What Are Publishers Looking For in Fiction?: Report from Ake Festival, November 2014

AiW Guest Emma Shercliff

Akelogo The theme of the second Ake Festival, which took place from 18-22 November 2014 in Abeokuta, Nigeria, was ‘Bridges and Pathways’. Festival Director Lola Shoneyin had emphasized that the focus this year would be ‘on building bridges between Africa peoples, especially along language, ethnic and gender lines, and charting new paths with the aim of creating synergy and cultural cross-fertilisation on the African continent’, and the ambitious programming reflected those aims.

There was a great vibe to the festival: guest speakers were generally of a very high quality (although some of the panels could have been more tightly chaired); the wider arts events (photography exhibitions, contemporary dance performance, film screenings and musical drama) were thought-provoking and enjoyable; panel discussions covered literary topics (poetry, crime fiction, sci-fi & fantasy, children’s & YA fiction) as well as more general themes (African feminism; the politics of oil; religion, education & violence). The international writers complemented the Nigerian panellists well; acclaimed Jamaican poet Kei Miller brought some fascinating insights to the panel on ‘Taming Colonial Tongues’, drawing comparisons between Pidgin English and Creole and demonstrating in inimitable fashion how a version of the ‘post-Creole continuum spectrum’ could be applied in an African context. There was much debate about the importance and relevance of African languages and the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize was launched at Ake.

Unfortunately, the scope of certain panels proved rather too ambitious – a highly anticipated forum on ‘Diversity in Africa’, featuring Binyavanga Wainaina, was too ill-defined to make it possible to maintain a coherent debate. The more focused panels were more successful: an engaging debate on ‘New Trends in Francophone Writing’ (held in French) particularly stood out, as did a discussion on ‘Crime Fiction Across Continents’ featuring authors from the UK, Benin, Liberia and the US/Kenya.

Writivism Launch @ Ake Book & Art Festival

Writivism Launch @ Ake Book & Art Festival

Establishing a festival of this scale, quality and ambition in just two years is a huge achievement, and my comments need to be read within that context. However, Ake has received criticism for being a festival ‘for writers attended by writers’ and I couldn’t help but have some sympathy with that view. I’m aware of the huge efforts the organizers made in the first two days of the festival to involve local school children and university students, including an initiative sponsored by Access Bank to offer N20,000 book vouchers to 50 students, but on the three days I was at Ake the proportion of festival guests and staff to members of the public was often over 50%. At the contemporary dance performance on the Thursday evening, there were very few people in the audience who were not directly involved in the festival as either panelists, organizers or invited guests. (When a friend of mine mentioned to a fellow festival-attendee that she was neither an author nor a publisher, but someone interested in books and the arts, she was asked what she was doing there!). Ake is a great opportunity for writers to interact with one another, and several authors told me how important this type of networking is for them. There was considerable focus in the pre-festival workshops on mentoring new writing, and the success of these support structures is hugely significant for aspiring writers, as exemplified by the Writivism project. However, I would suggest that it is equally important to build bridges and pathways between authors and the wider public, and between authors and publishers – and that these were both weak links at Ake this year.

Given my current research interests, I am particularly conscious of the difficulties faced by African publishing companies and I felt that Ake missed some valuable opportunities to offer support to local publishers. With the exception of HEBN and Mosuro Booksellers, individual publishers and booksellers were not permitted their own stands. Instead, books were sold through the Ake Festival bookshop stand, which would have been fine had they not restricted their orders to no more than 20 copies of works by festival authors. Authors were therefore understandably upset when stock of their books was quickly exhausted, especially when their books were in the country. With the notable exception of Wole Soyinka, there did not appear to be any organised signings – a lost opportunity for publishers to promote their authors and readers to have their books signed, particularly as the excellent ‘book chat’ sessions generated considerable excitement about the featured titles and authors.

