The Myth of Nigerian Publishing

A few of my thoughts on Nigerian Publishing. Hope it starts some discussion.

TL

Write Right

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!

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12 thoughts on “The Myth of Nigerian Publishing

  1. Hear Hear! This writeup speaks to me as I am one of such writers. I can only hope something good happens or I’ll probably find myself self publishing or looking for a foreign publisher.

  2. You have raised very valid points very well and I share your sentiments. Also I want us to also look at this issue from another point of view. Publishing, whether we like it or not, is still more about business rather than the art, unfortunately. So, the first thing agents or publishers want to know is how commercial a manuscript is, before thinking about turning it into a book. Now, looking at the reading culture in Nigeria, it is quite poor (if compared to the west, for example). Are people buying fiction paperback books in millions? It would be nice to see some statistics to be able to further comment on that. If the new age Nigerian publishers such as Farafina or Cassava Republic don’t see many people reading,or if they are not even sure what people want to read, perhaps it will make them hesitate before signing on new authors and investing heavily in them. This is by no means an excuse for those publishers to shun ambitious, upcoming talent, but maybe we need to also address the reading culture situation of Nigeria today. Believe this, when the United Nations did the World Literacy statistics in 2010, Nigeria came at 142 out of 169 countries tested in the world!To be honest, a lot of people in Nigeria only read a book like Half of a Yellow Sun because it had been hugely popular abroad first, then added to the education curriculum. If it had not been praised first by the rest of the world, I doubt most Nigerians in Nigeria would have had any interest in it. But again maybe you can’t blame Nigerians. Maybe Nigerians actually read, but mostly digitally, on their phones and tablets (with the advent of mobile internet technology), and when they read, it is escapist fiction. And it is for free as well, such as on this blog. I want to be careful here not to generalise and say all Nigerians have the same reading habits or tastes, but let’s say maybe majority have little interest in serious fiction (I mean serious in theme, not quality). And that is common in situations where day to day life is already a struggle. Maybe people don’t want to read something too close to their reality. Maybe they want to read something that helps them travel to another space. So, you see, all these unpredictable consumer behaviours and psychology directly impact the Nigerian publishing industry and indeed all publishing industries around the world.
    It’s sort of funny that we are talking about Nigerian publishers supporting their own authors and not leaving it first to foreign publishers, whereas in other parts of the world, authors are deliberately shunning the traditional publishers and going solo, self publishing and making serious money from it. As the debate goes on about whether the physical book is dying and would be totally replaced by e-books or not, my desire is that very soon, online payments will be safely common in Nigeria, so that readers can get books directly from self-published authors via Amazon, Nook, Kobo, etc, or even a Nigerian e-book website (let some business-minded person reading this get wisdom – thankme later)! But until then, the Nigerian publishing houses should heed your advice, Tunde. Good one.

  3. This article says a lot and I can’t but agree wholeheartedly. I must commend you first of all for proving to the world and confirming to some of us who have always known that indeed, Nigerians read. In your success story is embedded the success of writing in Nigeria.

    I think you’ve covered all the issues: the writers’ fears and eagerness to recoup his money and win awards but I’m most delighted that you’re not just talking but doing. You’ve published and I know the energy you put into ensuring that your book spreads to wherever it can be bought. Imagine some other writer uses your distribution channel and joins his own with it, then another writer and another and so on…soon we’ll have an accurate means of distribution, solely controlled by writers! This means we can publish and project how many copies we’ll sell: which means publishers can be told how many copies we can sell, using the projections of past sales.

    I think it is possible: we only have to destroy that myth openly, show profitability in publishing, and a smart entrepreneur will come and try to hijack the process…I think.

  4. @ Kemi, you took the words out of my mouth! I have worked in a publishing house before and trust me, they face huge challenges. There is absolutely no assurance of ROI. So as a publisher, you invest so much in a good, relatively unknown publisher, in a country with virtually no distribution channels, piracy(Aba boys sold Chimamanda’s ‘Purple Hibiscus’ for N100!) and poor reading culture, how do you recoup it?
    Let’s face it, publishing is a very risky business so I won’t blame those publishers for republishing books published abroad.
    I agree the industry has to improve but it would take the involvement of govt and the private sector.

  5. @Kemi and @Foluke, in addition, what is the government effectiveness and role in enforcing copyright law? If the private publishers are assured of this support, I believe they will be more willing to take on some risks.

  6. Pingback: Broken Mirrors – Episode 12 | tlsplace

  7. Pingback: Tunde Leye: Why the snub of Nigerian writers for the Caine Prize this year is a blessing - The ScoopNG - The ScoopNG

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