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How absence of government support, bleak economy make Nigerian writers live in penury

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
01 February 2019   |   3:01 am
It was sunny in Lagos. The harsh weather, which stood at 88 degrees, was above average this Friday afternoon. Alexander Onyekwelu, 25, a young and upcoming writer, didn’t expect a reprieve from the grueling weather.

A young lady looks through the collection of books available to know the one she wants. PHOTO: Courtesy of https://qz.com/africa

A Nigerian writer who wants to live only on what his writings bring for him will die in poverty, because his writings will never bring enough for him to exist, writes GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR, Arts and Culture Editor

It was sunny in Lagos. The harsh weather, which stood at 88 degrees, was above average this Friday afternoon. Alexander Onyekwelu, 25, a young and upcoming writer, didn’t expect a reprieve from the grueling weather. He was determined to be at the Lagos Book and Arts Festival (LABAF) holding at the Freedom Park, Lagos.

Though dressed in shabby second hand clothes, the young writer’s ambition was to make an impression at the book festival. He would practically attend all the fora in the three-day feast. He was sure letters of recommendation to publishers would come. Possibly, he would meet many of them.

But really, are wishes horses?
Alexander, as a young boy, loved books. He was a bibliophile. Reading was his favourite pastime, whether in school, at home or with friends. He loved skimming printed objects that he came across. Though, his dream was to study English or any course in creative arts, he ended up reading psychology. His love for literature did not, however, waiver. He was hopeful of a career in writing.

During his university days, he noticed that he couldn’t find the kind of books that he craved for. The university bookshop supplied mostly school textbooks and didn’t have diverse collection of works by African authors.By 2:15p.m., he was inside Kongi’s Harvest Art Gallery hall listening to panelists discuss emerging trends in Nigerian literature. Gently, he left the hall for the Food Court. He stood beside a statue and waited patiently at the corner for his would-be publisher.

He swiveled round to face on coming visitors and guests to the book feast. In the next 45 minutes, he had a close watch of every activity at the fair ground. The environment sobbed and laughed. It sang ecstatically and sorrowed as books made triumphal entry.But Alexander did not have a hint that the card he had was no way near a promissory note. He waited for more than an hour at the Food Court and the publisher did not come. This was incomprehensible to him. His bewilderment turned to confusion. And then, to disappointment.

By 3:32p.m., he went back to the hall.
Alexander was depressed and empty.
Would he let anyone dampen his spirit?
“I’m tired of everything,” he said. His voice full of anger and pain. Mirthless.
“Life is really tough,” he said. His eyes fluttered.
Two years later, November 9, 2018, Alexander still held on to his manuscript waiting for a publisher. He had visited four of them, but no one was ready to touch it. The one that agreed was for a fee.
“A publisher said I should pay N300,000 to push some copies out,” he lamented.
On Wednesday, January 23, 2019, a moderately busy afternoon, Alexander parted with his first payment for the publication. It was seed money.
So many installments to follow.

BRIMMING with love for the arts, John Aliu, 28, had attended the month’s meeting of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Lagos chapter. He was hoping to be a member. Aliu was already a member of the Osogbo Writers League, whose dream was to bring back the creative resourcefulness of the ancient town. With creative nuggets from a host of writers and intellectuals, including Profs Bayo Lamikanra and Olu Obafemi, he was already reveling in the mentality of a well-shaped writer. Crouched in the seat, he was filled with a sense of awe. Writers. Writers. Writers everywhere.

It all seemed so simple to be a writer. The fame of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark and Christopher Okigbo loomed large behind.
To his astonishment, the gathering also attracted rip-roaring, shouting young men in a hurry to bear the name, authors — a condition for becoming members of the writers’ umbrella organ — ANA. He sat on the first seat in the second row of chairs at the meeting venue. Behind were three older writers chattering in low tones. He listened to their conversation. But what he heard troubled his mind.

You could feel Aliu’s disappointment. He had expected to see big name authors and writers, but all he saw was a generation of new writers still battling to have their works published. He was surprised at the explosion of manuscripts.

“Please, help me edit my work.”
“Please help me review this book in your paper.”
“I have been a constant victim of this publishing hunger,” said Yemi Adebisi, the Art and Book Editor of Daily Independent Newspapers offering a discomforting explanation that would make a young writer fear. Adebisi, like many other art reporters and editors, receive a lot of manuscripts from these young writers on a regular basis, most times, begging them to help edit their works.

