The many controversies of the Nigerian Writers Series
In 2014, the Association of Nigerian Authors published 10 books under the new Nigerian Writers Series (NWS). The experiment has been marred with allegations of extortion, fraud and apathy among many others. In the following report, Arts & Ideas looked at the issues and talked to parties involved.
When the Remi Raji-led Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) announced its plans to flag off a project called the Nigerian Writers Series, (NWS) the news was applauded by writer and reader alike.
The publications were launched in Minna in 2014 to great fanfare by the then Niger State Governor, Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu, who provided the N10m seed money to start off the project. But since then it has been downhill.
Earlier this year, former Secretary General of ANA, B.M. Dzukogi, who conceived the idea of the series and played a key role in getting funding for it, alerted that ANA was planning to abandon the project completely, an allegation that the association denied.
ANA, under a new president, Malam Denja Abdullahi, has since gone ahead to issue a call for submissions for the “second phase” of the project, this time to feature childrens’ literature. But some of the writers featured in the first phase are so scarred by the experience that one of them, Julius Bokoru said, “I am urging Nigerians not to enter for the series, it’s a sham by conmen.”
What could have elicited this sentiment?
In 2013, when ANA netted N10m from the purse of the Niger State government, ANA called for submissions from prospective authors of prose, from which they hoped to find 10 worthy manuscripts to be published and distributed by the association, which they did.
The quality of the 10 has been a subject of debates within literary circles. But what has been even more controversial has been the level of commitment ANA has put into producing and promoting these books and the aftermath of the publications.
Zaharadden Ibrahim Kallah’s novel, ‘The Right Choice’ was published under the series. When the call for submissions was made, he had high expectations.
“The expectation from many writers was that the NWS would be a leading source of Nigerian literature all over the world, just the way the African Writers Series was. Unfortunately, the project lacks genuine promotion and publicity,” he said.
Dr. Habib Yaqoob, whose novel ‘The Oath’ was also published in the series has been far from impressed by the service he got.
“I think by now it will not be wrong to say that the project has not fared well. I don’t think that any of the 10 works in the series has made any reasonable sales. The patronage is dispiriting basically because of poor marketing. I believe that those who initiated the project meant well but I don’t think they have had the commitment to pursue their objective to a logical conclusion. If these works must create the desired waves in the literary market, a lot would need to be done by ANA,” he said.
When the call for submission was put out in 2013, ANA impressed with its zeal for the project. A website was set up purposely for the series. A few posts were put up but after announcing the winning entries, the website went dormant with no new updates being added, not even to announce the public presentations of the titles in November, 2014.
Malam Denja Abdullahi told the Arts & Ideas that efforts are on to revive the site. “We had some problems with the site. In fact, we can’t access the site now because we can’t recover the password. But we are working on it and we will get it up and running soon,” he said.
If there was anything that damaged the chances of the series succeeding, it is the way the project was structured. Four publishers (Jemie Books, Kraft Books, The Book Company and Parresia Publishers) were selected to publish and market the titles on behalf of ANA. The 10 manuscripts were shared among these publishers and they were paid upfront for their services. But when the CEO of Jemie Books, Austin Njoku, died while the manuscripts were being processed for publication, it signaled troubling times for some of the authors, especially those assigned to the publishing house, Kallah and Yaqoob were among them.
“It was a one man business,” Abdullahi explained, “and when he died it was almost as if the books would not be published. But I said no, we must retrieve those manuscripts and publish them. I know how I suffered to retrieve those manuscripts with the help of the man’s widow who accessed his computer to get them.”
While the other publishers worked as planned, in the last minute, Abdullahi found an emergency printer for the remaining titles assigned to Jemie. Without the backing of a traditional publisher, those titles’ fate was doomed. But the others backed by publishing houses did not fare any better.
Pever Aondofa, who published ‘Cat’s Eye’ in the NWS as Pever X, lays the failure of the series squarely at the foot of the publishers.
“I think the project failed because the NWS used publishing consultants instead of publishing and marketing the works [itself]. My thinking is, the publishing consultants don’t stand to benefit so much when they sell the books so why bother. I wouldn’t bother myself. I don’t know what deal they cut with NWS but the feelers I get point to that,” he said.
Abdullahi admitted the contract they signed with the publishers contributed to the challenges. “The mistake we made was that the publishers were paid upfront to publish the books. They were paid to market and promote the books, and because they had already been paid, they just printed and dumped the books on us,” he said. “We have learnt our mistake and we are doing things differently now.”
Allegations of Fraud
Others look beyond the publishers. Even though ANA had appointed three reputable writers as the series editors, their level of contribution cannot be ascertained. And the bulk of the editing was left to in-house editors assigned by the various publishing firms.
Bokoru, whose ‘The Angel That Was Always There’ pointed fingers at several factors.
