Are African Writers And Readers Ready For The eBook Revolution?

This week, the “father of African literature’ Chinua Achebe died, leaving behind a legacy for Nigerian authors. Today I welcome another Nigerian author Ekenyerengozi Michael Chima to discuss the outlook for ebooks in Africa.

Ebook sales are stabilizing in the US and UK, but the rest of the world is out there waiting for our books!

World mapThose of us who can price reasonably, to take into account exchange rate differences, can potentially build a fan-base in countries that may be surprising to some.

Nigeria is one of the fastest growing emerging economies, and with the prevalence of cellphones in Africa it may become a fantastic new market in the next few years, even though there are still challenges right now.

Ebooks are outselling paperback and hardcover books in America and Europe, but not yet in Africa.

Today, Nigerian author and blogger Ekenyerengozi Michael Chima will tell you why the story is different in Africa.

Ebooks are not popular among writers and readers in my country Nigeria, and the rest of Africa, even though millions of people have been using email over the years and are now engaging in daily conversations on popular social network sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The majority of Africans are still living according to the standards of the last century, writing long hand and either paying for word processing or slowly doing so themselves on their desktops or laptops. The exception would be the African writers based in the U.S., UK and other developed societies who have to use the tools their peers are using in the 21st century. South Africa is ahead of Nigeria and other African countries in using smart phones and tablets but only got her first ebook store, Kalahari, in 2010, but the ebooks are overpriced for the rest of the continent.

Why is the penetration of ebooks challenging right now?

Generally, from South Africa to Nigeria, the two main challenges of ebooks are:

  • low level of bandwidth and the low capacity of the data cables making the access to broadband expensive and unavailable to the majority of the populations.

But in spite of the low internet penetration in Africa, there is only one choice left for the majority who are still crawling and lagging behind, if we cannot beat them, we have to join them.

And that is why I give a thumbs up to David Risher who has launched Worldreader to take “1 million e-books to children in the largely English-speaking countries of Ghana, Uganda, and Kenya” and has raised a total of $1.5 million to fund his digital literature revolution in sub-Saharan Africa.

“David is pushing a fundamental conversation: How do you create a culture of reading in a place that hasn’t had one?” said Anne Marie Burgoyne, Managing Director of Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation that supported Worldreader with $300,000 last September.

Is indie publishing the future? 

David Vinjamuri, who teaches at New York University did a comprehensive analysis of the paradigm shift from traditional publishing to independent publishing in his article on “Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning In Indie Books – And That’s A Good Thing”, published by Forbes on August 15, 2012.

And after reading the article, I agree with his conclusions that indeed the future of publishing is going to be ruled by indie publishing as writers have access to the tools of publishing themselves online regardless of the reactionary objections of traditional publishers and some authors of the mainstream publishing industry.

But as noted by David Vinjamuri, the emergence of ebooks has eliminated the shortcomings and pitfalls of traditional publishing such as having heaps of unsold copies of printed books in paperback and hard cover.  Amazon.com reported selling more ebooks than physical books in the U.S. and U.K with many best selling authors of paperback and hardcover editions also releasing the ebook versions of their books on Amazon’s  Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, because people are now reading more ebooks than physical books, because with their eReaders they can buy and save more books on a single handheld mobile device instead of looking for space for them in a luggage while traveling. The ebooks revolution has become so overwhelming that the New York Times Best-sellers List now includes Ebooks.

What about ebooks in Africa?

But we are still either crawling or lagging behind in Africa, because of various constraints of which the most glaring is poverty.

The cheering news that millions of people are now using mobile phones in Africa is exciting for mass literacy campaigns, but the masses are not reading as much as they are talking and many commentaries and debates lamented the poor reading culture among Nigerians and other Africans in Africa where nobody cares about the New York Times Reviews. Unsold or pirated copies of the so called best-sellers are hawked on the streets of Lagos and Accra for as low as $1 per copy before they get dumped as unsold goods.

Even though over 100 million people use mobile phones in Nigeria, only a fraction of them are smart phones or tablets with eReaders, because they are unaffordable to majority of the people who live below $2 per day.

Moreover, those who complain about the poor reading culture seem to forget that Nigerian literature is largely based on our oral culture before the advent of English Literature in the South around the 17th century and Arabic Literature in the North in the 15th century.

