A few of my thoughts on Nigerian Publishing. Hope it starts some discussion.
In Nigeria, there are typically two ways we handle current realities. There is the “e go better” school, that is content only to hope for, wish for and pray for better tomorrows. But there is another interesting way we look at issues – we nostalgically remember the good old days. I’m certain everyone can recall someone seeing something that’s real bad and then saying something that begins with “in the good old days…”
And in this paradigm, the good old days are always better, something to be reclaimed, something to be rebuilt, something to benchmark against. But do a little digging and we immediately find out that it’s only in a few of the cases that the old days were truly good.
So it was that when the great Chinua Achebe died, there were all sorts of cries from all sorts of corners for us to revive the good old days of Nigerian publishing, to bring the publishing industry back to its old glory. On the surface of it, this seems correct, after all, it was that great time that produced works from great writers like Wole Soyinka, Chris Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, J.P Clarke, Amos Tutuola, D.O. Fagunwa, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Cyprian Ekwensi, Zulu Sofola, Elechi Amadi and many others. But peel away the writers, to see the publishing machinery that delivered the works of these writers to the world and we see that there really were no good old days. Virtually all of their books, even Fagunwa’s book written in Yoruba and Tutuola’s in Pidgin-English were published by foreign publishing houses. Fast forward to the next generation after these men, the Okey Ndibes and Pius Adesanmis generation, and the same thing applies. In the generation that is emerging after Mr. Ndibe’s, Chimamanda Adichie, Teju Cole and Nnedi Okorafor’s generation, it is the same. A brief Google search would prove the veracity of this. The confinement of Nigerian writing to a certain straitjacket is a direct result of this – the foreign publisher is in business after all and will publish only the Nigerian stories that conform to the expectations of their readers, and which they can sell. The single story which we often scream hoarse about has its roots here. We simply have not given our authors the opportunity to tell our own stories, from the multiplicity of angles and spanning the old and emerging Africa without going through the prism of foreign Western publishing.
Therefore, a blunt submission based on history is this – though we have produced arguably some of the greatest writers in the last hundred years, we have never truly had a book publishing industry in Nigeria. The closest we have ever truly come to this is having Macmillan publish 130novels in the Pacesetters Series. But even Macmillan is merely a part of an international publishing outfit. And that eventually ended, focusing wholly on publishing textbooks and school books today. It is therefore not surprising that the path followed by most Nigerian authors who grew up in Nigeria with minimal variation is as follows – write for a while, struggle to get a Nigerian publisher and then either self-publish or get published by an international publisher. Then win an international award. Then get offered a position to teach something like “creative writing” or “African studies” in a university abroad. The writers of course take this opportunity and move to climes where there’s a real publishing industry. It’s a real escape, and in their shoes, I probably would take the opportunity.
If we want to stop this outflow of the best of our writers in this generation and those to come, we must do the real work of truly building a publishing industry. We all must realize how important the quality of writing produced is to all other creative arts. The biggest blockbusters in Hollywood in the last 15years have been book or comic book adaptations. Musicians draw deep lyrics from writing. New writers draw inspiration from older writers. Politicians and great leaders draw their ideas and thoughts from writing.
The good news is that there are Nigerian publishers who are emerging to take on the challenge of publishing in Nigeria today. The bad news is that a cursory glance would make it seem that the vast majority of what they publish seems to be works from diaspora writers already published by foreign publishers which have done well and won award. This is republishing. Valid, low risk business model, yes, but in the long run, it will not develop a true publishing industry in Nigeria, plus your margins would be small from those types of arrangements anyway. There are very many Nigerian writers who write very well, and are already doing great stuff themselves. Sadly, many are confined to the blogosphere (and they are doing well. Going through these blogs would yield bountiful harvests for publishers. Go through the array of self-published work out there. You would be spoiled for choice and realize how untenable the excuse of not finding quality writing in Nigeria is). Take a risk on publishing these writers.
I’ve read satire about how Nigerian authors publish and print only a thousand copies, and then do a book launch where they call people who will donate money and forget about selling their books, focusing on entering it for awards. People will generally try to do what brings them the best returns from their work, and the same way the average Nigerian musician sees selling his master CD as the best way to make the most from his music, the average Nigerian author sees this method as the best way to make a decent return on their books. I can confidently say this is so because most self-publish from their savings and the most important thing in this situation would be to recoup the investment.
So publishers out there, take a risk on these unknown Nigerian based writers. You might be positively surprised with what you find. Many of them wait at the shores as we speak, trying to follow the path blazed by those who have gone before them and escape to the West, publishing lala land. The only thing that can stop them is if Nigerian publishers take up the challenge and take a risk on them. And no, it isn’t government, it is private publishers. In a country as vast as ours, with our population, it might be hard, but it is possible, and it will be profitable. We must look beyond local champion publishing and develop on a truly National scale. We must look beyond publishing books for other writers to laud and read, and publish books that we truly intend to sell and get people in Nigeria and beyond reading. But first, we must discard the myth of ever having a Nigerian publishing industry, roll up our sleeves and get to work. Now!