I was reading Ayo Sogunro’s twitter interview with 1Pageweekly.com the other day and one of his responses struck me. Most of us Nigerian writers, especially those based in Nigeria are polygamists. We are married to the pursuit of our writing for the passion, but are stuck in a marriage of convenience with some other means of livelihood to pay the bills and probably fund the writing. One of my goals for this year is to make writing profitable, very profitable. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a sprinkling of writers who successfully make a living from their writing, but I do not know any who has achieved stupendous financial success strictly from their writing in Nigeria. It’s a thing of degrees, and the degree of success available for the Nigerian writer from his or her writing is limited today. It would seem there is a glass ceiling. I also remember the words of veteran film-maker Amaka Igwe – A single (make that few) great film-makers does not make a great film industry. Same thought applies to writing.
I’m a firm believer in learning from history. And history provides us with an insightful perspective to a couple of money-spinning industries today which is instructive with the benefit of hindsight. Not so long ago, they were not so profitable and most of the practitioners were in the forced polygamy that Nigerian writers find themselves currently in. However, some things changed, and a profitable industry was birthed in each case.
The first of these examples is football. Before Joao Havelange became FIFA president in 1974, football was not a very profitable sport. Havelange, a water polo player, was the first non-European to hold the position, and he quickly recognized that there was more value in football than was being extracted at the time. He took existing technology such as live broadcasting on television, the emerging need for brands to engage their customers innovatively, the developing markets outside Europe with which he was very familiar being non-European himself and the thawing of the cold war that started in the early 1970s with such things as the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks, and he leveraged all of these to get the first big sponsorship deals for the FIFA World Cup, endorsement deals from the big brands, bidding for hosting games and the televising of this to engage the viewers in the buildup to the games, aggressive marketing of football and television rights worldwide. The result was an explosion of money in football and the rest is history. So successful was Havelange’s template that it was adopted by his friend at the International Olympics Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, for the Olympic Games to much success. They both saw beyond the fixation with making money from ticket takings that their predecessors were bent on to other new avenues leveraging existing technology and other factors. The current financial success of sports can be attributed to these two men.
Whilst that might be on the international scene, we have a more localized example. After the late 80s superlative success of Sir Shina Peters, Nigerian music went into a not quite profitable phase, especially precipitated by the flight of the big record labels. This continued until a rebirth which started in 1998. Most musicians during this interval such as Father U-Turn, Junior and Pretty and many others were popular but didn’t make a lot of money, they had to do other things part-time. In fact, most parents would not allow their children do music because of it simply wasn’t a very lucrative profession. During this period, foreign music took over our airwaves and very few Nigerian songs had wide acceptance. But with the fall of Abacha’s dictatorship and the opening up of the media to private participants which brought AIT, DBN and others to vibrancy, the people were once again excited about broadcasting. Taking advantage of the newfound outlets for expression, Kenny ‘Keke’ Ogungbe and Dayo ‘D1’ Adeneye stepped in and set up Kennis Music. They took advantage of the new broadcasting platforms, the patriotic wave that followed the events of 1998 and a technology which was at that time just breaking into the Nigerian market – the CD. With these, they birthed a new, profitable Nigerian music industry. They explored new markets ignored by most before in other African countries and recognized the desire of many of the new big brands such as Telecoms and Breweries to connect to the Nigerian people. They put forward the Nigerian musicians on their books to serve as brand ambassadors (the TuFace Extra Smooth Advert) and a new era of profitability was birthed in Nigerian music.
In 2014, we stand at such a cusp in Nigerian writing. Like pre Havelange football and pre Kennis Nigerian music, people are writing now, making something from it and some are even quite popular. But there is more, much more to be made. First, the environmental factors. People are reading more and the demand for Nigerian books are on the rise amongst Nigerians. I’ve had conversations with a couple of bookshop owners in Lagos and they confirmed this. I spoke with the in-traffic sellers who sell pirated copies and they confirmed this. The general feeling is that Nigerians want more and more Nigerian books. The role that blogs have played to introduce the public to the vast array of Nigerian fiction available cannot be emphasized enough. People now know there’s great Nigerian writing they can relate with available, and are willing to pay for it.
