Writings of the general word's body

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Muhtar Bakare's ASAUK Paper

Panelists were asked to consider some of the key themes in the recent literature produced by migrant African writers such as leaving, journeying, and managing cultural difference. They also debated the broader context of Diasporic writing. 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? What kind of connections are emerging, or might in the future emerge, between publishers in Africa and writers in the Diaspora?

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 started as a free online magazine, publishing prose and poetry by contemporary Nigerian writers. It proved to be a useful strategy. This was how we first made contact with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sefi Atta, Aniete Isong, Molara Wood, Akin Adesokan, Igoni Barret, Tolu Ogunlesi, Ike Oguine, Chika Unigwe, Toni Kan and many others. These writers were not only scattered all over Nigeria, but also all over Europe and America. Start-up costs were low and we had an immediate global reach. Which would prove useful later on, in commissioning new articles or titles, and in contracting out editorial work.

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 built on 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 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 no less than 200,000 books depending on how the elections go.

Background - Historical Summary
Book publishing in Nigeria is a colonial legacy with which the legatees have not yet come to terms. Although the industry was established to serve colonial commercial and political interests, Nigerians quickly embraced it for their own benefit. There existed at that time and in immediate post-colonial Nigeria, an active and growing reading public. The educational system was good. The university system produced and nurtured world-class talents in the arts and sciences. It was not unusual for novels to sell in tens of thousands. Authors such as Chinua Achebe, T. M. Aluko, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Chukwuemeka Ike, Cyprian Ekwensi, Naiwu Osahon, Wole Soyinka and Kole Omotosho were household names. The highest circulation newspapers sold as many as half a million copies daily.

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 an erosion of literacy and literary culture.

The Literary Landscape Today
Today, forty-six years after independence from Britain, what remains of the industry is mainly licensed from British publishers and concentrate almost exclusively on the production of textbooks. A number of Nigerian independent publishers exist, but they also focus mainly on textbooks. About 90% of all the published books in Nigeria are for Primary and Secondary education. There are over 17 million children in primary and secondary schools at any point in time. No wonder everyone is trying to corner the textbook market.

It is generally accepted that there are about 130 million people in Nigeria. 42% of them or 55 million are below the age of fourteen. The national literacy level is put at about 68%; that is; 68% of the people over 15 years old, who can read and write, presumably in English. That is 68% of 75 million or 51 million people. This is a very attractive market size indeed.

Literacy And New Materials
Regardless of what statisticians say, employers of labour have for the last decade or so bemoaned the decline in the literacy of graduates from the various educational institutions. A cursory review of the leading quality newspapers in the country gives a good idea of how well the average Nigerian uses the English language today. This is a big deal for a publisher in a country where literacy in English easily dwarfs literacy in all the indigenous languages, and where publishing in the local languages remains, a small fragmented niche.

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 transform society around them. We certainly do not lack for submission of new materials. 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 remain faithful in their attempts to tell our own stories, on our own terms.

I must point out here, 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

The low level of investments by existing publishers in their own businesses:

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 is obviously not well capitalized and even if competence exists, capacity is severely undermined.

The dearth of the required commercial infrastructure to support the industry.

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.


The collapse of basic social services such as

  • Electricity supply
  • Good road network
  • Reliable postal services
  • Affordable telecommunications.
These make the cost of doing business prohibitive, discourage investments and lead to the easy option of sacrificing quality for cost.

All these issues are extensively and sensitively discussed in the book, The Ordeal of The African Writer by Charles R. Larson, which I strongly recommend to anybody who is interested in the subject.

With respect to the question posed at 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 [the] 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 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 contents 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.
  • Muhtar Bakare of Farafina, Kachifo Limited, Lagos Nigeria, presented this paper at the African Studies Association UK Biennial Conference 2006, held at The School Of Oriental and African Studies, University Of London, on September 12, 2006.


Araceli Aipoh said...

Hi Molara,

Thank you for posting this. It keeps both writers and publishers abreast of what's going on in the business of books in Nigeria.

Wordsbody said...

Thanks for visiting, Araceli. Been hearing about you right, left and centre.

I guess it's Bakare we should thank for the paper. Now, when I'm asked about the whys and the wherefores of the state of publishing in Nigeria, I will point the enquirers to this paper - as a useful starting point.


Anonymous said...

That paper is most creatively challenging. Inspiring, though perhaps it glosses a little over powerful issues of global economics and artistic taste. I wonder how true it is that Diaspora writers owe their success largely to their Nigerian markets. He also does not go deeply into the question of the difference between literacy per se and the quality and taste of that literacy. Not surprising, since as a a publisher he could be seen as needing to focus on the bottom line of sales and value could be determined in that context by what sells.

I know little about the Nigerian banking industry but I have certainly watched some of the Nigerian home videos. I think I want to ask how we can improve quality while developing a robust sales curve.I hope the videos do become better than the ones I watched the last time, about 3 years ago.