Are audiobooks the answer?

So, if the majority of Nigerians prefer talking to reading, they are only expressing themselves in their best medium of communication of our traditional oral culture. In fact, audio books may be more accepted and appreciated than printed books and ebooks and I am considering producing audio versions of my book that those who don’t have time to read can simply play and listen to my stories as I am already doing on blogs with audio plug-ins.

Among the few Nigerian authors using the latest tools of mass communication available on the internet, I have explored all the opportunities and possibilities available to my peers in America, England and other developed nations; using the applications of the social media come with many benefits of which the most important is social connection with your readers.

You can now interact with them on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, and other social networks. As David Vinjamuri quoted Bidinotto, a former journalist:

Social media has been the great equalizer of advertising, promotion and marketing.  This is essentially asymmetrical warfare.  No customer going to Amazon knows what is traditionally published or independently published – and they don’t care.  They’re interested in an experience that will educate or entertain them.  Social Media allow the individual author to become a personality and establish real emotional bonds with his readers.  I happen to really like my readers and I deal with them online all the time.  By using social media to become a personality to my readers, I have not spent one nickel in paid advertising – and I haven’t had to.

Blogs, Facebook and Twitter have not made us bestsellers in Nigeria. Print and hand-selling still wins in the marketing game.

The most engaging platform for me is blogging which I started using since 2005 and I have become one of the most social media savvy Nigerian writers because of my applications of the most popular developments on the internet such as using reddit, StumbleUpon, Delicious, Digg, Technorati and pinging services, and also joining Blog Critics, Gather, Red Room, Shoovng, Yahoo Voices, Huffington Post, etc.

I have been able to reach millions of readers through these websites and that is more than enough success for any writer.

But only a few of my fellow Nigerian writers in Nigeria have followed suit but even for them, this online social presence hasn’t sold many books. One the most popular entertainment bloggers in Nigeria at the moment has a book out, but contrary to our expectations, the popularity of her gossip blog has not made her a bestselling author. Her only book has not even sold ~1, 000 copies in past two years. Her over 69, 000 followers on Twitter and over 5, 000 fans on Facebook have not bought her book!

So, that shows that her popularity in social media has not helped her to sell her book, because her thousands of fellow Nigerians are more interested in reading her gossips than reading her motivational book. Maybe a book of her hottest gossips may be more attractive to them.

I have thousands of people reading my blogs too, but only a fraction of them have bought my books. I sold more copies of my books by hawking them on the streets on Lagos and Bonny Island in the Niger Delta than on the internet. In fact I can sell 1, 000 copies of a book by hawking them from street to street and market to market than doing so as an ebook on the internet.

So, at the moment, majority of Nigerians would rather buy the hard copies of your book than download or read it as an ebook.

If you self publish, then do it well (lest you embarrass yourself)

I must confess that I was scared of self-publishing, because of the discrimination against the vanity press by traditional publishers and I learned that the New York Times editors snub self-published books. So, I preferred the treadmill of traditional publishing with all the rejection slips until got my first book “Children of Heaven” published traditionally in 1988.

I only became an indie author in 2006 when I used the Print On Demand (POD) self publishing company Lulu, but I paid for the professional book design from front cover to back cover to make sure that the book “Scarlet Tears of London”, my second collection of poems was well published.

So, POD self publishing can be as good as standard traditional publishing if the writer wants the same quality and respect given by traditional publishers. I advise every writer who wants to be self-published to make sure that the book is well written, well edited and well designed before publishing and releasing it to avoid the embarrassment of unnecessary grammatical and typographical errors and substandard printing.

Even though we are yet to have our own best selling success stories on ebooks in Africa, I am still motivated by the remarkable success stories of some self published authors like Amanda Hocking who wrote 17 teen supernatural suspense novels in her spare time and then self-published them until she hit the jackpot and signed a $2 million deal with St. Martins Press. John Locke sold over two million copies of his indie books before signing a limited deal with Simon & Schuster to get physical distribution for some of his novel. E.L. James wrote the precursor to “Fifty Shades of Grey” online as fan fiction and self-published it on her own website before Vintage acquired it. And she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people for 2012.

