Thursday, 2 June 2011

On Accessibility: Improving the Global Reach of African Literature

Forgive me for the rather lofty title - I am not leading up to an academic discourse here. In fact I do intend to keep the discussion on this blog as simple and as 'accessible' as possible. I see this as an integral part of the objective of getting more people to read African fiction. The purpose of my post today is to highlight some issues that in my opinion impinge on the global reach of African Literature.
  • Accessibility - I recently tried to purchase a few books by African authors online. Success varied depending on the author. Some African authors are quite visible online. It was easy for me to click on a few buttons to get some authors on Kindle for instance. Some African authors are unavailable on Kindle and other e-print outlets for reasons best known to them and their publishers. What I find difficult to understand is why in this day and age, some authors would not take advantage of the electronic print revolution. It is usually cheaper and better value for money and for some of the bookaholics among us, the best option. It is also a fact that if we are to encourage and build a  generation of African fiction readers - a potentially huge market of young Africans - including those in diaspora, who spend a lot of their time online - embracing the e-print option would be the way to go. There have been concerns about piracy but if the successes in the West are anything to go by, the benefits far outweigh the risks.
  • Still on the issue of accessibility, why would an African author not be on Amazon or some other globally accessible outlet like The Book Depository or the e-print outlet - Smashwords? In one case, I could not find a credible enough option to purchase the book of an African author who was recently shortlisted for a prestigious award. I was repeatedly frustated in my efforts to purchase her work. The only outlet I found was a website based in her country of origin and it did not deal in a currency that I understood. I have given up on getting her book and so would many other buyers in my position - that is a lot of sales lost! This author is not the only one. Although there are publishers like Farafina and Cassava Republic doing well at promoting the online presence of African authors; there are many African authors with no online presence and they are losing out on sales in a big way. Buyers of African fiction are African as well as non-Africans. They are spread all over the world and they would only buy from outlets that they trust. Many of us do buy online and it is sad that some African Authors are not doing enough to make their works accessible in this way. Buying online saves time and money. The times when I would visit a bookshop to buy or order a book are well and truly over and there are many more like me out there. Many of us lead busy lives - if I can't get your book the best way that I can, I wouldn't bother. It's as simple as that.    
Reviews coming up: Unbridled - Jude Dibia, Mr Fox - Helen Oyeyemi. I've missed you, dear readers. I was unwell for the most part of last week and beginning of this week, hence my absence. I'm ok now:)


kinnareads said...

The issue of accessibility of works by African writers dates back to African Writers Series. The hard fact is that most publishers are not into marketing works by African writers. They view African literature as a niche, a very small niche. And so they do not publish enough books, do not do second and third printing and in a lot cases even let the work slip into obscurity. Trust me, I'm sure this African writer whose work you tried to find and buy is herself worried about the unavailability of her books. It has to do with authors signing away world rights to publishers who are only interested in selling a few copies in their own backyards. Apparently, African literature does not sell well. It's sick becuase if you don't print, don't market, how are people supposed to know that the work exists?

Okeoghene said...

I looked for the book you reviewed last time on amazon and didnt find it.If African books are not accessible how will people know they even exist. Thank God you are much better. I am waiting for your review of Jude Dibia's Unbridled. I enjoyed reading it

Pholthar said...

'If the successes from the West are anything to go by'. You can't compare the structures in place in the West with Africa, particularly Nigeria. Until there is zero tolerance for piracy and dependable internet service, e-books might just be a white elephant for publishers.

Pholthar said...

'If the successes from the West are anything to go by'. You can't compare the structures in place in the West with Africa, particularly Nigeria. Until there is zero tolerance for piracy and dependable internet service, e-books might just be a white elephant project for Nigerian publishers.

Ginger said...

Unbridled?? That reminds me. I bought that book in October. yet to read it. Off I go, so we can review it together :)

You make a good point about improving online accessibility of books. I really don't know how our writers make money when they leave their readers with so few options.

os said...

Errrmmm... *whispering* - Some of us haven't latched on to them e-print thingy yet. We prefer good old paper (from wood or recycled) :)

Seriously though, I agree African authors need to be more accessible. That said, there's an African Writers Series' website with hundreds of books. I believe the public can also access it for a fee.

I have the Unigwe book o. Only time to read it... First few pages read very good.

Adura Ojo said...