As much as I admire the idea of strategies to capture lucrative domestic markets, I am concerned that the focus on the immediate bottom line of adapting writing to the perceived taste of the reader could leave Nigerian literature and cultural production within a cultural and economic ghetto where it is elated to only by those whose immediate social histories link with it. If we are to move briefly to the bottom line of sales here, one could observe that one reason why American films have such huge success globally is that they are bale to go beyond American and Western social frameworks even though they are rooted in them. This brings me to the point he makes about writers who are lionised in the West but only read only by the intelligentsia in Nigeria. He might be alluding to works like Soyinka’s signature works, which, unlike his comedies require a more dedicated attention, even though the comedies are not what define his genius. Along those lines I remember that some of the worlds greatet works in both science and literature were conceived to appeal to the majority of people and subsequently became iconic-Descartes’ Meditations, which he wrote in French rather than Latin, the then language of scholarship so that "even women could read them” well before the advent of formal female education in Europe, yet it is a seminal work in epistemology or theory of knowledge, Galileo’s Dialogues where he developed novel ideas in cosmology through the dramatic device of dialogue in his native Italian, even though he was convinced that mathematics was central to science but chose dramatic dialogue in those works. Plato’s Dialogues where the most sophisticated philosophical ideas are developed through dialogue, ante’s Comedy which he chose to write in Italian rather than Latin, the then language of learning so his country people could read it.
So, I think I would agree with him about the need to tap more powerfully into the Nigerian market by telling the people stories but I am not fully in agreement with all the details of the home video example of account of the stock character of a number of the themes and styles they demonstrate from my limited knowledge of them. But he has powerful points about the necessity of investment in equipment and remuneration for the right personpower.
Another point about strategy his ideas take me to is the question of advertising in publishing. My memory of Nigeria since I left in 2003 was that the video producers advertised but that the publishers did not. TV, radio and stationary ads can do much to sell books by packaging them in ways that make them relevant to potential customers. Other approaches are provided by South African publisher who publishes poetry on table cloth, by the use of chapbook literature,as is done by Penguin, where you can read the texts conveniently in busy busses like those in in Nigeria Another is the little books initiative in publishing works of scholarship, part of a broad range of efforts to introduce sophisticated ideas to wide public this includes children’s books, such as the Ladybird imprint where I first learnt about science, art and history

One of the economic issues his paper takes my mind to is that about one of the probable economic reasons behind the decline in reading and the rise of the home video market. That is the idea that reading has declined on account of the decline in leisure, whether that leisure is understood in terms of time to relax, free from distracting considerations or in times of even mental freedom understood in terms of free mental space free of worry. Reading can be understood as a more demanding leisure activity than watching films. The latter, therefore, would be a more likely engagement than the former when leisure is chaliced be hostile economic forces that make it costly. But Wang Ning has observed that a similar result emerges in affluent countries where the pace of the capitalist economy reduces the leisure time that would have been used for reading and people now focus more on pictorial data which is easier to assimilate.

I wonder, though, how true this is of London where one can often see people reading on the Tube and in parks. But perhaps class comes in here since on account of the cost of the Tube, most people take buses. I rarely see anyone reading on a bus in London.So, perhaps those on the Tube are more likely to be higher income earners who higher educational levels along with the cultural orientations that come with it, are more disposed to ead than most of those who use buses. But then, how much time would a busy City worker or businessperson have to read? So, perhaps we might have a denudation of reading at opposing ends of the social spectrum, with those in the middle, who have the education and taste to ad as well as the freedom from work pressures being those who read most. Still conjectural, though.

Another probable outcome from the economic challenges of the country could be seen as being that the films they watch focus on issues that address the social values and ideas that emerge from their challenged economic situation. So, the films often focus on how money is made through juju. I would like to give more examples of filmic subjects that would support this particular thesis but I can’t think of any right now.

His analysis of the textbook market also takes my mind to the idea that the quality of literacy of the country could be improved and money made in the process by adequate investment in tertiary textbook market. My experience as of 2002 was that new textbboks,most of which were imported were difficult to on account of the currency exchange problem. Some lectures have tried to tap this market, ethically and unethically, the unethical approach being to tie purchase of books to marks. But my experiments have convinced me that student who is convinced about the value of book will buy it even without the threat of sanctions, but motivated by the desire to succeed in the p[primary educational purpose of their schooling. What is needed is a market survey to find out those areas that books are particularly scarce and where there is significant demand and produce books accordingly. Scholars can be commissioned to write them. They can also go though a per review process through which they will acquire academic respectability along with their economic value.

These approaches have worked for me using the most rudimentary printting technology. The print run I experimented with was miniscule but the potential market extends all over Nigeria, and is boosted by the emergence of private universities. It also extends into Africa. The Think tank CODERIA asses Africa as suffering a textbook shortage and sponsors production of textbooks. Since all African countries have adopted the Western educational model, crossing national boundaries will not be a problem. Having made sufficient money with selling textbooks, the publisher could then proceed to publish works that are not directed at simply presenting existing knowledge, like textbooks but are meant to break new ground. This cpuld even operate as a minority strategy from the onset Baraka seems to have done something sim ilar by moving into nonfiction after fiction as in the book on architecture.Such works generate economic value through indirect long rage process since they signal the scholar sly power of their authors,of the institutions they work in and the institutions and countries where they and had their education. A colleague of mine travelled from Japan to SOAS in London to do an MA and a PHD so as work with Ghanaian lecturer at SOAS on account of the scholars work he student had read.

This ultimately translates into student enrolment from other countries with the multiplier effect that has on local economies, research investment in the locales where those scholars are, which again will affect the local economy and all these fed again into the political for a robust academic market and its possible spin offs-a good number of American companies are university sin off-Google and Yahoo were developed by PhD students at Stanford, which is a matrix for technology companies on account of its closeness to Silicone Valley which was founded by Stanford staff to achieve that very catalytic and synergistic effect. Many more examples could be provided.
Bakare’s paper is truly provocative and inspiring in the cogency of his analysis and the fervour of his vision.