Do you have any questions about ebooks in Africa, or questions about Nigerian writing/authors specifically? Please do leave your comments below.

michaelchima~ By Ekenyerengozi Michael Chima, author of The Prophet Lied, Diary of the Memory Keeper, In the House of Dogs, Scarlet Tears of London, Children of Heaven and other books. Writing as Orikinla Osinachi on Amazon.

Presently, he works as a literary and media consultant in Lagos as well as also running his own companies as the Publisher/CEO of International Digital Post Network (IDPN) Limited, the largest Nigerian online news and information media network and the founder of the annual Eko International Film Festival and Screen Outdoor Open Air Cinema’s “One Village, One Cinema” Project to take cinemas to the urban and rural communities in Nigeria.

Top image: Bigstock Photo World Map

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Comments

  1. Augustus Razzlim says

    a really great post.been a young Poet,bent on self-publishing my first book.your advice to do it well in terms of editing,cover design and great content is noted.
    And i will certainly hawk it in the streets of Port hacourt and schools across Nigeria.

    Thank you Dede Chima
    Thank you Auntie Joana

  2. says

    Very thoughtful and though-provoking post! Your mention of audio-books caught my attention. I am getting ready to self-publish my first book, and my brother-in-law brought up audio books to me a couple of weeks ago. He is a trucker and he listens to audio-book channels on the radio. I didn’t realize there are companies out there that are audio-book publishers until he mentioned it. Of course, there is also the possibility today to create your own audio-books, too. Your statement about audio-books fitting best into the oral-tradition of the culture really made sense. Thanks for shining a light on important considerations when thinking about global distribution.

  3. says

    Augustus, I believe as long as there is a future there will be literature and great content will still attract readers no matter the format of the medium of communication.

    I believe audio books will be welcomed by more people in Africa.
    I have seen crowds of people gathering around loud speakers broadcasting poems and proverbs on the streets of Lagos. And one of the most popular Yoruba oral poets Abiodun Adepoju sold thousands of his records in audio tapes.
    An audio version of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” will attract listeners.

  4. Blessing Ehigie says

    The African digital landscape is gradually changing and in the near future ,digital products will become the order of the day. The basic problem we are likely to face will be piracy as the anti -pirate regulations are mere documentations.
    Audio books will definately be a great hit in Nigeria , if the marketing recipe is well prepared to feed the target market as the culture is centred more on auditory mechanisms in telling stories (i.eFolk Tales). Here in south Africa, most of us are already buying lots of digital products in the form of e-books, audio books and lots more.
    The good thing is that the playing field is becoming level and soon there will be a complete integration of the whole world. The very first few people to recognise this, will be the ones that profit the most from the anticipated boom that will strike like lightning in Africa .It’s true that Nigeria is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world and South African could rank as a developed country despite been refered to as a developing country with changing phase.
    I enjoyed the article and thanks also to Joanna for the platform.

