Electronic Book Publishing: Where is its place in Developing Countries?

Electronic book publishing, the process of publishing books in a digital format has seen great success since its development in the 1990s. In the last 20 years, this digital revolution has thoroughly modified the way in which cultural assets are produced and distributed. Books are now been packaged into various electronic formats (pdf, mobi, epub, etc.) and people can choose from a dizzying array of e-readers, tablets, laptops, smartphones, iPhones, etc to read from. These devices allow users to read anything, anywhere, at any time.  Today, one could carry hundreds of books anywhere at a weight of just a simple reading device. This was impossible some years ago.

Not only has Electronic book publishing eased the access and dissemination of information but has also contributed massively to national development since its inception.  Schools and libraries have adopted this technology and scholars are building presence continually. The spread of knowledge is increasing at a very fast pace  and ebooks have gained an average yearly growth of 30%  within the past 5 years in developed countries. This growth and impact of e-books is reflective in the economy of developed countries since these countries can boast of the the required skill and infrastructure to advance this technology.

On the contrary, very little can be said of developing countries and its contribution to information dissemination.  In reference to the UNESCO Institute of Statistic Report in 2010, out of the 986,099 papers that were included in Science Citation Index in 2008, authors from North America produced 35.3% of the world’s total; authors from Europe produced 42.5%. The statistics further shows at the other end of the spectrum that Sub-Saharan Africa publication was only 0.6 % out of the 2.0% produced by  Africa. This report shows that there is a wide gap between developed and developing  countries.

Developing countries rely heavily on  the traditional system of publishing and even in that area, its percentage share to global share of publication is quite minimal. On the contribution to availability of books,  Mohammed (2001), stated that Africa accounts for less than 5% of the overall global economy. Of this contribution by the publishers, over 75% is earned from textbooks trade, whose major share is financed by government and external donors. The private publishers control a meager 20% of the book trade. Africa imports close to 70% of its book needs and exports less than 5% of its total output.

This low output  is a result of the expensive nature of print production. Developing countries are not manufacturers of machinery and materials used in the press hence, every component is imported ranging from paper, ink, press machines  and even skilled labour. The prices of these materials and services are beyond the average annual income in developing countries. The effects of the unavailability of resources is clearly reflected in its low percentage to global publication share.

With the advent of the internet and its numerous benefits, it is expected that digital technologies such as electronic book publishing will transform the economy and create opportunities for developing countries to provide information in larger proportions  and gain much recognition in terms of information creation, access and dissemination. The question one may ask is whether developing countries are well positioned to take advantage of the numerous benefits that e-book publishing technology is providing to developed countries. Are they prepared technologically, financially, economically, and in terms of infrastructure? What is the place of electronic book publishing in developed countries?

The internet which has been a major determinant for growth and development has really come to stay.  Statistics by Internet World in 2012 , shows a penetration rate of 78.6% in North America and a 15.6% in Africa.  This reveals that availability to internet access  is very low in developing countries and are still lagging behind their developed counterparts in terms of both internet accessibility and availability of digital content. There is little access to relevant materials and this is even worse in the rural areas which have no internet access at all unlike developed countries which continue to enjoy access to extremely efficient Internet services.

The bandwidth available to internet users in developed countries so low to an extent that  it may take up to an hour to download a document that will take a few minutes in developed countries. Access to e-books is generally limited to a very small percentage of the population and the fear of losing archival copies is still of concern to librarians, researchers, and journals. This is one reason for the continued prominence of print copies as a fail-safe mechanism for ensuring content is not lost.

In addition, the findings showed a strong correlation between the diffusion of the internet and economic growth. Thus, the wealth gap between technologically advanced countries, such as the US, and most developing countries has risen from a ratio of 1 to 6 in the early twentieth century to almost 1 to 13 by the end of the past century. This is another challenge developing countries are facing. There lack of funds to support the expenses incurred in electronic book publishing activities for the production of ebooks as well as other electronic need for digital information access. Reading devices such as kindle, kobo, etc. quite apart from being rather fragile, are probably still far too expensive for the majority of developing countries. In a survey carried out by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2013 showed that about 30.6 % of US citizens had access to personal e-readers compared to 0.1% in developing countries. These figures forecast a poor patronage in e-books should they be produced in developing countries. Electronic Publishing initiatives are limited to governmental and academic circles as there is generally no commercial market for e-books due to lack of consumer purchasing power and demand.

Another point worth considering is the low rates of human development that hinder the advancement of electronic publishing unlike developed countries who have plentiful human resources. The required skill necessary for electronic book publishing is very scarce. There is therefore a high reliance on expertise from other countries which is also very expensive to maintain.

Apart from financial problems, there are many infrastructural problems that affect the dissemination of quality digital information and have resulted in a poorly developed information economy and a lack of representation of developed countries within the international research community. Technological  limitations have prevented many developing countries from reaping the benefits of the Internet. The hardware necessary to use it, and availability of the technological infrastructure needed to enable the hardware to be used is scarce resource.

