Paper presented during SABDET panel titled 'Writing in the Diaspora, Writing for the Diaspora' on Tuesday 12th September 2006 at the African Studies Association of the UK (ASAUK) biennial conference at SOAS 11th-13th September 2006
Panel Discussion Abstract:
I will start by providing an overview of our business and against that background, attempt to look at the challenges of publishing in Nigeria, from the perspective of an entrepreneur who takes up the task of making culturally useful and commercially viable books available to the reading public. I will draw largely from my own experience over the last two years, to comment on the specific questions posed to the panel.
Background – Starting Out
We established a presence among literary enthusiasts and started building up a reputation as a credible outlet for good quality contemporary Nigerian writing. It is interesting to note that as far back as 2004, we had published online, an earlier version of a short piece called Fide by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Another version of Fide was published earlier on this year in The New Yorker. When her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was later released in the US, we exploited our existing relationship, to persuade Harper Collins to sell the West African rights to us. We had an initial print-run of 13,000 in late 2004 and have since sold over 12,000 copies. A year later, we released our second book, Everything Thing Good Will Come by Sefi Atta, whom we also met on the Internet. Sefi recently won the first Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. We printed 5,000 copies of Everything Good Will Come in late 2005 and have since sold over 4,000. We are about to order an additional 5,000 copies of each novel.
Today, we are set to release six new titles before the end of the year. Two of them; Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Activist by Tanure Ojaide are works of fiction. I am particularly proud to say that for these two titles we negotiated the rights directly with the authors. The other four, which are non-fiction, are: The Architecture of Demas Nwoko by John Godwin and Gillian Hopwood, Celebrated: Nigerian Women In Development by Ayona Aguele-Trimnell, June 12: The Struggle For Power In Nigeria by Abraham Oshoko and Social Studies For Nigerian Schools by Adisa Bakare, Ayisha Belgore and Eniola Harrison, in collaboration with the faculty and staff of The Corona Schools Trust Council.
In all, we plan to release about 50,000 books into the market this year. In 2007 we plan to do not less than 200,000 books depending on how the elections go.
Background - Historical Summary
Things began to fall apart for the Nigerian publishing industry when the military first intervened in the political arena in the early sixties. They went on to destroy all social infrastructure. They mismanaged the economy and entrenched a culture of corruption. They added little to the infrastructure of commerce and allowed whatever existed hitherto to fall into disrepair. Of particular significance was their destruction of the educational system. This is would have wide-ranging consequences for a country where the language of the inchoate national culture, English, was not indigenous, but learnt in school.
The universities, being the centre of opposition to
the military tyranny were especially targeted for decimation. The institutions
were routinely shut down, with academic calendars disrupted. Outspoken
academics were harassed and hounded into exile. The result has been
a long and steady migration of some of the most brilliant teachers and
academics from the country, as well as a steady erosion of literacy
and literary culture.
Literacy And New Materials
Since the military were forced out of power seven years ago, there has been some sort of rekindling of nation-building and cultural activities. Literature usually presages such development; as people try to articulate and codify the complex interplay of social and political forces that transform society around them. We certainly do not lack for submission of new materials. The majority of the manuscripts we do receive however, even if not lacking in imagination in terms of conception, are seriously deficient in their use of English. The reality facing commissioning editors, is that a great deal of editorial input is required to get the overwhelming majority of manuscripts into any publishable condition. To compound this serious problem, good quality editorial talent is no longer readily available in the labour market.
It is not that highly literate writing and editorial talents do not exist, they do, but the structure of the economy is such that they can only be employed in those sectors of the economy, such as oil and gas, finance and lately, telecommunication, with the requisite levels of investment capital to pay the kind of wages they command. Since the mid-eighties, the publishing industry has not made the necessary investments in commercial infrastructure that is required to extract its fair share of the massive value inherent in a market of 130 million people. And so, we have some of the most talented writers and editors resident in our country today, working in oil and gas, finance and the telecommunication industries.
It is not an accident therefore that some of the most insightful and engaging pieces published by our magazine have been contributed by these amateur but accomplished writers who earn their living as lawyers, financial consultants, engineers, web designers, and doctors. And of course, we are also compelled to reach out to Nigerians living abroad, who through their access to more stable creative environments, enjoy the mediation of more mature publishing industries, to produce quality work that remains faithful in their attempts to tell our own stories, on our own terms.
I must point out at this point, that the themes of leaving, journeying, and managing cultural difference are marginal in the novels produced by writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, and Sefi Atta who still have very strong ties with Nigeria. These writers and some others, might have journeyed, they certainly have not left. They wrote and continue to write novels about Nigeria and Africa, which are firmly rooted in Nigeria and Africa. And although the work of writers of African descent who are more rooted in the West, such as Biyi Bandele, Diran Adebayo, the prodigiously talented Helen Oyeyemi and more recently, Diana Evans may explore the theme of cultural differences, nonetheless, I suspect that, for now anyway, they are here in the West to stay. Some of them were born here in the Diaspora, and are not particularly hung up on leaving (Africa) and journeying (to the West)
My interaction with a cross-section of contemporary African writers living in the West, suggests that they are slightly irritated by this constant attempt to pigeon-hole them and thereby tele-guide their work toward certain directions pre-determined by the all-powerful gatekeepers of the Western cultural establishment.