@ Kinnareads
Welcome to my blog Kinna:)
There are many points here that I can identify with. Not printing enough is a problem I've experienced with a number of African authors. Works slipping into obscurity is another issue I've experienced as well. In fact, another book I'm very keen to read cannot be found anywhere and I have to contact the author to see if I can get a copy. These are issues that authors need to get to grips with.

As you pointed out, niche marketing strategies do not favour our African writers and the publishers have control once rights have been signed off. It's a small world out there with the internet, and writers perhaps need to 'shop' more cautiously before signing on the dotted line. Self publishing has never looked more attractive though not without its drawbacks too.

I don't know much about the world of publishing but it might be wise to use an African publisher with wide distribution options though the profit margins may not look great initially but it will pay off once the units begin to shift off the shelves. It's a better option than locking one's self into a contract in some little corner of the world with nothing much to show for it.

Adura Ojo said...

@ Okeoghene
If it is "On Black Sister's Street", it is certainly on Amazon. I will be reviewing Unbridled soon, very soon:)

@ Pholtar
Hmmm...I hear you. But I'm not just talking about the nigerian market. It is a global market now. Perhaps that's the problem - that people only look at their 'local variables'. There are many readers of African fiction out there and a good fraction of them do not live in Africa. The piracy issue does exist but looking at it again from a global marketing viewpoint, most people just fish out their plastics and buy on amazon or some other 'global' online outlet. They are not going to buy from an African/Nigerian website. Like I said, the benefits far outweigh the risks. If the book is available and well written, people will buy from wherever they are in the world.

I'd bet that the majority of African fiction readers are non-African. How many Africans regularly read African fiction for leisure? Any African writer who bases their marketing strategy on what is happening in their backyard is making a big mistake and missing out on the exposure and potential sales they could have on the global market.

Adura Ojo said...

@ Ginger
My point exactly, Ginger. If we are to raise the profile of African fiction from local 'niche' to international, global online selling is the way to go.

Pls finish reading 'unbridled' and review here. Guest post, perhaps? :)

Adura Ojo said...

@ OS
The days of paper sniffing are over, it is screen spying now;)
Thanks for the tip about the writers series. I'll look it up.

Time! Time! Time! You and me both! That's why I'm yet to do my next review. But I will find the time and so would you:)

Amy said...

Interesting points that you raise here. I can pitch in from the other side of the ocean :) I much prefer print books but it is so difficult to find African lit in print (most especially the authors who are actually still living in Africa rather than in the UK or North America). And when found, they can be quite expensive relative to other books. I agree with Kinna that there is no way to say it doesn't sell if it isn't made available!

I really think it would be good to have more available in ebook formatting for those of us over here who can't access a lot of the books that are even available in bookstores within Africa or from African publishers like Cassava Republic. That being said, is epublishing still seen a bit as not as accessible to the mass public due to lack of technology in some areas? I wonder if publishers just aren't embracing it as much as they could, and if the author has signed away the rights to the book then they wouldn't be able to look at ways to do it independently right? I'm not entirely sure how that works to be honest :)

Oh, and I just picked up On Black Sisters Street on your recommendation! Can't wait to read it!

And if someone could share the link to the African Writers Series books I'd appreciate it!

os said...

"African Writers Series" link is here:

os said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
os said...

I use it through my institution and they seem hesitant to grant individuals access. Below is a note from their website:


Please note that it is very rare for us to set up free trial access for individuals. Individual pricing is not available and all trial requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Literature Online is aimed at the educational and library institutions market and is priced accordingly. We reserve the right to refuse a trial subscription."

@ Adura Ojo: Sorry for littering the comment page.

Amy said...

Ahhh yes I saw that site OS but also don't have an institution to go through. I may try it anyway. Thank you!

Adura Ojo said...

@ Amy
Totally agree with you and Kinna on points made. Availability is definitely an issue with print and that's why the ebook option should be considered as a way of dealing with the problem. I've noticed that some are very pricy too and that does not help if one is in a niche market with sales issues.

I don't know much about publishing rights either, but it would appear that most publishers prefer total control over distribution and sales. In which case, the authors would not be able to do it independently.

Glad you've picked up OBSS. I look forward to your review:-)

Adura Ojo said...

@ OS
Thanks for the link.

I will try their individual access option. If no luck, we would have to share this privileged access of yours;-)

I can't see any litter o. :)

Adura Ojo said...

@ Amy
Pls let me know how you get on with your individual access request.

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