How to Win the NLNG Literature Prize
Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku
Not until I began to produce books did I get to know a lot of the things that I know now concerning the writing, editing, publication, printing, distribution and marketing of books. My definition of ‘produce’ encompasses the terms that came before this sentence. At these hinges of this productive chain, let me say that I have quietly participated, and even more so at the level of grooming authors, poets, dramatists, and looking for funding and publicity for certain very bright female writers and authors from the North of Nigeria. It is because I have participated at all of these levels of book production that I find the feature presentation of Mr. Solomon Elusoji, published with ThisDay newspaper on October 13 very interesting. The interest for me in that presentation was not in the issue (‘Nigeria’s Literary Jackpot’ – and why it must be only one writer who takes home the Prize) which the writer focused on, but in those that were not raised and with those that his interviewees broached.
Of course I accept that the mouth-watering prize is motivation for some wannabes, and that this motivation correlates with the fact that a lot of Nigerians see writing as a shortcut to fame and fortune. But what I have found out, as facilitator for prose fiction at the writing seminars that I have participated, is that nearly everyone who shows up at the seminar usually has some sort of idea of what writing style won a particular prize in a certain year and in a certain competition. Let me give an example: in a certain year that a certain Nigerian won the Caine Prize, everybody who had read the winning story wanted to begin to write like that writer – and of course win and become famous. But by the time you begin to tell the class that your writing style is you – that writing or Art is about the individual, and is about the things that influenced that individual’s development from cradle to grave, half the class is asleep or it has lost interest.
But this is not even the point. I have no trouble with a winner-takes-all arrangement, and neither am I interested in the alleged politics behind the award of a certain prize. After all, the Commonwealth, the Caine, the Man Booker, the Nobel is usually a winner-takes-all affair. And if we know to that extent that there is no room for also-rans in this race we really must remove ourselves from the mundane and the pecuniary concerns of a work of Art and shift our emphasis to the cultivation of a nursery for the next generation of writers. For starters, that is the direction that I thought that the critics of that prize should have focused on.
So, how are we going to sustain or promote writing in Nigeria, and a body of writers who are not wannabes and who are not looking for the Jackpot? Let’s start with residencies. Residencies are secluded places where writers, poets, and dramatists hone their art. Civilized and developed places in the world recognize that a people begin to think and contribute to national development if there are people whose faculties are developed through reading. So they establish and massively fund these residencies and these writing competitions that stimulate the process and help with the development of the genres.
And how do we ensure that books get into the bookshops so that our people can afford them and read? Let me proffer a suggestion and a solution from a personal experience. The cost of editing, publication and printing of my first three books took nearly N1.5 million. The arrival of those books from over the seas made me to begin to question the generally held view that you cannot tell a book by its cover. Indeed you can, because apart from the content(one is a collection of short stories, the other is a short anthology, while the third is a textbook), I began to realize that book publication over the seas is so high tech that immediately you see the books, you just want to possess them. But I couldn’t sell and recoup my investment because unit cost appeared prohibitive, coupled with the high taxes that the bookshops were asking me to pay to get my books to grace their shelves.
So while researching the NLNG with respect to submitting two of my books for the competition, I also stumbled into the ‘winning formula’ that Solomon Elusoji mentioned in his piece. And it is this: the organisers of the NLNG see books published abroad as catalysts that help with getting books out of the reach of the average Nigerian, and out of the bookshelves. So they blacklist books published abroad – indeed publishing abroad enriches foreign economies and takes books off the shelves via unit costs. In fact, I also found out that our local publishers were accepting manuscripts from potential authors and sending these manuscripts abroad at such costs that scare potential authors from publication. Armed with this information, we decided to do our fourth book locally – but it was an unmitigated disaster that we have never recovered from. We did not sell, and that was because of the very poor quality of the work – in trying to get our book to meet local standards, we discovered another winning formula – that Nigerians love the gloss and the high-tech of the book but are unwilling to pay for the high-tech and the gloss.
Therefore, what we have decided to do to bring back our books to the shelves is to publish locally and continue to do so. We also realize that we must target an audience for which we must make a sale in spite of the taxes at the bookshelves. To dodge these bookshop taxes, we have put our books on internet bookshelves like Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo and Kindle, and we have decided to forge on even though our banks and financial institutions do not have the requisite online payment systems like PayPal and bitcoin. We are doing this because we realize that we are still lagging so behind in a world where writing or content production is one of the biggest money spinners in the world today, and this is irrespective of those who are only focusing on a certain Jackpot.
Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku, author of Mamud & the Moringa Tree, is editor in chief at Bob MajiriOghene Communications, Abuja.