Furthermore, a panel discussion entitled ‘What Are Publishers Looking For in Fiction?’ did not include any publishers on the panel (with the exception of an inexperienced editor, who self-identified as a writer rather than a publisher). The panelists comprised three writers (Clifton Gachagua, Samuel Kolawole, and Olufemi Terry) and Lizzy Attree, Director of The Caine Prize. (Two absent panellists were Kadija Sesay, a literary activist and publisher of Sable magazine and Siphiwo Mahala, a writer and Head of Books and Publishing at the South African Department of Arts and Culture). Therefore, the discussion was limited to a debate about what a) writers think publishers are looking for and b) what those involved in literary prizes think publishers are looking for. This made for an interesting exchange but one that was far removed from the realities of publishing in the Nigerian market today. More worryingly, it gave a false representation of the motivations and concerns of local publishers. The one person on the stage who was qualified to speak authoritatively on the topic, former Kachifo COO, Yona Oyegun-Masade, was chairing the panel and therefore unable to contribute substantively to the discussion.

What Are Publishers Looking For in Fiction? Clifton Gachagua, Olufemi Terry, Yona Oyegun-Masade, Lizzy Attree & Samuel Kolawole © Ake Book & Art Festival

What Are Publishers Looking For in Fiction? Clifton Gachagua, Olufemi Terry, Yona Oyegun-Masade, Lizzy Attree & Samuel Kolawole © Ake Book & Art Festival

When Samuel Kolawole, Director of the Writers’ Studio, Nigeria, was asked what publishers were looking for, he was honest enough to answer ‘I don’t know, I’m a writer, not a publisher’, but this wasn’t hugely helpful for the aspiring writers in the audience. Kolawole stated that ‘writers tend to be focused on winning prizes and don’t think about the commercial side’. Olufemi Terry, a Caine Prize winner in 2010 and a judge for the inaugural Miles Morland Writing Scholarship Awards, suggested that this was because ‘winning prizes helps you sell books’. Having conducted interviews with publishers from across Africa over the past 18 months, I would disagree. Winning prizes does bring a certain prestige to an author – and winning or being short-listed for the Caine Prize can certainly help an aspiring short story author secure a publisher – but even the best-selling literary fiction usually sells only in the low thousands, and some prize-winning authors sell only a few hundred copies. What actually helps to sell books is affordable pricing, good distribution networks, clever marketing, word-of-mouth recommendations and widespread availability of the work in multiple print and digital formats.

Clifton Gachagua, an Assistant Editor at Kwani Trust, was asked what publishers were looking for on the Kwani? Manuscript Project. He replied that he couldn’t say as he was actually a long-listed author and not working for Kwani Trust at the time (his longlisted novel which will be published by Kwani Trust next April in fact began the conversation that led to him becoming an editor). He thought the prize was probably looking for something edgy and new, but didn’t pay too much attention himself (“I thought, ‘F*** what Kwani? wants, I’m going to write about what shit I want”). While I have some sympathy with writers who argue that they should just write what they want and if it is good enough it will find an audience, when Gachagua was asked by the moderator about the pressure that publishers have to make money, he replied that he wasn’t sure that the incentive for a publishing house was to make money.

Whilst it would be tempting to draw the conclusion that Gachagua holds this viewpoint because he works for a donor-funded initiative, that would perhaps be unfair; Executive Director Angela Wachuka has been active in pursuing commercial distribution channels for Kwani Trust’s output. However, for me, Gachagua’s comment highlighted the wide gulf that exists between the literary establishment and the publishing industry. Writers frequently bemoan the lack of publishing outlets for creative writing on the continent (see comments in interviews with Edwige-Renée Dro and Lizzy Attree this week, for example). This is certainly the case in Nigeria, where the publishing industry is dominated by educational publishers and only a handful of small literary publishing companies exist – most prominently Farafina, Parresia and Cassava Republic – publishing a small number of titles per year between them. One difficulty faced across Africa is a widespread understanding that whilst publishers of educational materials, who dominate the publishing landscape, are in business to make money, the literary publishers exist to provide a vehicle to give aspiring writers a voice. (This line is perhaps increasingly blurred by the fact that the heads of Farafina and Parresia are also writers themselves, as are members of the editorial team at Kwani?). Creative writing is of course a worthy endeavour in itself. However, to create a platform that genuinely gives writers a voice then literary fiction needs to be published in a way that is commercially viable and sustainable. If the aim of a writer is to find an audience beyond their immediate circle then engagement with the publishing industry is vital. Kolawole noted that ‘we need conversations about building the publishing industry itself in African and Nigeria’. But these conversations need to involve both publishers and writers – and ideally booksellers too. It is this kind of robust conversation that LABAF provides in their annual Publisher’s Forum.

