two years. He says that “on a good day I make a 20pc profit on a book” says Yonas.

He has witnessed the growth of readership, which makes him proud. As he remembers when he first started his business six years ago the price of a book on average was 15 Br, but in the last couple of years the prices have gone from 30 Br to 80 Br, in a short period of time. One reason is the cost of printing paper. But Yonas says this increase in price has not deterred customers. People still want to read books so they are still buying.

In 2015, Ethiopia had imported 11.2 million dollars worth of printed books. All of the books available at Yonas’s stand are published and distributed locally. There are publishers around Addis Ababa that make both local books and international books available at an affordable price by printing and reprinting them in the country.

Yonas’s dream is to see great books written by Ethiopian authors cross-over to the international market just as there are books at his stand from writers from all around the world. You can find American psychology books and fiction both in English and translated in Amharic displayed on the floor. People are now open to reading international best sellers. Sometimes people that don’t agree with the concept or views of the books usually pick them up and throw them across the floor.

The public is still not aware of the value of books and that it is something that needs to be changed. “Books help people learn and change, it helps there growth in all aspects,” he says.

For more than 70 years, Artistic Printing Press has been publishing and distributing books all over the country. They are involved in producing all kinds of books, from text books to fiction to nonfiction. The company was privatized earlier in 2016. Artistic has seen a surge in the book market due to the growing readership in the country. The quantity of books as well as demand has increased. The biggest increase was seen in the millions in textbook publishing, but also fiction and nonfiction titles have significantly increased. The fact that VAT does not apply to books helps the sector thrive. Also, more and more authors are coming to Artistic to print their books. The writers association, located in a building in front of the Addis Ababa stadium, collaborates with Artistic to help authors publish their work.

Artistic Printing Press has also seen the cost of printing go up due to the cost of materials and labor. Since some supplies are imported, the foreign exchange rate shortage has a considerable impact on operations. The cost of paper and ink is where they have seen a significant rise in prices. Paper and ink are big cost items for the printer. Even the cost of skilled labor is a factor. Previously, what they were able to pay an employee and now is gravely different. Before an employee was paid 300 Br a month, now for the same job they have to pay 5000 Br.

The author determines the price of his or her book. After the publishing process is over, authors strike a deal with book vendors and mobile sellers. They agree to pay the sellers 30pc of the profit when they are able to sell their books. In cases that the author does not have the capital to publish their books, other methods are used. They try to land a sponsor to foot the bill for publishing in exchange for advertising. The printers themselves try to cooperate with the authors by providing a sort of payment plan that allows the author to first make a 50pc down payment and then pay the remaining 50pc after the books have been published. They take a few samples out to the market and try to get buyers, which they hope will offset their cost. The authors are the bottom feeders in the chain of book marketing.

More and more readers are looking for books. With a population of 93 million, there are only around 125 companies that print and publish books in Ethiopia. The readership in the country is growing fast. The book market will need to strive to fill the demand its approach to survive.

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