Tiwa-Savage-MTN

Tiwa Savage signing a 30 million naira deal with MTN

Corporate endorsement, a literary celebrity lifestyle, and the emphasis on novels with high entertainment value could save the literary and publishing industry in Africa from being cash-strapped and stunted.

Thanks to Moet and Chandon, Lagos litteratti could come together in a classy event last year in honor of the late Chinua Achebe while sipping on premium champagne. {See photo HereNoViolet Bulawayo just won the first ever pan-African literary prize sponsored by the telecommunications company, Etisalat

It is normal for literary prizes, book festivals, and literary events to court corporate love. But should big corporations be offered the chance to endorse individual writers?

One way to make people do good work that speaks to a popular audience  is high financial stakes. It worked for Nollywood. It worked for the Nigerian music industry. Music videos have become exponentially better. Production quality has improved. Why? Because good music means good money.

I  understand why Chimamanda Adichie or Teju Cole may not want to be a Pepsi ambassador. They can’t be overtly pro-corporation. It goes against their brand as high-brow, socially-conscious, and ethically-minded writers. They also fall into that well-known caste of writers for whom money is “not supposed” to matter.

The Adichies and Coles of the world are being groomed to become canonical authors. No one judges Virginia Woolf on the basis of her book sales.

What Things Fall Apart sold in 50 years, Fifty Shades of Grey sold in 7 months. But there’s no shame in that since what makes Things Fall Apart a significant work has little to do with sales figures.

The writers I have in mind are those who are open to thinking of writing purely as a commodity and not as a literary ego-trip. The idea would be to sell novels like music albums, to have readers enjoy stories the way they enjoy their favorite tracks. 

Ditch the impulse to educate, edify, enlighten, and all that illusion of grandeur that feed into a certain kind of African literary persona. Write stories that would get you the instant celebrity power that interests corporate entities. What’s so wrong in having a novelist be the next Tiwa Savage, racking up endorsements like their going out of style.  

All this is, of course, tied to a literary industry aggressively driven by mass-market forces and high-financial stakes. 

When P Square sets out to produce a track, the goal is to end up with a club banger. African writers could very well approach their work with the logic of the club-banger.

These would be stories tailored to the African literary market, stories that tap into the pulse of African contemporary life. These stories would capture how Africans love to feel, the kinds of pleasures they crave, the fears and fantasies that structure their reality.

For many of the Nigerian writers I know, writing is a side hustle. They are mostly in professions—medicine, banking, law—that require considerable commitment.

Don’t get me wrong. I respect their hustle, but we can’t build a viable literary culture if writers are not committed hundred percent to the literary hustle.

We need authors writing greedily and hungrily because they know there’s a good chance of making it big with their work. With the right amount of financial reward, we can get African authors writing more aggressively for a literary market that is hungry for delectable and easily consumable stories.

 

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

8 Responses to “African Writer’s, Inc — The Dirty Question Of Making Money From Novels” Subscribe

  1. Samuel Okopi 2014/02/24 at 00:30 #

    Yes!

    I thought I would never read an article like this.

  2. obinna Udenwe 2014/02/24 at 06:04 #

    Wow! Let’s do it then.

  3. sally 2014/02/24 at 08:13 #

    “Don’t get me wrong. I respect their hustle, but
    we can’t build a viable literary culture if writers
    are not committed hundred percent to the
    hustle.”

    That’s the key. Many writers take writing as a hobby. Some as a side job. With that attitude, we can go nowhere.

  4. Femi Morgan 2014/02/24 at 23:43 #

    I am averse to the idea of creating literary works like club bangers. Literature is very different from music, so it cannot possibly be promoted like music.

    I really don’t mind endorsements, Cocacola endorsed Sylvia Nze Ifedigbo as a youth ambassador, while his book got published through the investiture of YouWiN. With this Cocacola supported his book reading tours (to an extent).

    Fidelity Bank had done some projects with Chimamnda and Helen Habila, I am proud of such corporate capital geared towards creative writing workshops. Also we are increasingly witnessing corporate bodies supporting book festivals like the Lagos Book Festival and the Aake Book Festivals, these are laudable.

    We should have corporate bodies buy books for local libraries, set up local libraries, support publishing houses, engage writers in prizes, start or support reading events ,fellowships and book tours-but it should never be as unintellectual as the endorsement of music artiste.