At every ANA meeting, the average art journalist is sure to get between five and 10 books to review.The journey is hard for established writers, but harder for Alexander and his ilk, who are young writers. Although, some struggled to get their books published, many of those works end up in cartons and packets that brought them. The future is bleak for them in Nigeria. They are not likely to eke out a living in the economy, which according to the Brookings Institution, World Bank, now has the world’s greatest number of extreme poor.

Books that are launched and bring in money in the country are those of hagiographers and the memoirs of corrupt politicians and their supporters who are able to raise millions and billions at such launchings.BUT the poet and polemicist, Odia Ofeimun, has not given in to despair. He does not hold a day-job, but breathes and lives the writerly life to enviable level.

In 2010, he was awarded the Folon-Nichols Award, administered by the African Literature Association (ALA) and given to an African writer every year for excellence in creative writing and contributions to the struggle for human rights and freedom of expression. Ofeimun, who became famous with his critically acclaimed collection, The Poet Lied, is the author of eight collections of poems and numerous essays on political analysis and cultural criticism.

His most recent volumes include, Go Tell the Generals, A Boiling Caracas and Other Poems, and I Will Ask Questions With Stones If They Take My Voice, and a poetry anthology, Lagos of the Poets. In 2008, a selection of his poems, Los Ninõs del Estero, was published in a Spanish translation in Mexico.On cultural politics, Ofeimun has such works as, Taking Nigeria Seriously, Soyinka In Spite of Nietzsche, A House of Many Mansions, Impossible Death of the Author, and Media Nigeriana.

Ofeimun has also done immense work on stage with his dance dramas such as, A Feast of Return, Under African Skies, Because of 1914, and Nigeria the Beautiful. But there is something that makes him sad. “If I say I’m surviving, I’m only deceiving you because I’m not,” he once told The Guardian. “If I don’t bring out the books that I have written there will be problem. I have done plenty of works and it makes me feel good. If it’s a normal society I’ll really feel good with myself; but this is not,” he paused.

For Ofeimun, Nigerians have the desire and tendency to consume cultural products, but insisted that the right models have not been designed that could fuel that appetite.He said: “We need to design a model for the consumption of cultural products. Our society is ready, but we don’t know how to reach them. We have to find a way to reach them. When the workforce is laid off work or it is not paid, it hurts. Artists are dead when those who patronise them don’t get paid. They have really massacred this economy.”

Another writer, Odafe Atogun, is also proud to be a full-time writer. He has two impressive novels already that have established him as a writer of note and one to watch in the coming years: Taduno’s Song and Wake Me When I’m Gone. Although, he lives entirely as a writer, he admits also doing some irregular consultancy jobs in-between writing, which he said, “keep me rooted to my writing.”

Atogun successfully got two book deals from publishers abroad, Canongate, Penguin Random House, and Archie Verlag, which place him in fairly comfortable financial position not to hold a day-job as against most of his peers in the writing business.“As I’m writing now, I’m thinking of a deal I can pull that can earn me some substantial amount to keep me writing. A book deal is not paid at once, but paid over time. It might not be much but it comes at its time. So, publishing in Nigeria is not as rewarding as overseas; they have more readership, and take more risks.”

Instant passport to poverty
WRITERS, like all artists, often don’t become rich from writing, and those who have become bestselling authors with books selling in thousands and millions, have not been the best, but luckiest. From JK Rowling, author of the phenomenal Harry Potter novels to the unexpected success of E.L James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, none saw the success coming. They did not have any fantastic best selling formula. They were just lucky the unpredictable lovers of books fell in love with their magical and erotic thrillers.

According to Dr. Diran Ademiju-Bepo, an Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Jos, where he has been teaching, researching, facilitating workshops and directing since 2010, “poverty for the writer in Nigeria is like a calling. If you don’t get your work(s) on the reading list of the educational institutions, you will answer the calling. For instance, the novel used by JAMB for UTME candidates in the last two to three years, In Dependence, the author can’t claim the calling of poverty. You know the number of applicants, who have to read it. Before that, it was Last Days at Forcados.”

Ademiju-Bepo also said, “it’s difficult for a writer to live on his royalties because no royalties are paid any more. Most writers now are contented with self-publishing since the big publishers will not call for our scripts. Even when publishers like Kraft, etc publish you, you pay the full amount. And he just ships your books over to you for marketing. In the last 10 to 15 years, I have not heard of royalty payout to writers.”