“The NWS might have been conceived by genuine [minds] but I’m afraid to say that the execution fell on the shoulders of conmen with the regalia of ‘Ana executives’,” he said.
Bokoru went as far as making accusations that there were attempts to extort money from him by a publisher who doubled as an ANA executive at the time.
‘The sheer arrogance of the organisers was astounding. A certain Richard Ali tried to extort money from me with the excuse that my work was so poorly written that he wondered why it made it to the series,” Bokoru said.
“When I didn’t yield to Mr. Ali’s con, he did everything possible to, with his influence as then PRO North, kick my book out of the series. My book was published but I guess one of my greatest mistakes in life so far is accepting ANA’s NWS. “I was given a contract to sign which I did. In the contract I was to receive ten complementary copies of my book. But Denja gave me just five in Minna [at the series launch] in breach of that contract.”
When Arts & Ideas contacted the named official, he denied the allegations completely.
“I did not edit that manuscript, my bill was not paid. I do remember it [the manuscript] though. Unfortunately, beyond the first chapters, there was little else of value in the manuscript,” Mr. Ali said. “The issues I noted with it were later correctly raised by Iquo Diana-Abasi in her very mild review after the book was published. I insisted on being paid for a proper edit, which the book needed, not a basic edit and I did not recommend the publication of the book because I simply could not. I still would not. Blackmail followed, including this “allegation,” including slurs on my ethnicity and my being a northerner out to destroy a Niger Delta writer.
“That this “allegation” is still being raised, after he insisted the book be published and ANA obliged him, even when I did not edit the book and did not recommend its publication, and on top of all the poor reviews that have come in following, points to a congenital mediocrity,” he said.
Responding to allegations of shortchanging the authors on their prescribed author copies, Denja Abdullahi, who at the time of the launch was the vice president of the association and coordinator of the series said, “Any writer that said he signed a contract for the publication of the books is a liar. There was no contract. What we had were letters of indemnity and what we offered were five copies to the authors and I gave all them their copies in Minna. If any writer signed anything with any publisher, I don’t know about it.”
The president also said some of the authors asked for copies of their books to distribute to book selling outlets. Most have never remitted any money, apart from Zaharaddeen Kallah, whose N40,000 is in the association’s account.
What the authors complained about, which Abdullahi echoed, is that the publishers have not been vibrant in promoting the books. Sales’ figures from some of the publishers obtained by Arts & Ideas, show marginal sales for the titles.
Hilary C. Anugba’s ‘Burning Savannah’ for instance, from the reports, hasn’t sold a single copy because copies haven’t been shifted to bookshops. This might have to do with the fact that the book was published by Jemie Books. Apart from the copies used at the book presentation and the five handed out to the author as author copies, the rest of the 1,000 copies are at the ANA Secretariat in Lagos.
But the other functional publishers haven’t covered themselves in glory either, with all of them reporting low sales, with very few of the books shifted to bookshops and no visible promotion around the titles.
“The NWS is a first time outing. ANA is not supposed to market those books because we signed a contract with the publishers. We know who we will not be working with in the future,” Abdullahi said. “The only publisher that has been proactive in this venture has been The Book Company. They have been making suggestions on how to move the books but the others just published the books and dumped them on us.”
Among the grouse of some of the authors is that two years after the publication of the books they haven’t received a single kobo as royalties.
Again, Bokoru: “My royalties were to be paid quarterly according to the contract. But it’s well more than two years and I haven’t received a dime. The book is doing well commercially and I wonder why no one felt it necessary to at least explain to me why I haven’t received anything, even if it’s one naira.”
The book was published by the Origami imprint of Parresia Publishers, which Abdullahi said haven’t been very forthcoming with information about their activities around three books they published.
“For six months, I was asking them for a report on these books. Six months! Before they sent in a report.”
When contacted, Parresia Publishers refused to make any statement on record just yet.
Even with these challenge, Abdullahi said he had asked some of the authors to send their account details for royalty payments to be made.
“Maybe because they felt the money was negligible, they never bothered to send their account details. ANA is a writers’ body and it will be the last to cheat writers,” he said.
Now ANA has decided to change its approach to the second NWS. The call has been issued out for submission of children literature, but one of the changes is that ANA has decided to set itself up to take direct responsibility for the titles they will publish by appointing Mr. Osarobu Igudia as the Managing Editor. It is hoped that he will bring his 20 years of experience in publishing to bear on the series.
While ANA is looking ahead to the next series, the authors in the first series are still hoping for a change in fortune with regards to their books. Their first foray into the world of published authors has been a disastrous one, but someone like Kallah, still thinks something can be salvaged from the wreck.
“The organisation needs to specifically and aggressively drive the promotion of these works through various platforms. Of course the writers have their own roles to play here. So far they are not driving much into the success in the market. It would seem we all have had our morale dampened by the low realisation of our heightened expectations at the time of publishing these works,” he said.
First published on Daily Trust, July 10, 2016