As is well known, there are marked contrasts in the assimilation of these technologies from region to region. The industrialized nations – in particular the US, Canada, Europe, Japan and South Korea –Their firms therefore enjoy a considerable margin for action when it comes to testing out hardware, software and new digital publishing business models, which means that companies like Amazon, Apple, Google or Sony are taken as references in the media and at professional events all over the world. Now, it is clear that in the case of countries from the South, infrastructure limitations and low rates of human development hinder the advancement of electronic book publishing such as it is known in more advanced regions (Kulesz, 2011).

The effect is that, electronic book  publishing models that work in the United States and Europe would be difficult to be applied to China, Latin America and the developing world (Kulesz, 2011). This is because of the difficulties in the matter access to electronic services – lack of adequate supply of electricity; lack of proper equipment (easily damaged on account of adverse conditions such as humidity and dust hinders developing countries from participating in digital publishing. There is no online purchasing system which makes it almost impossible to purchase books online. One has to fall on the assistance of friends in the western world to have their book purchased. In the case of rural areas, where there is no telecommunication system, electronic book publishing even seem impossible.

In reference to these set backs that questions the survival of e-book publishing in developed countries, it is clear that developing countries are not currently in a good position to fully support electronic book publishing. The major problem created is that the developed countries continue in developments while the developing countries continue to lag behind, there by creating a digital gap between these two categories.

Since there is a real danger of the digital divide perpetuating social and economic inequality between the developed and developing countries, there is the need to narrow this gap and eventually close the digital divide between industrialized and developing countries. The way forward in bridging this gap could be by focusing on other digital publishing modules for mobile phones which seem to one of the fastest spreading device in developing countries with a penetration rate of 89%. Mobile phones might be one of the most fertile ground for new approaches to book publishing on the continent, promoting books at relatively modest cost, to a much wider audience than was hitherto possible, and allowing new and innovative ways to deliver content to users. Developing countries could then build on other digital publishing technologies from there.

This is another study worth investigating in future.


Canadian Journal Communication (CJC), (2004) “E-publishing in Developing Economies.” http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/1424/1530

Digital Publishing in Developing Countries http://alliance-lab.org/etude/archives/67?lang=en#footnote-4

International Labour Review, (2001) “The Digital Divide: Employment and Development Implications” http://www.ilo.org/public/english/revue/download/pdf/intro012.pdf

International Telecommunication Union (ITU), (2013) Latest Global Technology development figures http://www.itu.int/net/pressoffice/press_releases/2013/05.aspx#.UudPVvuIZdg

Lubrano S., (2011) “E-Book: An impressive yearly growth rate of 30% to reach the 5.4 billion EUR in 2015.” http://blog.idate.fr/e-book-an-impressive-yearly-growth-rate-of-30-to-reach-the-5-4-billion-eur-in-2015/

Internet World Stats, (2012) http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

Mohammed Z., (2001) “The Book industry in National Development: Nigerian Perspectives.” http://eprints.rclis.org/14221/1/Zakari-Book_publish.pdf

Kulesz O., (2011) “Digital Publishing in the Developing World: Imitation or Autonomous Evolution?” http://publishingperspectives.com/2011/06/digital-publishing-in-the-developing-world/

UNESCO Science Report, (2010) The current Status of Science around the World http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001899/189958e.pdf

Zell H., (2013) “Print vs Electronic, and the ‘digital revolution’ in Africa.” http://www.academia.edu/2514725/Print_vs_Electronic_and_the_Digital_Revolution_in_Africa

2 Replies to “Electronic Book Publishing: Where is its place in Developing Countries?”

  1. It’s interesting to see the statistics of e-book publishing in developing countries and how that compares with developed countries. Good points made about lack of financial resources, skill, and Internet access being obstacles.

    I’m surprised to read that China would be among countries experiencing difficulties in e-book publishing. You mentioned that there is no online purchasing system, but China has a few including Amazon.cn and others.

    What is the percentage of developing countries that have access to e-books? Or more specifically, those who read e-books instead of print books? There are many programs focused on providing school children with e-books such as Worldreader, which works on making reading devices more affordable rather than simply free. The first step to increasing the e-book market would be to make tablets and other devices more accessible, which in turn help improve human development.

    That said, because financial and technological issues are major problems for the growth of e-books in developing countries, it doesn’t follow that mobile phones are necessarily the solution. It’s not the reading devices alone that pose trouble, but the process of creating e-books as well. However, it could be beneficial to learn the reasons why mobile phone usage has become so widespread in developing countries, and how phones are being used.

    1. Hi Jesmine,
      Thanks for the comments and suggestions.
      Unfortunately, I was unable to find accurate figures in relation to the number of ebooks being read by developing countries. But using Ghana as an example, we barely read electronic books except for the ones that have been converted to pdf. I carried out a research on companies that are into e book publishing at my undergraduate level and to my surprise, no company was into it. Probably a few have started but the penetration level is very low.

      I am not sure as to how far the project carried out by UNESCO to provide ebook readers has gone. Although there is information online, I never saw it really happening in Ghana. I would have to investigate more into that. I never knew about e-readers nor knew anyone with an e-reader until I joined this program.

      My second essay provides an alternative solution to digital publishing in developing countries. The mobile phone publishing module as a temporal solutions while measure are still being put in place to help developing countries catch up with digital technologies in the developed nations.

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