  5. says

    I live in South Africa. Wanting to read is not the problem. Poverty is the problem. A disorganized teaching and education system is another problem. A corrupt govt is another. Reading and a love of books, in any format, starts at home. Any culture or cultural activity begins at the deepest, most primal level. Love of reading has been destroyed for reasons I will elaborate upon. E-books? That’s a joke. Audio books? What devices will people read or listen to books on? How about REAL books to even begin the process. Most people in South Africa have a deep respect for real books. However that does not stop violent riots against lack of govt service delivery impacting on libraries and schools – they get burned, along with the books. Many South Africans live below the breadline while the ruling govt and its hangers-on live in absolute luxury. A loaf of bread is more important than a book to a starving child. Far too many people still live in townships and squatter camps. A child’s only access to books is at school. Another failure here. When the govt are derelict in their duty and fail to deliver text books that only arrive nine months into the academic year, who can blame children for not having a love of reading? There have been many, and alas failed, plans by the SA govt to put a laptop in every child’s hands. Schools with computers are robbed all the time. Libraries are robbed of their computers. Corruption and handing out tenders for these projects to govt cronies and relatives have also stymied plans time and again. Teachers go on strike to protect some rotten headmaster who has either been caught with his hands in the school till, or accused of sexual harassment. Teachers regularly sexually harass kids. They are almost never fired. However, until the teachers and powers-that-be shake themselves up and act as role models, a love of reading and learning is unlikely to prevail. Another problem is that materialism and wanting to show off to others is an issue. As a result, cell phones (a possible reading device) are targets for thieves. One hears stories daily of people being murdered for a cell phone. Kids are accosted at school for their cell phones and forced to hand them over. Most people who live below the breadline do not have credit cards. How are they going to buy the downloads? Of course, the well-heeled do have credit cards, but they are too busy buying Range Rovers and bling to worry about books. They have arrived; they have voted right; they don’t need education or enlightenment. Africa is a sick continent. There is too much to fix before one can blithely talk about a ‘culture of reading’ although I admire Blessing’s (above) positive comment about SA as a developing economy. How wrong though. We are a society teetering on the brink of collapse. Violence is seen as the only way to get what you want. Rape is the national sport, with robbery close behind, and brutal murder. Nothing works; systems are collapsing as we speak; provinces are placed under curatorship because their political bosses have stolen all the money or not spent it, or given tenders to family and friends. You have to live here to understand that any future is doomed. My previous housekeeper asked me to adopt her child. I did, so I am now the mother of an African daughter. Her reason? (apart from the fact that the child was failing and was illiterate at eleven due to a flawed education system) “I want my child to have a real life and her only chance is with you.” A great compliment. Our shared daughter did learn to read, graduated, and is now at college. She loves reading. A poor reflection on the education system that had already failed her. This sounds like a rant. It is not. Reading is not a natural activity. Reading is a learned activity. Reading for pleasure must be learned and that starts at home. Africa and America are so far apart that one or the other country might as well be on the moon. One cannot even begin to compare the advancements of the USA and ask how soon Africa will catch up.

    • says

      Hi Fiona,
      Thank you for your considered comment, and there’s obviously a level of difficulty around your life in South Africa that we can’t even fathom in the UK. I absolutely respect your words and I hear them.
      But this blog is not political and it’s not attempting to solve any world problems – all I want to do here is to take a positive stance around the possibilities for authors worldwide. Whatever the problems in any country, it is important for authors to write and be heard. Michael has written an article reflecting his reality and hope.
      Thanks, Joanna

    • says

      Fiona,
      I had to stop working to read your comprehensive and sincere analysis of our intellectual crisis in Africa. It is really gripping as described, and your realistic commentary can pass for a treatment for a movie. No matter the tragic circumstances of life, I always look at the light at the end of the dark tunnel. The situation in Nigeria is worse than South Africa where the standard of education is better. There are more kids on the streets than in schools in Northern Nigeria where over 22 million youths are jobless and they are the most impressionable and vulnerable in the society, because of maladministration and corruption.
      Poverty is not the cause of the intellectual illiteracy in Nigeria, but intellectual ignorance, because there are over 100 million people with GSM phones and each person spends an average of N150 (about $1) daily on recharge cards and most of them do nothing more than chatting and idle gossip on their mobile phones. Majority of the over 64 million jobless legions have cell phones and use them for personal communication. There are thousands of free books and thousands more sold for less than a dollar on the street, but the majority of the poor prefer to buy pirated porn videos and magazines and not novels or children’s books. The so called millions 0f Christians spend more money buying gossip tabloids than even their church magazines. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerian youths use expensive smart phones for nothing more than chatting and dating. They don’t even read newspapers! But they are addicted to movies and European soccer leagues for which they have even rioted ad murdered themselves in acts of ignorance and violence. They prefer to crowd their viewing centers and ignore the new libraries in town. So, poverty is not the cause of poor reading culture in Nigeria, but a deeper sociological and psychological problem . A failed system.
      See my article on “Nigeria: Where they do not read books” on http://www.nigeriansreport.com/2010/11/nigeria-where-they-do-not-read-books.html for a thorough analysis of the problem in Nigeria.

      Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.
      ~ Harper Lee, author of “To Kill A Mockingbird” on May 7, 2006.

      • says

        Hi Orikinla, Thank you for telling us what’s happening in Nigeria. I am stunned, shocked, and saddened. It is ironic that in SA, kids want to read, and most do not have the easy access to reading material. In Nigeria, there seems to be a wealth of material and lack of willingness. I heed Blessing’s comment below but life in Africa is political, and cultural development/renewal (and encouragement) needs political and intellectual leaders in society leading by example. Intellectual poverty is the result of this rapid development. The sad thing is also that most people do not see or feel the need to better themselves through education. Of all the post-colonial African countries, I think Botswana has fared the best. I did my master’s thesis on the literature and theatre of the Congo-Brazzaville, on the works of the prolific French-African novelist and playwright, Guy Menga – the subject was the role of the writer and playwright in post-colonial African society. I was fortunate enough to interview him in person (he was in exile in Paris) and already he mourned the demise of intellectual/academic/literate excellence in Africa generally. I am going to read your article with interest, Orikinla. Best wishes.