So, what are publishers looking for in fiction? My conversations suggest that African trade publishers are looking for authors that are prepared to put some effort into re-working their books in the light of editorial feedback, authors who do not privilege being published in the West over being published by an African publisher, and work that is entertaining and original. Publishers are looking for manuscripts that communicate the joys of everyday life. Olufemi Terry commented that ‘there is a lot of humour on the continent and it isn’t reflected in the literature’. Lizzy Attree concurred, saying that it was ‘such a relief’ when Motswana author Lauri Kubuitsile’s story made the Caine Prize shortlist in 2011. But, most importantly, publishers are looking for work that will sell commercially – hence the establishment of Cassava Republic’s new imprints Ankara Press and Cassava Crime and Farafina’s new Breeze Books (genre fiction) and Kamsi (lifestyle) imprints. Terry noted that there is a thriving crime fiction scene in South Africa, but stated that it is mostly written by white South Africans, featuring white detectives – thus ignoring the fact that some of the most exciting (and potentially commercially lucrative) crime fiction currently coming out of Africa is written by women and features black female detectives: Hawa Golokai (part of Ake’s Crime Fiction panel), Elizabeth Olushola Adeolu and Blessing Musariri (winner of Cordite’s Crime Fiction Prize) are all names to watch.

Ake%20photo%204The Ake Festival was a stimulating way of spending a few days with some fantastic people, but making it more inclusive and building bridges with publishers and the general public would strengthen it still further. For example, festival organisers could work more closely with publishers to organise author signings after each session, coordinate the books and authors on the panel with books that are being published that year, invite more publishers to speak or organize Q&A sessions where aspiring authors can ask questions to local publishers. Secondly, Ake could be much more active virtually, in order to secure wider public interest from within Nigeria and further afield. All the panels at Ake were filmed and will be made publicly available on the Ake website – but that does feel rather after-the-event. It would be easy to ask volunteers to live-blog from the event, and panel discussions could be live-streamed to enable those outside of the festival to participate. This would have the added advantage of affording festival sponsors more coverage, as well as allowing remote visitors to engage with the content of the debates. I have enormous admiration for Lola Shoneyin and her team, and the huge amount of effort that had clearly been expended to stage the festival was clear. The next step in Ake’s success must surely be to capitalise on its vibrancy and dynamism to help writers – with the support of their publishers – to reach an even wider audience, in Nigeria and beyond.

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ESphotoEmma Shercliff is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Education, University of London. Her research explores and documents the role of female publishers in shaping the literary landscape in Africa. Emma worked in the publishing field for over ten years and was formerly Managing Director of Macmillan English Campus, a digital publishing division of Macmillan Publishers. She is currently based in Abuja, where she is working for the British Council on a research project looking at approaches to gender within teacher training in Nigeria, and with Cassava Republic Press as part of her doctoral fieldwork.



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3 replies

  1. Loved the article. I’m a writer myself and will go read up on Ake ASAP.
    Personally, I write because art can’t be hidden. Not because I want to get paid (that would be very nice, though) or because I want to win a prize (shortlist me, please) but because I can, I should and I will

  2. Thanks, Emma for this informative article. I enjoy writing and found the tips about what publishers look for in fiction, quite helpful. I will visit the Ake web site to read more about all of this.

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