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Literary prizes versus book sales… Mixed fortune for writers, publishers



The year was 1993 and America’s lady of letters, Toni Morrison, had just been announced winner of Nobel Prize for Literature. Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, who was on Sabbatical at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, had been at a bookstore when the announcement was made and didn’t have enough money to buy any of her novels – Beloved, The Buest Eye or Song of Solomon. So, she planned to return the next day, but somehow she couldn’t. By the time she arrived the bookstore the third day, there was no single copy of the Nobel laureate’s novels – all sold out. It was the same in other bookstores across the city.

Such is the fortune of writers and the book frenzy literary prizes generate for book sales in climes where books are treasured cultural objects. Is Nigeria an exception to this general rule?

“Well, it should be so everywhere,” Adimora-Ezeigbo, also a literary prize winner, stated, “but in Nigeria a lot of people don’t buy books, even if they are textbooks in the university. For being a Nobel Prize winner, I couldn’t find Morrison’s books to buy. Are you sure people buy the books of those who win prizes in Nigeria? But prizes should push up sales; it’s the ideal thing, but it hardly happens here. Ukala’s Iredi War won a prize recently, but I haven’t seen people talking about the book.


“So, either the books are not available, lack of publicity or many people simply don’t read. I know of the efforts I make to get my students to read at the university, even literature students. If literature students don’t read, who then will read? Accounting students? Parents should make efforts to introduce children to books early.”

Director at Parresia Publisher Ltd, Azafi Omoluabi, attested to the impact of prizes on sales and cited the example of Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s 2016 prize-winning novel, Season of Crimson Blossom. According to her, “Before the prize, it probably sold 10 copies a week, but after winning the prize it sold over 30 copies a week. As at last year, it was still doing well. It was the highest selling book at Kaduna Art and Book Festival (KABAFEST 2017). But sales has fizzled out, but it is still selling.”

Omoluabi noted that Parresia promoted the book as winner of The Nigerian Prize for Literature and held book-reading tours for the Ibrahim although at a princely cost.

Winner of the same prize in the poetry category in 2013, Tade Ipadeola, with The Sahara Testaments, conceded a grudging place to literary prizes as stimulator for book sales. Though there was considerable interest in his book in the first year of winning the prize, he noted that it generally simmered down thereafter. Ipadeola blames the marginal fortune books enjoy to the collapse or failure of other infrastructure that ought and which used to support book production in the country’s golden years of book feast.

“In Nigeria it doesn’t work like that as it does elsewhere. Generally, there is all round failure, a failure of the intelligentsia in Nigeria. Chinweizu’s Anatomy of Female Power or Kole Omotoso’s Just Before Dawn, all in the 1980s, generated so much book buzz and everybody who went to school went for them; there was a culture of book discussion and reviews in the newspapers; they didn’t win prizes back then. Prizes cannot do it as discussions and reviews. The thing to work out is how newspapers should help lift book culture. They are not doing enough as it is.”

No other publisher has done well for itself in literary publishing as much as Ibadan-based Steve Shaba’s Kraft Books Ltd. Three of the titles from his stable have won The Nigerian Prize for Literature (Ahmed Yerima’s Hard Ground – 2006, Sam Ukala’s Iredi War – 2014 and Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad – 2017), with other titles also winning Association of Nigerian Authors’ (ANA) prizes in various categories.

“Well, let me begin by saying that award of prizes has positive impact on books in question,” Shaba offered. “Prize draws and generates attention to the book. Other writers and readers generally want to know what is the technique the writer employed, and the style that makes the book to stand out. Positively also, there is an increase in sales of the book but relative to the culture of reading. So, reading culture is key and you know we don’t read so much.

“In the U.K., there will be a kind of demand; there is a vibrant book culture out there. Even if people are not reading here, prizes generate interest for local books outside the country, on Amazon, African Book Collective, etc.

“So, books that have won prizes sold more. That has been my experience. Lecturers also want to use such books to teach students in class. Hard Ground and Iredi War won prizes and generated sales. Oke’s The Heresiad is getting a lot of attention and making sales.”

University don and playwright, Prof. Ukala also believes literary prizes should stimulate book sales although he is not sure publishers these days have the same zeal to get books to the consumers as older publishers did.

“Yea, I should think so,” he noted cautiously. “Once a work has been announced as winner of a significant prize, people should look for it. My 1989 Ukpakaland generated a lot of interest back then and my Iredi War has been selected by a number of universities. Organisers of The Nigerian Prize for Literature wanted me as a judge in 2014, but I deliberately refused. I told them I wanted to compete for the prize. That my work won is a confirmation that my art is still okay.

