Publishing out of Africa — and other stories

I was alerted to Alan Hill’s memoir, In pursuit of publishing (John Murray, 1988), by Nana Ayebia Clarke MBE (the Managing Director of Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd). The book recounts a remarkable career with Heinemann, centred on the development of Heinemann Educational Books (HEB).

The story is highly international. Hill was central to HEB’s emergence as a global company. He helped establish offices and subsidiary companies all over the planet. The pattern was first to establish a sales office and then move as soon s possible to local publishing.

Hill’s chief claim to fame — and a very strong claim it is, too — is to have originated and grown the African Writers Series. This astonishing series published authors such as Achebe, Ngugi, Soyinka, Head, Kenyatta, Senghor, Nkrumah, Mandela, Biko, and — now rather overlooked, but one of my favourites — Alex La Guma.

Hill’s claim that ‘the Series was to alter the world’s perception of Africa and its peoples’ has much truth. A fantastic legacy.

Ms Clarke spoke of the book as one of the best on publishing. As a narrative account, perhaps. As a source of analysis, not so much. Hill’s comments and reflections on the way the industry works are limited in extent and rather conventional. He valued good accountancy but (with the odd exception) didn’t like accountants running things. He gives examples of investors from outside the industry making a hash of publishing companies. That’s about it.

The book is I think best read in the round, as a memoir, as much travelogue as industry account, laced with evocative anecdotes reflecting the transition from empire to Commonwealth.


2 Responses to “Publishing out of Africa — and other stories”

  1. I loved this book – I worked for Alan Hill from 1981-1984 and by then he was building Heinemann Computers in Education. The oldest person in the company, he was building the newest contribution. It was a fascinating to find out where other key elements of the company had come from – books I just took for granted on the wider list I was marketing – but were mostly found by Alan and his team.

    • Thank you for your comment. I know exactly what you mean about books one’s taken for granted: once you know the story behind them, you recognise how each book is a product of series of decisions (and some times chances) – and might never have happened.

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