Waiting for Random House or Heinemann to come along with a cheque is not excusable. That makes you part of the problem.
Art and language are natural byproducts of society. From Africa to Andorra, to Alabama to Antarctica, they just happen. Art just happens. And it evolves and changes and grows new forms. We had proverbs, poems, fables, anthems, song lyrics, folk tales and legends, then, when the technology came along, our artists made books that could be sold to large markets. The language arts evolved apace.
The technology has changed again. We have the internet now and it is causing a stir. Is it just the next step forward in an ongoing sequence? Or is it things coming full circle?
This is the first time since machines entered the mix of spreading language arts that the technology is not helping people make money off it. The printing press helped make a fortune for companies and a little bit of change for the authors, but the internet? There are outstanding exceptions but the overwhelming majority of cases tell us that you can’t sell your work on the net, so the author stays broke, maybe even anonymous, and there is no publisher for him or her.
We bemoan this loss of our chance to make a sale, of our chance for fame, but really, is it such a bad thing?
Before books, all these amazing things our languages could do, the fables and legends and proverbs and poems, went the pre-internet equivalent of viral, for free and with no attribution, but they must have been composed somewhere by someone. The money and the fame of a byline became part of the deal only recently.
Not all writing and storytelling is art. There is entertainment in pretty words and clever sentences. There is decoration and amusement. These are things that are done with language that are admirable but, talented as their authors may be, this is not what I mean when I refer to art. In those cases you can attach a price to your jokes or to your thrilling story and be entitled to full payment.
But being an artist is different. Being an artist is not a job. It is a vocation. It is something you are called to do. It is an obligation to something greater than yourself that you must follow. You are in its service. Art doesn’t work for you, you work for it.
Art is about two things: the art and the audience. (The artist is not one of them– the artist makes the art and steps back to let it be.) The only thing that matters is the art meeting an audience.
Traditional forms of commercial publishing can make this happen and when they succeed that is great. They brought us Chimamanda, Binyavanga, Chikwava, Baingana, Habila, Zadie Smith, etc… Our gratitude for them is immense.
But the true aim of commercial publishing is not to bring us art, it is to make money, and that is what guides its motions. When the publishing industry in Africa dried up in the seventies and eighties it was because they could not make any more money, what with so many African economies in their individual messy states. There wasn’t much business sense in printing and trying to sell a local novel. It took a while to recover to the point we are at now, where it is possible to make a profit from books. You can do it. Just keep the costs low and aim for a large scale sell and you will make your money.
Just as the ragga-dancehall hybrids that came out of Kampala ghettos in the nineties stormed the cities at a time when all the elites were lamenting how unpatriotic Ugandans are for not “supporting local musicians”, and in the same way Nollywood exploded all across Africa just as the intelligentsia was wringing its hands over the failure to make Citizen Kano or One Flew Over the Nkoko’s Nest, the book industry can quite easily turn lucrative on the continent: just aim low and wide. It has already been my experience as a writer that entertainment, whether written, painted, or performed sells better than art does. We are just one investor away from a bestselling series of cheaply printed gutter press titles about housegirls and cuckolds and witchdoctors.
But that is not what we are talking about here. What we are talking about is not that book that entertains or amuses or provides a distraction or that delivers that dopamine rush in an idle or tiring time. We are talking about ART. That special kind of book, that special kind of story. That Achebe, that Soyinka, that type. That one that will spear our continent’s collective heart with piercing insight, that story that defines the things we know we are but have never managed to name, that book that will say the things that need saying about Africa. That Things Fall Apart, that Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, that So Long A Letter, that Weep Not Child. That one.
That is the book we want to see on the shelves and it perplexes us that it isn’t there. We should be having dozens of them coming out per year by now. Generations of inspiration increase and improve art, don’t they? We should have many writers who have been influenced by Achebe and Soyinka, young writers who have taken lessons from those icons and applied their own talents upon them. There should be thousands of instances of Soyinka-plus and Achebe-plus.
The bookshelves would have you assume that there are barely any. After all, the only African writers who publish have to do so off these shores, after a European or American company takes them on.
But to assume from this that Africa does not have any writers here at home is wrong. It is impossible to not have them. Art happens. You cannot have a community and not have artists being produced by it. They must be there. They write. We just don’t know how to publish them.
And yet now, with no publisher in sight, the audience finds it and consumes it. The blogs and the notes and the online magazines abound. The stories and the poems are told.
The fact that nobody makes any money off it doesn’t stop them.
Publishing is supposed to offer three things to us: validate our work, deliver our work and get us paid. It barely does any of these any more.
It was supposed to validate the writing? Every day awful stories are published and printed and put on the market to be bought, read and hated, while we all read in the bios of our favourite writers how the works that touched us so were rejected twice by this and that publisher.
Second, publishing is also supposed to deliver the work to the reader. But it does that less and less efficiently these days. It only delivers profitable work to readers who can afford it and, either way, it is fast being overtaken. In a few years it will be the case in Africa, too, as it is fast becoming the norm in the west, home of the Kindle, that most readers will receive their reading on the internet, either on a site or as an ebook, and this will render book publishers even less useful.
(Those of us who will miss the feel and smell of paper will join the fans of hardcover and vinyl in nostalgia clubs.)
Finally, publishing is supposed to get writers paid. It looks suspiciously as if even the finest published African writers don’t get enough to live on from their books. Maybe that is why they end up globetrotting to workshops and seminars and speaking engagements, because they now earn their living “being writers” and not just writing.
Commercial publishing was never designed to serve the language arts—it was designed to serve commerce. It has brought us some fine work and we can appreciate that, but its ability to do this is waning and artists cannot be held hostage to its weakening capacity to deliver art.
Art, whether written or in any other form, is a calling. If you can get paid for your writing, take the money, feed your family, start a Kwani and get a Macbook because that will help you write more. But if you can’t, that is no excuse. If you made art, you must show it, even if that means giving it away for free. That’s your job. No, scratch that. If it was your job, you would expect to be paid for it. That is your calling.
It’s up to us, as writers and as readers, to do this ourselves, the old fashioned way. Our ancestors spread the tales and fables and stories they heard by repeating them to their friends and village-mates and family. Our ancestors’ artists made their work and told it to whoever was there to listen.
Let’s do that.
If you have a story, instead of thinking of how to sell it and get paid, think about how to get it read— post it on something, submit it to Saraba, blog it.
Waiting for Random House or Heinemann to come along with a cheque is not excusable. That makes you part of the problem. This thing is bigger than writers and writers’ egos and even writers’ hunger and writers’ need to pay rent.
Ernest Bazanye Sempebwa is the founder of Uganda Modern Literary Digest, an online lit zine for Ugandans and a writer.
Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this essay do not reflect the opinion of Saraba Magazine. Read the Introductory Note to the series of essays on homebased Nigerian/African literature here.