“So, prizes inspire people to read. As an author, you want to read the works on the shortlist to know if you are writing well. I had to read the other two works competing alongside mine to know if I could beat them. So, both competitors and general readers alike want to read the work and know what there is in the writing.”

For Ukala, local publishers are not doing enough, noting that they have actually abandoned the essential business model older publishers adopted to galvanise book sales through active promotion, distribution and marketing.

“When my first book, The Slave Wife, was published by Heinemann, I found the book on display everywhere; I didn’t have to ask. That was what publishers used to do – distribution. These local ones don’t do these things any more. So, you end up being the writer and distributor. They ought to be distributing these works.”

According to Ukala, older generation publishers used to give 10 per cent royalty to authors and use the remaining 90 per cent to publish, distribute, promote and market the book. Now the reverse is the case, with the author paying the publisher 100 per cent to publish or print for him or her. Recently, a colleague at the University of Lagos asked for 200 copies of Iredi War, which Ukala had to send.

He summed up the situation thus, “So, I’m doing the job of a trader!”

Former prize juror, winner of literary criticism prize and teacher, Prof. Isidore Diala, is affirmative about the impetus literary prizes have on book sales, when he noted, “Absolutely. The announcement of the prize-winner generates considerable curiosity about the text that makes many readers want to explore it. There are also aspiring winners of the prize eager to adopt it as a model and who thus seek to read it. When Season of Crimson Blossom won The Nigerian Prize for Literature, practically all my post-graduate students placed an order for the work.”

From the bookstore perspective comes Manager for upscale Lagos-based Quintessence, Moses Ohiomokhare, who stated that literary prizes have a way of stimulating reading and hence book sales.

“Once a book wins a prize demand for the book increases. It’s such a good thing there are such prizes; it gives a searchlight on a book. Even on poetry, there is demand for poetry, which is interesting. It will be nice we have as many prizes as possible, which should cater for age groups and other categories. Prizes have a way of stimulating sales.”

Ohiomokhare urged publishers to do more for books so they become visible and readily available for consumers, especially when a book wins a prize for so it generates more sales. Although he acknowledged that publishers have many issues to deal with, like some bookstores not remitting monies sold, he tasked them to take writers on reading tours, as it provided avenue for people to buy such books.

Jite Efemuaye of Farafina Books, whose author, Jowhor Ile’s And After Many Days, won Etisalat (now 9mobile) Prize for Literature last year, also believes prizes stimulate demand for books, “As more people are aware of the book they are likely to buy it. A book prize creates demand.”


Prize-winning poet and teacher, Dr. Obari Gomba, who won ANA Poetry prizes back-to-back in 2016 and 2017 with his works, Thunder Protocol and For Every Homeland, said generally prizes should generate sales. He, however, argues that such good fortune for books only happens in places where the structures that support book development are in place, particularly where there are “viable mechanism for distribution and marketing” of books.

“If your publisher does not leverage on it (prize), advertise it aggressively, the prize won’t make impact overall; it may only happen the first week. But it has to be something the book industry can mine to make profit from it. A book prize should be a marketing strategy but it does not happen here. The big problem is with the publishers; they don’t even organise a reading (tour) to further make the book popular. Publishers need to understand that they need to leverage on prizes to market books. I have won ANA Poetry prize back-to-back, but I can’t say it has made much difference” because the publishers didn’t do a good job of leveraging on the prizes.

Gomba charges publishers to be ready to commit extra money and efforts to market books, organise reading sessions and get art journalists to report them widely in the major newspapers. He further lamented the low capacity of local publishers to drive the book market, saying prizes don’t translate as much to sales but they “increase your profile and Curriculum Vitae” as a writer.

Insignificant as prizes’ impact on sales might seem for Gomba, he still says there should be more such prizes, noting, “The truth is that we need more prizes. That is why I get pissed off with critics of The Nigerian Prize for Literature, sponsored by Nigerian Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG). If USD$100,000 gets to one writer, that is NLNG’s model. Why not get other companies to follow your model of inclusiveness. At best, engage managers of NLNG and get them to set aside USD$10,000 so the other 10 longlisted writers get USD$1,000 each; they just might listen. Instead, everybody wants to tear NLNG to pieces over its model.

“So, people just recruit all sorts of foot soldiers to fight their proxy battles if they don’t win and their friends don’t and I get mad at them. I have been on the longlist of that prize; I didn’t win. I would rather expend that energy on writing another book than those meaningless battles!”

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