Prof. Olu Obafemi, in his paper on Sustaining and Nurturing Creative Writing in Northern Nigeria, said, “some writers — young or old, or both — labour under the sad illusion that being an author is a passport to instant wealth. They need to do a little research as to why most authors today are not full-time writers. Some of us in the academia and the humanities must improve our CV— with evidence of published creative works, if they wish to be smiled upon by the Appointments and Promotion Committees. In any case, there are hungry publishers as there are hungry authors, in a mutual self-seeking game.”

Like Amos Tutuola, like Edgar Poe, Kafka, others
MOSTLY known for The Palm Wine Drinkard, the first novel to come out of West Africa, Amos Tutuola never made money from writing, as he died poor in 1997, from hypertension and diabetes. His writing never brought him wealth in spite of authoring over nine critically acclaimed works.

Some of his works include, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1946, published 1952), My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle (1955), The Brave African Huntress (1958), Feather Woman of the Jungle (1962), Ajaiyi and his Inherited Poverty (1967), The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town (1981), The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts (1982), Yoruba Folktales (1986), Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer (1987) and The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories (1990).

He worked in the civil service all his life, first as a messenger in the Labour Department in Lagos and later as a storekeeper for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. Tutuola wrote for the pure love of the arts.After the publishing firm, Thomas Nelson, rejected the manuscript, Faber and Faber accepted it and paid Tutuola 50 dollars as royalty for the first edition.

Before Tutuola were other writers like, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Alan Poe and Frank Kafka, who equally died in poverty.Though Wilde was a celebrity of the age and his works sold well, he was known to have extravagant spending habits. After his imprisonment, he was known to essentially live in poverty.

Franz Kafka died of starvation brought on by tuberculosis. A feeble Kafka even asked his close friend to burn all of his works when he died. His friend has gifted the world great works like, The Trial and has led to the creation of the term ‘Kafkaesque’.Edgar Allan Poe was one of the most important and influential American writers of the 19th century. He was even the first author to try to make a professional living as a writer. But Poe was so desperately poor that he burned his furniture to keep warm. Humiliated by his poverty, Poe was forced to drop out of school. He died on October 7, 1849 at the age of 40.

If anyone still had a ‘polaroidic’ impression that writing is a lucrative business, a recent study by Digital Book World (DBW) found that “the majority of authors make less than $1,000 a year” from their writing, and “only 10 per cent of traditionally published authors made more than $20,000.”

Another survey by the American Guild of Authors earlier in the month also revealed a crash in author earnings described as “a crisis of epic proportions” – particularly for full-time literary writers, who are “on the verge of extinction.”In a survey of its membership and that of 14 other writers’ organisations, the guild reported that the median income from writing-related work fell to a historic low in 2017 at $6,080 (£4,760), down 42 per cent from 2009. A total, 5,027 authors provided detailed responses to the survey.

The report noted that writers of literary fiction are affected the most, with those authors experiencing the biggest recent decline in writing-related earnings – down 43 per cent since 2013. The guild said the reduction in earnings for literary writers “raises serious concerns about the future of literature.”

The survey follows a similar research conducted in the UK in 2018, which found that median earnings for professional writers had fallen by 42 per cent since 2005 to under £10,500 – well below the minimum wage of £15,269.Earnings for full-time authors dropped 30 per cent between 2009 and 2014, from $25,000 to $17,500, while the median income of part-time writers fell 38 per cent over the period, from $7,250 to $4,500. Thirty-nine percent of respondents to the survey said their sole income came from writing.

Years before, dedicated and talented fiction and non-fiction writers who put in the time and learned the craft could make a living doing what they did best, while contributing enormously to knowledge, culture and the arts. That is no longer the case for most authors, especially those trying to start careers.Many, including Ademiju-Bepo, are sure writing is a passport to poverty, especially with a population of over 180 million, where a writer barely sell up to 1,000 copies.

In Nigeria, a country with millions of potential book buyers, publishing is a tough business. Many readers will happily pay for religious texts or textbooks but sometimes balk at paying for contemporary fiction or creative nonfiction. Yet local publishers like Parrésia, Ouida Books, Farafina, and Cassava keep feeding Nigerians with high quality literary works, even with the ever-looming piracy threat and unfavorable business environment.

For Dr. Femi Adedina, the deputy Provost of Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education, Otto Ijanikin, “the architecture of our educational system, the state of our publishing industry and our economies, which are mostly mono-culture, and the high cost of educational materials, coupled with the infrastructural deficit, have made it impossible for writers in the developing world to exist and live on their royalties alone.”

