COLUMNS - 06 JAN 2017

Not Playing by the Book

Not Playing by the Book
David Masters Printing press

In Nigeria, paradoxes are not hard to come by. Port-Harcourt, the hub of our oil industry, UNESCO’s World Book Capital in 2014, is home to the world’s worst airport. A country with a literacy rate of 55.4%, ranking 106th out of 126 countries, has also produced acclaimed authors such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Yet our country’s contradictions have often made it a great muse for writers. This year, Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Chimamanda Adichie has become a household name both at home and abroad. The Ake Arts and Book Festival held last month in Abeokuta, is just another indicator of a new wave of interest in indigenous literature. However, these changing tides have not substantially improved the fortunes of Nigeria’s domestic publishing industry. Although this should not be too surprising given our earlier discussion about paradoxes, it may also represent a case of untapped opportunities.

For starters, we need to recognise that publishing in Nigeria is far from traditional. In traditional publishing, books garnered attention through strategic marketing and distribution involving bookstores, reviews of advanced copies, author appearances in public libraries etc. A lot of this promotion was done and paid for by publishers who own the rights to the books, with the authors receiving royalties. Sometimes a book might receive an award, but critical acclaim was not necessary (and sometimes not sufficient) to create a bestseller. In Nigeria, on the other hand, few domestic publishers are in operation, and they are beleaguered by piracy and high printing costs. Lacking ubiquity, local bookstores make poor marketing tools. For Nigerian authors, popularity tends to come from international recognition, usually through a prestigious award

Of course, given the limited number of literary prizes in existence, “win an award” is not useful advice for any aspiring writer. Furthermore, the kinds of books that win awards do not always have mass appeal. Instead, genre fiction like mystery and romance attract higher sales and dedicated readerships. The popularity of the Pacesetters Series in the 80’s shows that Nigeria is no exception.

Capitalising on New Nollywood

Nollywood, for all its faults, is Nigeria’s poster child for industries that can become profitable without following traditional channels. Some posit that book publishing can do the same by devoting more resources towards producing and promoting popular fiction, but there is also the worry that focusing too closely on commercialisation will erode cultural concerns.

However, these debates fail to consider a more interesting possibility: collaboration. In its bid to carve out a niche for Nigerian films of high quality, New Nollywood cinema may just be what the publishing industry needs. Books and film adaptations often enjoy a symbiotic relationship with respect to sales. And judging by the popularity of TV dramas like “Tinsel”, “Super Story” and Latin American telenovelas among Nigerian audiences, the small screen can be just as useful. If domestic book publishers or self-published authors can successfully negotiate partnerships with our country’s film-makers, Nollywood can get the steady supply of fresh well-written stories it needs while drumming up publicity for a new generation of Nigerian popular fiction.

Saved by the Red Pen

Self-publishing invariably comes up in such discussions, and the success stories warrant some optimism in this area. The rise of self-publishing also raises the demand for book editors. This is because the self-published books that succeed have more fluid prose, fewer plot holes, and are just more enjoyable to read, which is very difficult to achieve without editorial help.

In fact, editing services are particularly crucial in Nigeria. The advisory board for the Nigeria Prize for Literature, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the country, announced that there would be no winner this year because most of the 109 entries received contained “grave editing and publishing errors”. While Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwubani notes that this highlights serious weaknesses in our educational system that could severely limit the younger generation’s ability to produce good literature, Nigeria’s low literacy rates could be a boon for freelance editors.

Local Talent

Certainly, one could argue that the editors need not be Nigerian or even in the country, which is true. Just as Nigerian authors have been able to find literary agents and secure book deals with foreign firms, they could also employ the services of editors anywhere in the world.

However, one strength of Nigerian literature is the distinctive flavour to the language. Where turns of phrase and nuances of meaning may be lost on a foreigner, indigenous editors can better help Nigerian authors harness their own authentic voices because they understand “Nigerian English”. This is particularly necessary when trying to produce popular stories written for a Nigerian audience.

Secondly, domestic editors can offer their services at more competitive rates than their counterparts abroad. For instance, based on the rates chart of the Editorial Freelancers Association, basic copy-editing for a 80,000 word manuscript costs about $1000, and prices for thorough developmental editing can go as high as $10,000. It would be hard to convince the average budding Nigerian writer to shell out ₦1 million for an editor. Therefore, it is not difficult for domestic freelancers to offer their services at lower prices and still make a decent living.

So where are all the domestic editors? A quick search through classifieds on sites like OLX and Chutku reveals several companies and individuals pitching their proofreading and editing services with ads that range from the vague and error-ridden to ones that actually inspire confidence. The challenge here is weeding out the skilled from the charlatans. Furthermore, some editors are also writers and bloggers, so editing sometimes gets less attention than its more glamorous cousins. In order to tap into the pool of hopeful authors, good editors need to take the burden of search away from potential clients and do a better job of marketing what they do and how well they do it.


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Ebehi Iyoha

Ebehi Iyoha

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