A literary contest – the Saraba Manuscript Project – was launched this month in Nigeria with a view to bolstering the prospects of writers who are early on in their careers, whether they are currently writing fiction or non-fiction. Judges include Rotimi Babatunde, Noo Saro-Wiwa, Eghosa Imasuen, Azafi Omoluabi-Ogosi and Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, who will judge the work anonymously.

The competition, open to Nigerians and the Nigerian diaspora, will produce a shortlist of ten writers, five in each category. All shortlisted manuscripts will initially be published as e-books and audio-books, and Saraba is working with publishers to establish a partnership to produce print books also.

The prize, backed by the Miles Morland Foundation, consists of N100,000 to each winning manuscript in the fiction and the non-fiction categories, and all shortlisted entrants will receive a publishing deal from Saraba, including N100,000 advance against royalties.

Saraba founder and one of the brains behind the project, Emmanuel Iduma, explains more to This is Africa about the prize and how it was conceived:

TIA: How did the idea come about to launch the Saraba Manuscript Project?

Emmanuel Iduma: I’d say we were inspired by the 2012 Kwani? Manuscript Project. The ecosystem is tight-knit. Jumoke Verissimo, a member of our board of directors, was long-listed for the prize. I was also long-listed. Ayobami Adebayo, our fiction editor, was shortlisted, and her novel Stay With Me is being published by Kwani? I still think it was a radical idea – although of course open calls for manuscripts are not entirely new. Penguin SA did something in 2008 or so, for fiction and non-fiction. But Kwani? seemed to be the first Africa-based publisher to recently take on the challenge.

How can authors expect the project to benefit their writing careers and get their names better known?

Saraba has arguably become a literary magazine with some reputation in Nigeria. Winning authors can expect to leverage on this. That’s one. Then, we’ll be publishing the books electronically, as ebooks and audio books. This would ensure widespread distribution, mainly on the Internet.

Why is the prize not open to non-Nigerians?

It’s simple – we can’t afford it. Saraba is run entirely by volunteers, who unfortunately cannot be compensated enough to read hundreds of manuscripts from around the continent, although they’d love to.

Writers have until 15 December 2015 to submit manuscripts to the contest.

Writers have until 15 December 2015 to submit manuscripts to the contest.

Are you excited about the writers who are involved in the project as judges and how did you go about approaching them?

Getting the judges, relatively, was quite easy. These are writers and enthusiasts who we know personally. They value Saraba’s work, and we are fan of theirs. I think a combination of the novelty of the project and mutual respect made it possible for us to gain their support.

What is your long-term vision for the project?

First, this is an experiment. By this I do not mean we’re dealing with the manuscripts being entrusted to us off-handedly. We’re putting all our cards on the table, all the collected wisdom of how literature works online, and pushing ourselves to see what’s possible. In addition, Saraba works with a shoestring budget, and we’ve only survived because members of our editorial team are friends first, before partners. But this isn’t sustainable. We’ve devoted the last year to regularising the project – becoming a nonprofit, developing income streams. The Manuscript Project is a year-long process of widening the scope of our activities. I don’t think we’ll become publishers in the traditional sense of the word. A combination of publishing, literary agency, and literary research institution is what I have in mind. Ideally, it’s a fifty-year plan.

How well do you feel that the Nigerian state and wider civil society currently supports writers?

There’s something embarrassing about a country like Nigeria without a definitive policy framework for supporting writers, or visual artists. But I know what the odds are: a country bedeviled by corruption, highhandedness, and insufficient education infrastructure. Literature is, at best, marginal. So although the task is urgent, it cannot be done in a hurry. I believe in a combination of the will- and firepower of organizations like Saraba, and I believe in the long-term. We’ll gain the support of government and civil society, eventually. I hope it’s soon, although I doubt that.

Writer Dami Ajayi is co-founder of Saraba literary magazine and of the new manuscript competition.

Writer Dami Ajayi is co-founder of Saraba literary magazine and of the new manuscript competition. Photo: Writivism

The prizes are both for fiction and non-fiction. Overall Nigerian writers are probably better known for fiction. Why did you feel non-fiction important to include and what kind of entries do you expect?

Great writers have always excelled in more than one genre. It’s a disservice to the literary community to create hierarchies—and actually a failure of the imagination of how writing should perform. Our award-systems seemed to have perpetuated the idea, inadvertently or not, that your wonderful fiction makes you an important writer. Few writers manage to rise above this entrapment. Hopefully, by publishing fiction side by side with nonfiction, we can draw attention to the importance of excellent nonfiction. We expect nonfiction that is, in one word, compelling. There’s something Barthes said, “Every critic should be a novelist in disguise.” I’m hoping that, in addition, even the novelists would be critics in disguise.

Which literary publisher do you expect to partner with for publication of the manuscripts?

We can’t answer this for now.

Do you think it’s realistic to expect people to submit full manuscripts? Will writers facing economic challenges be able to afford to produce these without advances?

We don’t expect economic challenges to be a problem. I know of no literary award that pays advances to prospective entrants. Hopefully the small prize money and advance will be sufficient motivation.

How mature is the market in Nigeria for consumption of such manuscripts? Will you also be seeking continental and overseas distribution and sales?

Certainly. Nigeria’s print distribution infrastructure competes with a more diffusive, asymmetrical online distribution mechanism. In the first stage of distribution, our focus will be on the latter. The task will be to get people to our site, where the books will be sold.

Will writers work with an editor to refine their texts before publication?

Yes. Saraba’s editors, who would have been familiar with the authors during the long-listing stage, will equally work with the authors to refine the work.

What kind of royalties can writers expect in addition to the N100,000 advance?

Writers who are signed on can expect up to 25-30% of profit from each ebook sold.

What tips would you give aspiring writers looking to enter the prize?

There are endless writing maxims. But I’ve recently become biased to this one by W.G. Sebald in Five Dials #5 (and perhaps aspiring entrants should download everything by Five Dials, a magazine that influences Saraba).

The deadline for the competition is 15 December 2015 and submission guidelines can be found here. Winners will be announced in mid-March 2016. Submission is free but entrants must be over 18.