* Soyinka’s US publisher demanded USD$250m to Chronicles… in Nigeria
By Godwin Okondo
ACQUIRING publishing rights can be a tricky business across jurisdictions. Nigeria presents a peculiar example, as some of her best writers now live abroad and write and publish from there. How easy or hard then is it for local publishers to acquire rights to works of Nigerian writers based abroad, so as to make such works readily available to Nigerian audience? This formed a panel session at Quramo Festival of Words 2023, as it explored the rights to Nigerian writers, and the critical role publishers play in the production and circulation of books published abroad to local consumers. With the theme ‘Global Rights, Local Rights: Whose Rights?’, the session had the founder of Bookcraft, Mr. Bankole Olayebi, founder of Paperworth Books, Ibiso Graham-Douglas, co-founder of Narrative Landscape Press, Dr. Eghosa Imasuen, and Legal Advisor for Quramo Publishing, Lanre Shasore, with moderation by the Kenyan blogger, James Murua of Writes Africa.
Olayebi shared the story of his early days in publishing with the Dutch publisher, Chief Berkout Joop, when he said things had moved a bit forward since he ventured into publishing. He praised Joop for his pioneering role in Nigerian publishing.
“I had the good fortune of a period of tutelage of a gentleman who was one of the most innovative and energetic publishers in the 1980s, and he started the process of making books available, and he first started the process of acquiring rights to books,” Olayebi said. “After that period of tutelage, I felt it was time to move on my own, and so I started Bookcraft and built on that.
“It’s still a challenge to get rights to books from overseas publishers, but it’s a bit straightforward now because authors have begun to retain their rights to this part of the world. A lot of publishers in the West don’t have representation here. Most of us were weaned on the African Writers Series (an imprint of Heinemann Publishers). We are coping, and we are doing things that were not possible before.”
Graham-Douglas paid tribute to her predecessors who paved the way for book publishing in Nigeria, saying, “I call Baba Spectrum (Chief Joop) the grandfather of Nigerian publishing, and refer to Mr. Olayebi, as the universal uncle, because they are the forerunners on whose shoulders we stand, Eghosa and I. It’s the work they did that paved the way for people like us to actually dream. I call myself a high rate publisher, because I do traditional and some contract publishing, but more than 50 per cent of the traditional rights titles we own we have actually auctioned, and to international companies as well.”
Graham-Douglas also spoke on the impact of technology on publishing, saying it has been a game-changer for people like her, especially how technology enables seamless communications.
“Technology has been a game-changer, and we can’t emphasize that enough,” she said. “I started my business in 2002 when Google was still new and we didn’t have Instagram, so it was such a challenge just to get the word out about a book in Nigeria. People in other states couldn’t have access to the books, but technology has changed all that. We also have the streaming services where you can watch so many series, and we’ve realised that people are interested in consuming international content and we’ve been getting lots of request.
CEO of Bookcraft, Bankole Olayebi; CEO of Paperworth Books, Ibiso Graham-Douglas; Convener, Quramo Festival of Words (Qfest), Mrs. Gbemi Shasore; Co-founder, Narrative Landscape Press, Dr. Eghosa Imasuen and Legal Advisor, Wuramo Publishing, Lanre Shasore after the panel session on rights at the 2023 festival in Lagos
“For most of the books we publish traditionally, we obtain global rights, because I remember reading Ken Saro-Wiwa and people don’t even remember him as an author. I remember he had a television series at the time—Bassey & Company, which we never missed (on NTA). That is the value that good publishers bring. Whether you are here or not, generations will read your works; that’s how we know about the Shakespeares and the (Wole) Soyinkas and the (Chinua) Achebes.”
Graham-Douglas also spoke on securing rights for her authors, saying there are ongoing conversations about a couple of titles such as selling French rights, which have been auctioned to some independent publishers. “So, it’s actually global and having other audiences access the work,” she said.
Imaseun said the most important thing about rights is the ability to earn from your intellectual property, noting, “While you can sign off some of your rights to earn, you retain moral rights — that’s to be known as the creator of that work. Ghost writers relinquish even their moral rights to be known as the creator of a work.
“We started our business as a publishing services company, because we had no money or capital. We were able to raise about N360,000, which was about $2,500 at the time. We bought a printer and registered the company, and we started doing publishing services; so, we basically offered publishing services for a fee. Our aim was always to acquire the rights to publish in our own name. We want to acquire paperback rights to your book for Anglophone West Africa and Cameroon, and offer you 12% of the recommended retail price for the privilege of exploiting these rights, which means that you don’t just acquire the rights, you exploit them. Starting as a small company, that was the kind of contract we got for the Chimamanda (Adichie) books.”
Imasuen explained how rights acquisition works at Narrative Landscape Press, starting with the first book rights they acquired, and progressively to the diversification into audiobooks and agency and film rights.
