You don’t have to call it a publishing firm when from the outset your business is to take money from writers to print their works…
There is a new publisher in town, with new poetry collections: Umar Abubakar Sidi’s The Poet of Dust and Richard Ali’s The Anguish and Vigilance of Things. It is Konya Shamsrumi, a name that sounds surreally elegant, accentuated by its self-glorifying credentials: “Conceived as an Africa-centric, tradition-style, royalties-paying publishing house run by the KSR Collective….” I didn’t have to wonder for long about KSR. Just down, I got the explanation: “Konya Shamsrumi is built around the four-member KSR Collective which comprises Richard Ali, Umar Sidi, Funmi Gaji and Rasaq Malik Gbolahan. Its objective is to create a new publishing house and multimedia platform for African poets that will show-case the continent’s best voices.”
Grand, always grand. I have a sense of déjà vu. I am trying hard to recollect any indigenous publisher in Nigeria, since the death or departure or bastardisation of the grandfather publishers (Heinemann, Longman, Spectrum, University Press, etc), that didn’t start off with that grand rhetoric about being African, traditional and royalty-paying, about discovering the best of African talents. Only to degenerate into a money-for-hand printing press; or a parasite that latches onto West-created literary fame by publishing only writers made famous by the global machines of the US; or to simply take a back door and silently go out of the scene. What really are the legacies, even if not fully realised, of Kraftbook, Bookcraft, Hybun, Farafina, the New Gong, Cassava Republic, Aboki, Paressia, Sevhage, Mazariyya (not to talk of new entrants such as AMAB Books, Ouida Books, Image Books, Ochebooks)? How have they even slightly achieved the vision of sustaining the robust literature midwifed and tended by pioneer publishers, notably Heinemann, which to some extent (I don’t mean to be uncharitable) indulged in their own colonial project? Indigenous publishing in Nigeria was to be marked by a decolonising mission in the 1980s in the wake of a Marxist literary outburst that would produce the people-centred, nativist aesthetics of Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Festus Iyayi, among others. Abiola Irele’s New Horn Press, and later Femi Osofisan’s OponIfa and Odia Ofeimun’s Hornbill House emerged with that decolonising mission. Despite their good intentions, we have nothing tangible of them today.
Kraftbook, Farafina, the New Gong, Cassava Republic and Paressia came with great promises for imaginative writers, especially in nurturing the restless creative spirits of the postmodern children of Nigerian literature in English. Talking about legacies, what they have are titles and more titles, a deceptively nice way of actually ‘helping’ to grow Nigerian literature; titles paid for by the authors, usually set to lapse into oblivion after the first print run. Kraftbook can lay claim to being a leader in publishing Nigerian poetry, and yet is unable to wean itself from that cash-and-carry practice, in spite of its impressive list of award-winning poets. Farafina came with a dazzling performance of publishing the African editions of the works of Nigeria’s global (if diasporic) writers, achieving popularity on an already established platform of publicity. It had the potential to be a leader in the fiction publishing business. But we watched its fortunes dwindle, and, at some point, we were wondering where it was in the scheme of things.
Cassava Republic burst onto the scene with the promise of redemption, specifically focusing on Afrocentrism and talent discovery. But today, rather than decolonising the best of Africa, it has moved to London, one of the imperial capitals systematically re-colonising African literature and has to fit itself into the global design of presenting a cosmetic Africa. Paressia and Sevhage joined the queue of the empty promise of making a difference, not even able to make any considerable impact on Nigeria’s intellectual life.
What the literati know, which they discussed privately, sometimes in hushed voices, is that most, if not all of, these publishers (sorry, glorified printing presses) ask for money to take care of the cost of editing and production, insisting on the author paying nothing less than seventy-percent, the prices usually on an astronomical rise because of the rise in the cost of papers (government is always there to blame, anyway). Or they do a ‘bilateral’ business with the author whereby they pay half of the cost (this is very rare with a creative writing manuscript). Or they (re)publish a writer of fame by bearing the cost with the aim of exploiting the fame to get back the money. The budding writers are worse hit by this Shylock system as they are eager to get published, just as the printer-publishers are eager to fleece them. The established writers lose their integrity when they have to do business with these publishers. You are not worth committing resources to even if you have previously won awards, your work has received favourable reviews, or you have a considerable wide readership. I have witnessed established writers paying for the costs of their books, grumbling about what publishing has become. Unless, of course, you have the fame of a Wole Soyinka magnitude or by your politics (in addition to your writing) you become an international star, in which case the printer-publishers will greedily leech on you. I find it disturbing that we have all settled for this routine, that stakeholders hardly discuss the problems of the publishing industry even at book festivals and other forums where this matter should be a first topic of discussion and action. We all assume that the publishing industry is healthy because new titles of literary works are being churned out every day – literary works, from covers to contents, that are symptomatic of our dysfunctional publishing sector.