  6. says

    Excellent! This post was shared in a FB group I belong to called State of Black Science Fiction and I look forward to reading your work! I want to add more African writers to my bookshelves so this is very helpful.

  7. says

    Sorry, Joanna, it did sort of get rantish. I think bottom line is: the actual groundwork has not been done for a large group of people to start using the top-of-the-line technology that is already available and is rapidly developing. It’s a huge pity but Africa will lag behind until those basics are met. BUT there is always hope, as Michael has expressed so eloquently.

  8. says

    Thank you for the article,

    eKitabu launched its web and mobile ebook service in Kenya in September, 2012. We’ve just opened our Nigerian store http://www.ekitabu.com/nigeria and are starting to bring on board Nigerian authors and publishers to sell their ebooks on the site. We’d be thrilled to hear from anyone interested – contact us via email at publishers @ our URL ekitabu.com

    We completely agree about audio books. While we only have a few for sale right now – from the Kenyan literary publisher Kwani – they are selling quite well. http://www.ekitabu.com/audiobooks

  9. says

    I read this post with interest, and immediately contacted Worldreader to donate my titles. I think giving ebooks to people in Africa who can’t afford them is a great idea.

    Then I got the contract. It’s a stinker.

    The contract repeatedly talks about the “Developing World”, then comes the definition of this term:

    As used herein, the term “Developing World” shall include all African, Asian, and
    South American countries.

    So… this includes Japan? Singapore? Hong Kong? Brazil? Chile? Argentina? And yet fails to include countries like Haiti and Nicaragua, which are desperately poor, and are not eligible for this program simply by virtue of not being part of South America?

    Worldreader needs to reconsider the scope of their mission, and be more precise in the way they throw around terms like “Developing World”. Lumping Japan and Nigeria in the same group of countries is patently ridiculous.

  10. Blessing Ehigie says

    The article by E.M.Chima should not be used to score political or religious points . The aim of the article was to encourage African writers to seek different ways of getting their digital products to the consumers,despite the monumental challenges.

  11. says

    I was interested to read this, and the comments thereon. Your readers might also wish to view my own article on the topic (and also on the phenomenal rise in digital self-publishing in Africa.)
    A preview version is freely accessible at http://www.hanszell.co.uk/print_vs_online.pdf and which also includes a fairly extensive literature review of other recent articles and blog postings on the topic.

  12. says

    Hans Zell,
    I sat back to read your well researched and detailed account of the latest developments and pitfalls of digital publishing in the world and the challenges in Africa. I will recommend your article as a must read for all writers and publishers. But as you rightly noted the debate on print versus digital can go on forever, but what matters most are the realities of technological development in Africa where the widespread availability of mobile phones has not catapulted the masses to the same world of intellectual advancement in developed countries, because majority of them still prefer talking on their mobile phones than reading on them. So, in conclusion how can African writers and publishers be ready for the e-book revolution when majority of their people cannot read and write? And even the few who can appreciate e-books are more hooked on idle gossips and ego trips of vanity on Facebook, Twitter and other social network sites than downloading e-books or reading them on their smart phones and tablets. As I pointed out that the most popular celebrity gossip blogger in Nigeria the most populous country in Africa with over 160 million people could not even sell up 1000 copies of her motivational book and her thousands of fans on Facebook and over 69000 followers on Twitter did not buy her book. That is the reality in Africa.

    • says

      Orikinla
      Thanks for your generous comments.

      You are right, and amidst all the digital-this and digital-that euphoria, it is good to be reminded about the basic prerequisites for developing a positive reading culture.

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  1. [...] e si legge molto e mercato al quale gli editori anglosassoni possono ambire. Oggi vi propongo un post di Ekenyerengozi Michael Chima, scrittore e blogger nigeriano, per The Creative Penn – non casualmente pubblicato poco dopo [...]

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