“Our first novel we acquired from scratch was Truth Is a Flightless Bird, a thriller set in Nairobi. We acquired globe rights, world rights, and subsidiary rights which meant that we had the ability to exploit those rights and pay him royalties. So the primary right was to print the book and publish it, and he would end royalties when certain thresholds were crossed, which means that our cost of production was dropping, so he should earn a bit more.
“In our journey so far, we insisted on keeping our submissions desk, and we put ourselves in the forefront of getting content, books and manuscripts. The submissions desk is a painful job because you could spend 80 per cent of your effort and only get so little, because lots of manuscripts can be really bad, but when you find one, it justifies all the pain. That gives us the ability to acquire world rights and for places where we can’t exploit those rights directly, we look for ways to license regional rights to different publishers.”
How conscious are writers about their rights? “That depends on the experience of the writer, although I think because there has been this slow explosion that has lasted for 15 years shows that there is an appetite for writing from the continent and inside this country, and we always wished for a time like this where people could live off their writing, and the culture and literary sector would be vibrant,” offered Shasore. “Its becoming a viable economic sector.”
Olayebi responded by saying, “The market here is still relatively small. In the United Kingdom, more books are published in a month than the whole of Africa in one year, and I’m talking of the trade books, which is where the energy of the industry should come from.”
“In 1998, we wanted to publish to mark the 40th anniversary of the initial publication of Things Fall Apart. We didn’t know who had the rights at the time, which I later found out after running around for two years trying to get it. Unknown to me, the rights were domiciled in the U.K. I started making contacts to the U.K, and they made it very difficult for me. By the time we finished the process, they had sold the company to someone else, and the result was that it took us ten years to do the fortieth anniversary, and the rights were given to us for only five years.”
Olayebi also shared his recent experience with Prof. Wole Soyinka’s US publisher, who was reluctant to give rights to the book outside the US, but Soyinka insisted before he could relent, but without making some financial compensation.
According to Olayebi, “I had an encounter with Wole Soyinka’s US publisher. When we were going to publish Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth in 2021, Soyinka informed his agent and he refused. Soyinka put his foot down and said this work was primarily for Nigerian audience anyway. He wanted it released on October 1 as a birthday gift to Nigeria, but the agent stepped in and said if he was going ahead with it, he would need to pay a quarter of a million dollars. Thankfully, Soyinka insisted, and we got away with far less than that.”
“We are a developing country and the sector cannot be better than the economy,” Graham-Douglas said, imply that everything is hinged on the economy, including book sales. “Let’s talk about the devaluation of the naira. I sent a telling off to one of my suppliers sometime ago. I placed an order, and between the time it took for the order to get to Nigeria, our money had devalued twice. We are all trying to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in.”
Eghosa also shared some of the new frontiers available for publishers to venture into that include audio books and film rights. “Ever since we found our company, we’ve been approached by audiobook producers who were considering producing audiobooks of our works for a certain budget, but we didn’t have the money. They sent samples of what they had done, and some were overproduced in the sense that sound effects were added to the reading. The audiobook was a revelation for me. Each time I got an African book whose audiobook was produced elsewhere, there’s this African accent that always gets you on edge. As the naira began to fall, we started calculating how we could earn money diversify our source of income from the trade.
A rights cafe that currently held at a book fair in Kenya, according to Graham-Douglas, featured an announcement by the Kenyan Publishers Association with some Chinese companies, on how they were doing Kenyan-Chinese indigenous textbooks.
“That’s just my understanding of it,” she said. “I don’t know the details. It’s was a vehicle for future business ties between both countries, because they kept talking about how Africa is an abstraction to China and vice versa, and that was why they felt they needed to create this series of textbooks and storybooks for children that indigenize the African experience in a Chinese way.”
“I think a lot of it is because of the issues we have raised. At the end of the day, we are publishing businesses. But because it’s culture, literature, passion, so there’s a tendency for us to forget that it’s a business that needs a business module and strategy that translate to profit, ultimately. From what I read, the focus was educational. I don’t know how Ake is going to be, but one hopes that indigenous publishers can actually have serious rights conversations.”
Shasore also spoke about agents looking to sell book rights, saying, “It’s a bit of a war because agency is a trade, I suppose it’s the symptom of a market that’s not as articulate as others. It’s another thing that would open up the market and help it grow, similar to rights and we are getting there. I think it’s very show, but it’s still on the publisher trying to fight for the rights of books.
“I had dinner with a publisher and she said she was tired of America and it’s system. She has to share every amount she makes with her agent, who is different from her manager, and she has a different agent for each books. She was trying to give a breakdown of her earnings, and at the end of the day, she only gets about 20 per cent. An agent is a good thing, but at the end of the day, they could just be middlemen that you don’t need.”