It is impossible to discourage the real writers—they don't give a damn what you say, they're going to write- SINCLAIR LEWIS
American author, John Grisham reportedly had his first novel, A TIME TO KILL (written in 1989) rejected by many publishers before it was finally accepted and became a bestseller. And afterwards, it was adapted into a movie in 1996 starring Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson and Sandra Bullock.
British author, J.K Rowling was a single mother living on welfare when she began the first part of her successful 7 book series, the Harry Potter franchise, using a manual typewriter. She too faced rejection from several publishers before her manuscript was finally accepted by Bloomsbury. Today she is the highest paid children’s author and each book got adapted into a movie by Warner Brothers; the titular character played by Daniel Radcliffe.
In more developed countries, the worst thing a writer goes through is his/her manuscript being returned, along with a rejection slip, claiming the story isn’t good enough or it’s not what the publisher is looking for Yet we hear success stories of writers who suffered rejection and then eventually went on to sell millions of copies of their works.
Nigerian authors face more than rejection… they face many issues and obstacles preventing them from selling or getting their works published. Professor Chinua Achebe’s 1958 debut novel Things Fall Apart paved the way for many African authors whose works got published under the Heinemann African Series. Yet, what most people don’t know is that Professor Achebe’s path to getting his book published wasn’t a smooth one. For several months he received no feedback from the London typing service company who was supposed to send him a type written copy after he submitted the only handwritten copy of his future masterpiece. His boss from NBS radio, Angela Beattie (who travelled to London for her annual leave) visited the company at his request and found it abandoned at the corner of an office. Even after Ms. Beattie’s intervention, it was still a hard road for Achebe. Many publishers rejected it because according to them, fiction from African writers don’t have ‘marketing potential’. But as fate would have it, it was finally accepted by Heinemann and Chinua Achebe made his triumphant debut. Today, his signature novel still sells millions of copies, translated into several languages and used in schools. Yet, one would wonder if Professor Achebe would have gotten Things Fall Apart and his subsequent books published if he had gone to a Nigerian publisher. He had a literary agent who had the task of taking it to several publishers until it was accepted. Even so, he was initially met with scepticism and ridicule when he began promoting it in Nigeria. Other Nigerian authors came after him; Cyprian Ekwensi (Jagua Nana, People of the City), Flora Nwapa (Efuru, Idu), Elechi Amadi (The Concubine, The Great Ponds, The Slave), Buchi Emecheta (In the Ditch, The Joys of Motherhood, Second Class Citizen) etc.
These days, Nigerian authors are known as ‘hungry authors’ because of the long list of difficulties they face getting their books published. Only a few are lucky enough to get their books out on the international market; writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Purple Hibiscus, Half Of A Yellow Sun, The Thing Round Your Neck, Americanah) or Helon Habila (Waiting For An Angel, Measuring Time, Oil on Water). Linda Ikeji is a successful blogger, her blog posts earning her a substantial income every day. But sadly, the struggling writers out weigh the successful ones.
The difficulties Nigerian authors face these days are several- from the harsh economy to lack to literary agents, from picky publishers to piracy, from readers who prefer foreign books to low or unpaid royalties. Established publishers like Macmillan long discontinued the publishing and printing of novels and now focus more on publishing text books to be used in schools. Other publishers simply refuse to give most Nigerian authors a chance unless they happen to have connections. Even so, it may take ages- like a year or more- before the book is actually published and then they would have to wait longer for their royalties to be paid, as the books have to be successfully sold first, or so they are told.
At this point, most Nigerian authors are forced to self-publish their books and have the backbreaking job of marketing them. They would go to schools, hoping to generate interest and make a good sale or go out in public and manage to sell copies from the boot of their cars. Others are lucky enough to launch their books and get hefty checks after the event. A few manage to sell them online via Amazon, Smashwords or Jumia, in Kindle form; where they barely break even. The online option is now a much chosen one because another sad truth is, most prestigious bookshops in Nigeria actually refuse to sell books by Nigerian authors.
Sinmisola Ogunyinka, a Nigerian author currently based in South Africa, spoke of her experience and difficulties in an interview a few months back. She now sells most of her books online and while the sales are slow, at least she is not getting turned off for being a Nigerian author. “It’s not easy to write,” she said. “You spend two years working on a book; somebody picks it up and finishes reading it in a day! It’s no small task.”
Cyril Warmhoney, a novelist and poet, also spoke of his experience and the challenges Nigerian authors face these days. “Many Nigerian authors now use the English version of their native names or abbreviate their surnames to look like foreign ones, so as to attract patronage. Many of us try to self publish in order to showcase our gifts. Unfortunately, many marketers don’t accept local authors as well as self published ones. These include organisers of both National and International writing contests. In all these, the local author comes out as a loser. I have written 60 books, fiction and non-fiction, drama, poetry and motivationals. I could only publish very few due to financial constraints. Let me tell you some of the major challenges of our authors in this country. Financial constrains; he can’t publish because of poor economy. Nigerians believe our authors have nothing upstairs, so they don’t give us a chance. No market for books. Little or nothing paid to authors. Piracy is uncontrolled. No libraries for research. No means of advertising. Poor government patronage. We are simply hungry authors in this country.”
Another writer, Lola Leigh said, “We writers say we write for the love of writing but we have to look at the practical side also, making actual money from our work. We don’t have literary agents here; they approach the publishers and negotiate royalties and all that. We are pretty much on our own here and are the worse for it. And also there’s the piracy issue, how are we expected to be motivated to write and put ourselves out there when there are thieves ripping us off by making cheap and inferior copies of our sweat? It is really bad.”
Unless these issues are addressed, the future of writers in Nigeria is very bleak indeed and Nigerian Literature itself may be in the danger of basking in past glory.