As you listen to his description you get a sense of picture being painted by the academic. “The publishing industry in Nigeria is comatose. Their inputs are too costly. Inputs such as paper, printing machine, printing materials and other necessary equipment are very costly, because they are all imported. After publishing, it takes ages for the books to be sold. This makes it difficult to break even not to talk of sending royalties to the writers. In addition, the cost of marketing, advertising and getting the books into readers’ hands are killing. In addition to these, the schools are no more reading. The ubiquity of Internet, social media and mobile telephony has made it impossible for present-day youths to buy and read even books listed for their classes.”

You can feel the disappointment in Adedina’s voice. “Our economy is comatose, a result of unbridled corruption, rapacious leaders and lack of planning and execution of good plans. All of these affect reading. People will struggle for survival first before thinking of feeding their brains. When we do not read, books cannot sell and when books don’t sell, writers cannot live on royalties.”Many have argued that government needs to battle book piracy vigorously. The situation in which pirated copies are more and cheaper than original books and cannot make the writer rich is very uncomfortable

But Paulicap Okeke, a Nigerian writer based in Canada believes, “the system in Nigeria allows publishing companies to cheat writers out of whatever is due to them.He continued, “cases of copyright violations that go to the court take years to make its way through the court system and by that time the writer is frustrated and ultimately abandons the case. Publishing companies latch on to this vulnerability and treat writers with disdain and with impunity.”

Okeke also said that because of corruption, “it is very difficult for the writer to know the amount of books sold. This lack of transparency is a huge obstacle to surmount in Nigeria. I still get paid royalties on my book here. The cheques come in without me asking. This is not the case in Nigeria. Honestly it is difficult to proffer solution to this copyright violation issue in Nigeria.”He, however, contended, “I think the copyright law which is in existence should be vigorously enforced and also, writers should be aware of their rights and also be careful when they enter into a contract with publishing houses.”

Patience and empathy play a large role in understanding the Nigerian writer said Hyacinth Obunseh, former ANA Secretary General. Obunseh, a publisher, said, “it pains me each time I meet colleagues at functions and we seem so poor and impoverished, like the worse set of people in the comity of professionals. The reason cannot be far fetched. A real writer’s main source of income is royalties from materials he has written and published. Most of these are given away to friends, family and colleagues as complimentary copies with his signature sitting pretty cool on one of the front pages, and others lie in some obscure corner of his room or some book shop, gathering dust.”

He continued, “if a writer is not in the academics or wins some foreign research grant or a very big literary prize he is most likely poor and impoverished. Examples abound. Maik Nwosu, Uche Nduka, Helon Habila, Akachi Ezeigbo, Karen King-Aribisala, Jumoke Verissimo and others are happy. This is because in the corridors of academics any work you published may already have sold out even before it comes out of press. You and your colleagues are in a competition for who will introduce the book to the most classes. When a writer wins a foreign commission apart from giving him conducive environment to churn out even better works, it affords him introduction to the international community, which opens a whole new set of worthy world that changes him for the better. He now walks and works in and for ‘the world’. He gains some sort or a new level of renown, if you like.”

However, Obunseh seems not to agree that literary awards have done much to ameliorate the average writer’s plight here at home, except it is some very big and foreign prize like the Caine Prize, which took for example a relatively unknown Helon Habila and made him a big star, who is wanted all over the world today. “Other local prizes we win only make you a 24-hour star with some change in your pocket to celebrate with a few friends, family and ‘foes’. The next day you are back in your hole with a nagging headache; the race continues….”

Ademiju-Bepo, whose play, No More the Taming Hawks, was one of the 11 longlisted plays of the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Limited (NLNG)-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2018, said, “to change the fate of writers living in Nigeria, government needs to patronise us, by taking over some of our works. Awards have only helped a few writers. It’s a winner takes-all syndrome, leaving the other writers dry.”

In 14 years, $880,000 has been given out as prize, which in today’s naira market (1 USD = 360 NGN), is about N316,800,000 million. Last year, Soji Cole’s Ember won the award. He got $100,000 in the process. In 2017, the late Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad won. 2016, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms got $100,000, while Sam Ukala’s Iredi War was rewarded with $100,000 in 2014.For Tade Ipadeola, his 2013 effort, The Sahara Testaments, got him $100,000. The same as Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street in 2012 and Adeleke Adeyemi’s The Missing Clock in 2011.

