Exposed pedestrians on the information highway

The African Writers' Handbook
February 11, 2000

When Amos Tutuola died in 1997 his body remained in the mortuary for four months while his family attempted to raise the money to give him a proper Nigerian funeral. His reputation had been established as far back as 1952, when The Palm-Wine Drinkard was published by Faber. Yet writing did not make him rich: he left 11 children, a house in Ibadan, a 20-year-old Ford Cortina and very little else. He could not benefit from selling his manuscripts because he had lent some to academics who never returned them. The export of others was blocked by "cultural nationalists" who wanted them housed in a particular university archive in Nigeria - an archive that was never established.

The Tutuola story is a warning to the aspiring writers for whom this handbook is primarily intended. Other accounts of the hardships of authors are here also. Tanzanian M. M. Mulokozi tells how he waited from 1979 to 1986 to receive royalties from his Kenyan publisher for a play selected as an O-level Kiswahili school reader. Finally he took the day-long bus journey from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi to confront them. He received an apology, a good lunch, his travel expenses and the promise of a cheque to cover his outstanding royalties, which would have been enough to buy a house in Tanzania at the time. Then the company went into receivership; the cheque never materialised.

Publishers join the debate. Hans M. Zell acknowledges the belief of many authors that publishers are slow to part with cash. Henry Chakava says that Ngugi wa Thiong'o is one of the few authors who considers publishers to be honest and decent. Walter Bgoya says writing is poorly remunerated because although African book prices are high for purchasers they are low from the point of view of authors. Also, print runs tend to be small.

Authors and publishers discussed how to improve their uneasy relationship at a seminar in Arusha, Tanzania, in February 1998. Their statement as to what both have a right to expect is set out in this handbook, which combines experiences and opinions with information and advice on how to get published. Some of the contributions are reprints, but having them together in one volume is helpful. There is also guidance on what to avoid, from vanity publishers to hastily signed contracts.

Directory-type information includes lists of literary prizes, writers' organisations, magazines, literary agents and book fairs. The minimum terms agreement issued by the Society of Authors in 1982 and the code of practice for publishers' dealings with authors issued by the Publishers Association, London, in 1997, are reproduced.

Many issues remain significant over the years. Chakava recommends that new autonomous publishing houses start off with low-risk projects such as examination crammers. A paper by the late Ken Saro-Wiwa states that books sell in Nigeria only if they are on examination lists. A writer as well as a publisher, Saro-Wiwa points out that publishable work is not as plentiful as many think. Mulokozi says the existence of a good library at the Tanzanian boarding school he attended in the 1960s helped make him a writer, whereas nowadays "there are no libraries in most of our primary and secondary schools". Paul Tiyambe Zeleza describes the cuts in library budgets in Africa as intellectual suicide. He fears that Africans will become "exposed pedestrians on the information highway". Bgoya refers to the deterioration of the university environment and the effect this has had on academics. Regina Jere-Malanda says the new governments that replaced one-party rule in many countries in the 1990s brought with them new censors. Desire to stay in power no matter what remains the same.

Other contributors include Michael Norton on self-publishing (helpful for non-governmental organisations), Zell on internet resources, and James Currey on co-publishing. Currey specialises in academic paperbacks, and aims for publication on three continents by at least three publishers. He believes that books on Africa should be available in Africa. James Gibbs and his co-editor, Jack Mapanje, discuss a range of writers' experiences stretching from Hanif Kureishi to James Joyce, an awareness of whose struggles is recommended as helpful to contemporary African writers.

Authors and publishers in Africa may face difficulties, but this handbook shows they confront them with energy and a sense of humour.

Anthony Olden is senior lecturer in information management, Thames Valley University.

The African Writers' Handbook

Editor - James Gibbs and Jack Mapanje
ISBN - 0 9521269 6 6
Publisher - African Books Collective
Price - £24.95
Pages - 432

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