As Africa’s literary scene continues to blossom, one thing remains problematic: publishing. Traditional publishers continue to view new and upcoming writers with suspicion. For the few who have been published, the earnings generated by the sale of their books have left them disillusioned and frustrated to the point of quitting the trade altogether.
We cannot continue to blame traditional publishers for being unfair. Publishers are in business and, as in any other profit-oriented business, what does not make business sense is often shunned. Literary works do not make as much money as the publication of academic texts, so there is little interest in publishing literary texts.
In addition, a section of traditional publishers has become untrustworthy. Just recently, a celebrated writer had an acrimonious fallout with a celebrated young publishing outfit in Kenya. The writer’s books had been out of print for the last year and the publisher could neither do a reprint nor pay royalties on sales already made. Another writer with the same publisher had to look for alternative publishing opportunities because of closely related problems.
This game of ping-pong between writers and publishers is not going to end.
Self-publication as alternative
This game of ping-pong between writers and publishers is not going to end. My belief is that young and unpublished writers need to rethink their strategy if they want their manuscripts to see the light of day. Self-publishing is an alternative that we must embrace fully.
Personally I would not be known as a novelist if I had sat around and waited for a traditional publisher to come to my rescue. My first novel, True Citizen, was an eye-opener regarding the self-sacrifice that self-publishing demanded of a writer. I used all my financial resources for editing, proofreading and printing.
My second novel, The Ghosts of 1894, was entered for the Kwani? manuscript competition in 2012. When the shortlist was announced in June 2013, Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me (Nigeria), Ayesha Harruna Attah’s Saturday’s People (Ghana / US), Stanley Gazemba’s Ghetto boy (Kenya), Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City (Nigeria), Timothy Kiprop Kimutai’s The Water Spirits (Kenya), Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The Kintu Saga (Uganda / UK) and Saah Millimono’s One Day I Will Write About This War (Liberia) appeared on the shortlist. I was crushed.
I received an e-mail from Billy Kahora, congratulating me for the great work I did in telling the story of the Rwandan war, but, unfortunately, the other stories were better. And rightly so. I should have given up. I did not. I took note of the feedback. I set aside my savings and sent the book for editing, a rigorous process that embarrassed me financially and poked holes in my ego as a writer. I engaged a very expensive but good graphic artist, who took almost a month toying with ideas for the cover. Three years after Nansubuga Makumbi had been announced the winner of the Kwani? prize, The Ghosts of 1894 was published.
The numbers speak for themselves
That is not a proud statement. It is a reality that self-publishing ceased to be a case of singing in the shower when Stephen King self-published his book The Plant in the year 2000 and when Amanda Hocking, in 2012, used her meagre USD300 savings and made USD2, 5million in sales after her book had been rejected by a dozen literary agents. The specifics continue to speak for themselves: in 2016, writers VI Keeland, Penelope Ward, Deborah Bladon and Tijan spurned traditional publishing and bulldozed themselves onto the New York Times digital bestseller list.
In terms of earning, most surveys still show self-publishing as being more lucrative. Author Earnings reports that independently published e-books account for more than 44% of e-book sales on Amazon, while the big five publishing houses only took home 25% of sales. While it is difficult to trace the success of self-publishing on this continent, the United States shows interesting data. Digital Book World found that self-publishers earn the highest income of between USD7,500 and USD10,000, followed by the traditionally published authors, who take home just under USD5,000.
The production cycles of traditional publishers can be painful to watch. They can take years. Timothy Kiprop Kimutai’s novel The Water Spirits, for example, which came third in the Kwani? manuscript competition in 2013, has not seen light of the day. The question is: When will the book come out? Will we ever read the book?
Another downside to traditional publishing is the book rights. The publishers hog all the rights. Should they feel like not reprinting your book, you’ll have to buy the rights to your books from them.
My belief is that young and unpublished writers need to rethink their strategy if they want their manuscripts to see the light of day.
The Good News about Self-publishing
By now I am sure we all agree that there is nothing rosy about self-publishing. Oliver Mark us said that self-publishing a shitty book didn’t make you an author any more than singing in the shower made you a rockstar or squeezing a pimple made you a dermatologist. Lori Lesko also warns: “The good news about self-publishing is you get to do everything yourself. The bad news about self-publishing is you get to do everything yourself.”
If done in a rush and without diligence, self-publishing can embarrass the writer and sales might be nothing but a few buys from sympathetic friends and family. But done well, and by borrowing heavily from traditional publishers, you can produce a gem, and, as Guy Kawasaki once said, you can change the world.
Most people ask where to start. Self-publishing starts with you. Do you have a manuscript? Yes? Then edit it. And then edit it again until you are sure it is ready for publishing. Then you have to find an editor, someone trained and with experience in editing. The editor will question the storyline, structure, historical blunders and inconsistencies. Listen to the editor. She or he is your publisher, so to speak. When editing is done, the editor will have been through your manuscript a dozen times. To be safe, you may need another eye. This is where the proofreader comes in. She or he will sweep out the debris left behind by the editor. Once that is done and the manuscript is ready, look for a good graphic designer to do the cover and inside layout design.
You are now out of the woods – except for one more thing. You need a good printer, someone who has experience with books, not just calendars, posters and handbills. Choose good paper. Off-white paper is good for books, as opposed to the white photocopy paper widely used for academic text books.
Now that you have boxes full of books taking up space in your living room, what next? A self-publisher does not have the luxury of the robust distribution network enjoyed by the traditional publisher. The Internet has made selling and distribution easier. A website for your book(s) would give your readers the opportunity to nibble on some excerpts and other details, such as a launch date or where to buy it. Also make use of online bookstores such as Magunga and e-Bookshop, among others. All that remains is to wish you success as a self-published author!