    We cannot possible cut the crap out of the style, philosophy and structure of writing novels-literary fiction. The question you should ask yourself is why is John Irving (or any other popular or commercial fiction writer in the US)not hustling up endorsement like 50 Cents?

    For me, the writer is concerned about the industry but does not know the industry from which he has written the article from. I was thinking he would ponder what corporate bodies can do to subsidize the prices of books as part of endorsing writers. The literary and writing art form is different from the music art form.

  5. Chris Ogunlowo 2014/02/25 at 04:55 #

    This is an interesting point of view. I agree on the premise that writers can push to become celebrities just like pop stars. But I worry that the intention to go mainstream in the mode of pop stars may breed plenty mediocre work. The pop stars that are referenced mostly churn out works that appeal for mass consumption, not necessarily work with strong aesthetic and purist qualities. It will be important to find a balance. Celebrity endorsement can dicey. Writers, being opinionated people, may find it hard to dance to corporate tunes. (Yeah, I know Soyinka featured in good ol’ Glo ads). But it’s an exception. I also think that comparing the vocation of writing with showbiz should be done with care. Showbiz, especially is designed to create hoopla, for both creators and what they create. To enjoy star power in writing requires a lot more than the work that has been created. Investment in personal branding is necessary. And writers, my dear, are the most eccentric and unpredictable people that pay attention to such. Their narcissism usually ends with awards won and, maybe, some public admiration

  6. Nambozo 2014/02/25 at 09:09 #

    Thanks again for another provocative article.

    These are real discussions we go through everyday as readers. Every time as are asked to write a piece for free, present a paper, recite poetry, these real questions go through our minds. I wonder, when we write for no pay or for the sake of creating art which will manifest itself in artistic glory without personal gain, does that really guarantee excellence and how different is it really, from writing for corporates? Real questions we ask every other day.

    Thanks again.

  7. Toyin Adepoju 2014/03/03 at 17:48 #

    A rich and very important article in spite of its limitations arising from the extreme length to which the argument is pushed.

    I have no words to express my bottomless appreciation of this insight :

    “For many of the Nigerian writers I know, writing is a side hustle.

    They are mostly in professions—medicine, banking, law—that require considerable commitment.

    Don’t get me wrong. I respect their hustle, but we can’t build a viable literary culture if writers are not committed hundred percent to the literary hustle.

    We need authors writing greedily and hungrily because they know there’s a good chance of making it big with their work.

    With the right amount of financial reward, we can get African authors writing more aggressively for a literary market that is hungry for delectable and easily consumable stories.”

    But….

    can popular literature not be profound literature?

    It can.

    The evidence is so great across Asian, Western and African literature that I am speechless reflecting on that evidence.

    The Bible is one of the greatest achievements of humanity.

    A fantastic piece of storytelling and inspiration.

    Its poetry, awesome.

    Wonderful stories of magnificent realities, what would be called magical fantasy in modern literature.

    The Hindu Mahabharata, Ramayana, Upanishads, Soundaryalahari, the Devi Mahayatma and others, the Persian/Arabic Conference of the Birds by Attar, the Greek Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Roman Virgil’s Aeneid, the Italian Dante’s Divine Comedy, the plays of Shakespeare, the European fairy tales of Grimm and Anderson, the novels of Charles Dickens,the English Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novels, culminating in The Mists of Avalon, the novels of Ursula Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, H.P.Lovecraft, Clifford Simak, Edgar Allan Poe, J.K. Rowling’s first three works in the Harry Potter series, are great, popular and forever money spinning creations.

    The Greek philosopher Plato’s Dialogues are also characterised as exciting philosophical debates of great dramatic force, immortal parables and timeless imagistic forms, yet he is described as the greatest and most influential Western philosopher.

    It can be done.

    Why, also, must you be purely a writer speaking to a Nigerian or African audience ?

    Why not a writer who speaks to and sells to the world, whatever the context of your work?

    More than ever before, the individual is empowered to reach out to the world, bypassing the various middle people who act as gatekeepers.

    Youtube, Facebook, Amazon CreateSpace and other print on demand providers, blogging, Paypal etc are platforms for reaching out to the world and getting reward in which the possibilities are limitless.

    I’m very grateful for this article.

    Ainehi Edoro, may you be forever empowered, blessed and inspired by the grace of God.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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