The second is the emergence of technology solutions for distributing books, akin to live television for FIFA and CDs for music. The mobile phone has become ubiquitous in Nigeria and smartphones are on the increase. Smart people are already leveraging this to create apps like Okadabooks and YSGHub to distribute books in ways that respect copyright, once you have a smartphone. The areas that need fine tuning are the payment systems. Once people can pay within these apps with their airtime or debit/credit cards in a seamless manner, things will pick up in this area. I trust that the Telcos will open up their systems to make this possible.
However, the distribution issues of hardcopy books are also being addressed. Bookshops like Patabah, Glendora and Terrakulture are beginning to display Nigerian books in prominent areas of their stores rather than in the ghettoes the books used to be relegated to in times past. Others will follow the trend. Individuals like Myne Whitman and Yetunde Armon are developing innovative and cost effective ways of distributing books. Jumia, Konga, Adibba and other e-commerce sites are also bridging the distribution gap for books increasingly, even though the cost of delivery from these sites remains an issue. I however believe that as they fine-tune their models, they will develop innovative ways of driving down cost.
Writers are also writing more and more relevant stories, situated in Nigeria and that Nigerians find relatable. This has so far been the fuel that has driven the renaissance of interest in reading Nigerian writing by Nigerians. It will continue to be a crucial foundation upon which all the other factors are built on.
There has never been a time when more avenues for a writer who needs to promote his or her work were available. Today, writers have the option of Social Media to promote their work free of charge. Also, there are an increasing number of people in the media who are willing to offer their platforms to writers who see a need to actually market their work to achieve this. T.I.T.I of Inspiration FM does a fantastic job of this on her book club which is heard by millions of people every Friday. Debbie of Radio Continental, Tolu Adeleru-Balogu of Nigeria Info Lagos and Inya of Nigeria Info Abuja all do a great job of bringing writers and their work to their millions of listeners. Linda Ikeji, Bellanaija, Naijastories, tlsplace and TheNakedConvos do a great job of introducing the reading community to new writers and their work online. Talkshows like Channels Book Club, Teju Babyface Show and Moments With Mo also promote the works of writers to the television audience, many times to not just a Nigerian but an African audience. Today, the information on a book published in Nigeria today can get to South Africa within seconds. I repeat that there has never been a time writers had more options to promote their work if they desire to.
There has never been greater opportunity to break into the market in other African countries as we have now. The good work of trailblazers like Chimamanda and Teju Cole means that the Nigerian Writer brand is one that we can sell, given the right machinery behind it.
We must recognize that the financial value available to extract from our writing is however beyond book sales. The two examples I gave earlier illustrate the need to break out of the traditional mindsets about where revenue could come from. This we must do with writing too. There’s money to be made from endorsements if we seek them out. There’s money to be made from merchandising, from organizing book events that will be able to draw thousands, from book adaptations to movies, from adapting our books into other forms such as audio books. I’m certain that when we put our minds to it, we will see all the possibilities. This will require aggressive selling, and publishers and writers will need to go beyond the traditional puritanical perspectives to writing, curb the pride in the height of our form of art, and do the not so pretty work of selling. As Jay-Z said in his book Decoded, the romantic views on the poor, suffering but superbly talented artist needs to be dispelled with. It is the trap we have allowed ourselves to be restrained with for too long.
Finally, there is one part of the puzzle that is yet to come through in Nigeria. It was an essential part of the other two examples I gave earlier and will be crucial to making Nigerian writing profitable. In both examples, corporate organizations required new outlets to reach their customers; football and Nigerian music offered it in each case. We as writers and publishers must find a way to get the buy-in of these corporate organizations so that they realize the value that writing can deliver to them and commit the kind of resources to them.
The publishing industry has huge potential. It can be a billion dollar industry. And we are at the precipice, at the tipping point. We can and we will make writing stupendously profitable in 2014.