I will leave this matter for now, to the academics who are perhaps better qualified than I am to pontificate on them, and dwell a little on the difficulty of producing and selling books in Nigeria.
PRODUCTION, PACKAGING AND COMMERCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE
The greatest impediments to the growth of a local
publishing industry in Nigeria include:
Even if they know what it takes to produce good quality
books at affordable prices, or what it takes to persuade the 50 million
or so literate Nigerians and their 10 million kinsmen scattered all
over the world in the Diaspora to buy them, or what it takes to distribute
these books efficiently throughout a country four times the size of
Britain, while at the same time collecting all their sales proceeds,
Nigerian publishers have not been successful in marshalling all the
requisite resources together. The industry in obviously not well capitalized
and even if competence exists, capacity is severely undermined.
Distribution and retail networks are limited, fragmented
and as challenged as the publishing houses themselves in terms of scale,
capacity and outlook. Also, commercial contracts are very loose and
difficult to enforce. Collection of sales proceeds is very problematic
putting severe financial strain on publishing businesses.
With respect to the question posed as to:
What kind of connections are emerging, or might in the future emerge, between publishers in Africa and writers in the Diaspora?
I will like to say that all these financial and infrastructural challenges will continue to make the connections between publishers in Africa and writers in the Diaspora more emotional than financial. For as long as most Africans, either by choice or otherwise remain on the continent of Africa, the most business-minded of our writers in Diaspora or their agents will eventually come to understand that no matter how successful African writers may be in the West, until the Western literary establishment stops categorizing them as ethnic or minority writers, their natural markets will remain in Africa. There are strong indications to suggest that, until they are embraced by the mainstream imprints, they may have strong prospects of selling more books in Africa, especially if they work with the right publishers who are, as we say in Nigerian politics, on the ground. They must also write on themes that are relevant to, and topical in, Africa.
For us publishers to continue to engage and maintain these relationships and also to nurture home-grown talents for the potentially larger and more lucrative media markets in the West, we will have to overhaul our business models, make the necessary investments and modernize, just as other sectors of the Nigerian economy are now doing and quite successfully too.
MOBILE PHONES, NOLLYWOOD AND BANKING
Data coming from the 5-year-old GSM phone industry may give an insight into the purchasing capacity of the Nigerian consumer. With an estimated 10 million subscribers, spending an average of 10 dollars every month, Nigerians spend about 100 million dollars every month in settlement of their mobile phone bills. Those of us in publishing are being compelled to ask ourselves, how come the average Nigerian is willing to spend about ten dollars every month on phone bills and yet not willing or able to spend a comparable amount on books? The Home Video industry is even more comparable to publishing. However, despite the fact that it is barely 13 years old, and totally homegrown, it is already reputed to be the third largest film industry in the world. The industry sells units of its products in millions, all over the world, wherever there are African people. A conservative estimate puts the annual income generated by this industry at over $250 million. The commercial success of this industry suggests that there may be a disconnect between contemporary Nigerian literature and its natural markets. In the words of award-winning novelist Sefi Atta Nigerians will buy novels in their hundreds of thousands if they see their own stories or aspirations in those novels. Ntone Ejabe who edits the very cool and admirable literary magazine Chimurenga, out of Cape Town, sums it up thus: The most authentic Nigerian stories are best read on video.
It is being commonly argued these days that Nigerian videos are so successful because they tell our stories, unapologetically, on our own terms. And those stories resonate deeply with the millions of black people all over the world who watch them every day. This for me, answers succinctly the following questions put before this panel:
To what extent has this new literature eclipsed or erased writing emanating from the African continent itself? Does the difficulty of publishing within Africa mean that we will only learn about contemporary African experiences as the Diaspora mediates them?
Speaking from a Nigerian perspective, I do not think there is any chance of any literature produced outside Africa eclipsing those produced inside Africa. What is important in my view is how relevant the content of the works are to the target audience and the capacity of the publisher to push the product in the target markets. The current popularity of the so-called contemporary Nigerian Diaspora writing is due mainly to the relevance of those novels to the Nigerian situation and also to the very focused marketing activities of their Nigerian publishers. After all, there are many very successful African writers who are celebrities in the West but are barely known or read outside the literary circles in their home countries.
How the West chooses to learn about contemporary Africa is the prerogative of the cultural gatekeepers in the West. I will concede though, that those of us publishing in Africa can certainly do more to push the best of our wares out here in the West. And this will be easier to accomplish, once we have made the necessary investments and the appropriate structural changes to our businesses
In conclusion, in terms of sheer ambition, chutzpah and achievement, the Nigerian industry that its publishers have the most to learn from is banking. When Nigerians first entered that industry 16 years ago, foreign banks and the local remnants of colonial banking interests dominated. (Very much like in publishing today.) Within 16 years, Nigerian entities have invested about 5 billion dollars in the industry, which they now dominate, pushing the banks with foreign interests to the margins. They have grown beyond the shores of Nigeria, through West Africa and are even looking beyond. They did these by investing the necessary capital, buying the requisite technology, hiring qualified, talented business expertise and adopting business models that have been proven elsewhere, while remaining sensitive to Nigerian peculiarities.
These steps taken by the nascent investors in the Nigerian banking industry 16 years ago are my same recommendations to our publishers today, to see us to an equally glorious future. Thankfully we never really have to re-invent the wheel.