Esiaba Irobi’s Cemetery Road (2010) and Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow (2008) won $50,000 each.In 2007, Mabel Segun’s Readers’ Theatre: Twelve Plays for Young People and Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo’s My Cousin Sammy shared the $30,000 at stake. The same amount Ahmed Yerima got for his Hard Ground in 2006, while Gabriel Okara’s The Dreamer: His Vision and Ezenwa Ohaeto’s Chants of Minstrel Poetry shared $20,000 in 2005.

“We haven’t got there yet, but it doesn’t stop us from believing, that a full ecosystem of the book trade is still possible in spite of the age of twitter, that we can have robust, publishing, book clubs, authors’ appearances of audiences to read everywhere from Okoomaiko to Maitama, bookshops in traditional market, in shopping malls, online sales of e-books and audiobooks, active proliferation of book blogs, book reviews everywhere, libraries in every corner from Ajangbadi to Kaura Namoda,” said Toyin Akinosho, the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA).

He noted that the Literature Prize, no doubt, has come in as a quality intervention, whose contribution to the culture, creative industries narrative cannot be reduced to mere data and statistics. This is an opinion also raised by Andy Odeh, manager, Corporate Communication and Public Affairs. He noted that NLNG has come in to reward excellence. “At NLNG, we believe that the award is to celebrate excellence in literary accomplishments and also bring authors to public attention and with or without the prize, people will write.”

What should be done
MANY have called for government support, as a way out of this problem that has confronted writers.Prof. Segun Ojewuyi of Southern Illinois University, Carbon-Dale, U.S., told The Guardian in an earlier interview, governments’ backing of the arts serves as insurance and guarantee for corporations intending to support the arts.

Without such government-backed support, Ojewuyi said, corporations might be unwilling to step in. This exemplifies the case with Nigeria; corporations are hesitant, because the sector lacks government patronage.Former ANA president and a member of Faculty at the University of Ibadan, Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade, advised government to establish ‘Creative Writing Fund’ different from Education Tax Fund. “The Creative Writing Fund will be without borders. It won’t be just for those of us who are lucky to be within the university. There are writers outside who are natural writers but are not within the system,” he said.

Raji-Oyelade believes that writers who have powerful sponsors — for example, foundations, patrons of the arts, and fellow writers — often get bumped up. Adedina would want a setting up of foundations and fellowships to help writers to write “without thinking of where the next meal would come. Nigeria is a big market. If a writer for example can sell books to 1 per cent of our population in the year — that is around 1,830,000 people if we take our population as 183 million — the writer would be rich. As newspaper subscription figures show this is like a dream that can never be achieved.”

To change the situation, Obunseh said, “a lot needed be done, first by ANA, the Nigerian Publishers Association, Nigerian Library Association, the Nigerian Copyright Commission and the National Assembly. They all have to sit up and be alive to their responsibilities to the writer. Create the environment necessary for him to churn out good and worthy materials. Create the market for these books to be sold and bought. Encourage a robust reading environment. Make books and reading both enjoyable and necessary. Make piracy an unprofitable venture and so on.”

Adedina also called for “a revamping of the publishing industry through the reduction of publishing inputs such as, paper, printing equipment and other materials.”He also canvassed a restructuring and rejigging of educational systems, which “have collapsed through enough funding, cleaning up of the examination processes, the reinvigoration and rejuvenation of the processes involved in recommendation of books for the educational institutions from early childhood schools to universities.”

Many have also argued that writers should explore the online distribution network. They noted that online solves that problem by creating a simple and transparent platform, that leverages on mobile technology, where authors can keep track of the number of copies sold of their books in real-time, and withdraw the money they’ve made without any hassles. Aided by a rising middle class, equipped with mobile phones and well versed in social media, online bookstores are slowly gaining a foothold in Nigeria.

The online bookstores combine the convenience of delivering to customers with the mission to promote and distribute only books about Africa and by African writers. In Nigeria, there is Okechukwu Ofili’s Okadabooks, an e-book distribution startup, which allows Nigerian authors to bypass traditional publishers, publish their stories and sell them to a wide (and growing) audience.

Beyond the arguments, Hadiza Isma el-Rufai, wife of Kaduna State Governor, would want every writer to be practical about the issue. At the last Kaduna Book and Art Festival (KABAFest), she pointed the need for more Nigerians to key into the language of people they are writing about. She said, “there’s a vibrant book market especially in Kano, a lot of people writing in Hausa Language and many of our women read these stories that are coming out. So, there are many of these books, and like you say, as Nollywood churn out movies, that’s how they churns out books in Hausa Language, which is very good.”