There is a good reason to hold indigenous publishing outfits in Nigeria responsible for the emasculation of our literature at home and its misrepresentation abroad. From my experience, I should think that most, if not all writers, would like to be published in their country from where their artistic product could be launched into the world. But if I have to pay in Nigeria to get published and there is a publisher in the US that will give me an advance royalty to publish my work, why won’t I jump at the US offer, even if the foreign publisher will denude my story of its local flavour? Besides the advance royalty, the publishing firm will unleash its publicity and lobbying machineries to ensure your book is seen, to ensure events are organised for your books. The publisher has links to institutions and libraries across the world. These robust publicity, lobbying and marketing strategies are what make publishing a business. How do you go by the name of a publisher without having a vibrant segment handling those strategies?
Indigenous Nigerian publishing firms do not publicise and market their authors/works. What is the need for that when the author has paid up? They do not have to lobby institutions; some don’t even have catalogues. Departments of English and literary studies, institutional libraries, even in Nigeria do not get catalogues from publishers anymore, as it used to be in the days of Heinemann and Longman. Granted, public libraries have collapsed in Nigeria; but they have not collapsed in other countries, near and far, where publishers can market Nigeria’s creative writing industry. Many foreign literary scholars, institutions and libraries, from the East to the West, would be grateful getting catalogues and adverts from indigenous publishers showcasing the abundance of Nigeria’s creative minds, rather than feeding on the narrow and arid diet of Nigeria’s diasporic writing.
One other disturbing effect of having publishers as cash-and-carry printers is that since the 1990s Anglophone Nigerian literature has lacked adequate critical and canonical direction. The publishing industry (I doubt if our printer-publishers know this fact) plays a significant role in framing and shaping literary canon. Literary critics, scholars and researchers depend on a healthy publishing industry to forge canonical discourses, from the class to the pages of magazines/journals. The very strange practice where a professor who wants to teach a novel has to get the author’s contact to request for copies is caused by the unhealthy publishing terrain. Professors and students have no access to new books because they are printed and shipped straight to the author’s bedroom. The author is careful how she releases copies, how she fixes a price, in order to recoup her money. The critical tradition can only be robust when publishers ensure books are available through strategic marketing, and by attracting scholars/researchers through quality products. A good publisher can even stage the consistent voice of an author thereby drawing attention to it. Think of how, if properly midwifed by an institutional publisher, these voices would have enriched our contemporary canon: Razinat Mohammed’s benign feminism; Toni Kan’s imaginative cosmopolitanism centred on Lagos’s physical and metaphysical peculiarities; Yusuf Adamu’s poetics of geography; Ebi Yeibo’s fiery poetics of environmentalism; and Ahmed Maiwada’s hermetic formalism. A genuine publisher will identify such steady voices and project them into global literary consciousness, as a way of exporting our canon.This is not about winning a literary award that brings ephemeral popularity. We should be seriously worried that we have talented writers who win awards now and then and yet there are no publishers to present them as enduring heritage of our literature.
Nigeria is a bad place to do business. Is that what is really wrong with the publishers? I don’t think so. What I think is that anyone who wants to come into literary publishing must first have the love of literature as a cultural heritage that needs tender care. In that case, the publisher plays down the profit greed. You don’t need to start a publishing firm if you don’t have a strong financial base; and you don’t have to call it a publishing firm when from the outset your business is to take money from writers to print their works. Successful publishing firms today do have a long history dating back to decades, even centuries, negotiating their paths through recapitalisation and strategic mergers. They are not only built on a solid financial base but also on an enduring, unyielding ideological base, achieving worldwide integrity over the course of several years. In other words, they are built as an institution. If you take the time to build a comprehensive publishing institution, with the publicity and marketing sections intact, then the profit margins should naturally expand. This institution should see itself as a custodian of culture, of a literary heritage, with strategies to not only renew and sustain itself but also systematically develop its authors. It foresees the future of a budding writer in, say, ten to thirty years to come and nudge and assist such writer to produce her best by asking her for the next manuscript and celebrating her talent periodically. This institution, although open to all writers, will concentrate on some talented ones that can shape the poetics and practice of their age, and vigorously midwife them into the realm of fame. This talent-nurturing segment of the institution will be matched by a vibrant section that deals with conquering the publicity and marketing scene. The political and economic inadequacies of Nigeria cannot be an excuse for printers masquerading as publishers. The strengths of any real publisher will be in its striving to establish itself as an institution of integrity in the face of challenges.
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