by Kemi Ogunniyi
Something new and exciting has just happened in the world of books. It happened in Africa. The rest of the publishing world would soon notice. And it will affect the way the world – especially Africans – read, forever.
Yes, I am going to talk about digital books (e-books), and yes, you are thinking, what’s new and exciting about that? You would soon see.
Around the world, we have seen the publishing industry change in the last few years. The digital publishing revolution has changed things in modern times the way Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press did in 1450. The increased popularity of the e-book has changed the way the world reads. For most writers, thankfully or unfortunately – depending on which camp you’re in – digitisation in publishing has reduced the effects that the rather bureaucratic and dream-crushing tendencies of traditional publishing organisation have on their writing career. So the result is that around the world, we have seen and continue to see a surge in the number of authors self publishing their works as e-books on various digital platforms such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, etc.
And for the readers, they are able to read what they would possibly not have been able to get their physical hands on, for various reasons such as geography or purse economics.
So, yes, there is nothing new about all that. You think?
The many available e-book platforms are not readily accessible for the average reader in many countries in Africa. Apart from other reasons you can think of, the one which stands out most for me is that of payment challenges. How would an avid Nigerian reader, for example, buy books on kindle, when electronic commerce is still in its embryonic stage in the country? A few days ago, I came across an article on digital revolution in Africa by Hans M. Zell. In it, he highlights correctly that the currency of the internet is the credit card, and this accounts for about four out of five e-commerce transactions. He then considers that in a country where majority of readers are unable to download and pay for e-books because they have no ‘internet currency,’ digital revolution is yet to take its full course.
Already in Africa, we’ve seen how digitisation has played a role in the political revolutions that occurred in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, especially through social media – such is the power of it! One can only imagine the magnitude of the effect digitisation would have on improving the reading culture and literacy levels in Africa.
Enough! What is This New Thing?
In Africa’s most populous country, readers can now download and read e-books on their phones, paying (next-to-nothing prices) with their phone credits.
According to the GSM Association, Africa is the fastest growing region for mobiles in the world, and the biggest after Asia, with an estimated 700 million SIM cards in the continent. Many African businesses have caught on to this fact, and they are now using mobile phone platforms for payments. In east Africa, mobile money is used just like paper money. People use text messages to send money to other mobiles, and the money can be cashed out by going to shops of thousands of participating agents.
Mobile phone platforms are definitely the right way forward for e-books in Africa. I have visited Nigeria a lot in the last four years, and I rarely met any young Nigerian who had never owned Blackberry or Android phones. Apart from that, nearly all young Nigerians with mobile phones have access to mobile internet.
Wattpad, a Canadian e-book platform, has been able to deliver books to a large population of readers even in far countries by formatting their works for lowly Java-based feature phones.
In Africa, starting with Nigeria, it can be confidently said that Okada Books have entered the publishing game to change things forever. Apart from introducing ‘mobile phone money’ into e-publishing, as far as I know, Okada Books are the first to make majorly African writing available to readers of e-books via their app platform. Currently only available on android phones and tablets, it would soon be available on Blackberries and iPhones. Readers choose a book they want, send a text to pay for the book (mobile money), and they download the book. The text service is only available in Nigeria for now, but the founders say they are presently working on expanding it to other countries in Africa and around the world. But in the meantime, anybody around the world can download the app and the free e-books of African and non-African writing already available. Currently there are about 206 titles, and the list is growing. It is also worthy of mention that most of the e-books that are not free cost as low as N20 (£0.08).
The Challenge of Proliferation
One of the banes of the gift of self publishing, especially digitally, is the proliferation of it, which leads to hundreds of titles being churned out weekly – titles which are poor in quality and not professionally edited, with plots and grammar floating about in smoky strings of confusion. In digital publishing, this issue is not peculiar to any one platform – it is seen across all the digital self publishing platforms, especially on Amazon. In Nigeria’s movie industry – Nollywood – we have seen this happen (although the industry is picking up gradually).
I worried it could also happen with Okada Books, so I asked one of the founders, Okechukwu Ofili, what he thought of it. He told me:
“If you grow digitally this is bound to happen. Smashwords.com and Amazon.com are examples…they have a mixture of good and bad books. My vision is to simply be an avenue for African writers with little money to get published as easily as possible, and I am aware that we would get the best and worst of both worlds. iROKO TV, the most successful digital company in Africa, is driven by Nollywood. If they were bothered with quality they might never have grown. And I believe that the more writers get their work out, the better they become from the criticism.”
What the New Platform Means for African Authors
As Okechukwu Ofili mentioned, Okada Books offers a great opportunity for African fiction writers, especially the upcoming ones. Even if the big wigs in the traditional Nigerian publishing scene and elsewhere in the world would not consider their writing, they will now be more exposed to a wider audience.
Most of the Nigerian authors currently on Okada Books have previously published good fiction on their blogs, and many of them already have a huge following. But they will now be able to convert their blog fiction into books, and make money from it.
Given the prices the books are sold for on the Okada Books platform, it would be unrealistic to say that African authors, even those with huge followings, would immediately become millionaires or make substantial job-resigning kind of money. Again, this is not an issue just peculiar to Okada Books or African writers. It is the same issue digital or paperback self-published authors face around the world.
It seems that for upcoming authors in many countries in Africa (and this is true in many cases outside Africa too), they are primarily concerned about getting their names out there for a start, rather than making profit out of writing. Most hope their writing would go wildly viral and then get recognition for this, eventually.
More importantly, perhaps we should focus on this one more thing Okechukwu Ofili told me:
“We [Okada Books] want to be known as the people who gave Africans a chance to tell their stories. I mean, it is easier to get a Chinua Achebe book in America than it is to get it in Anambra or Lagos. That to me is an issue. I have spoken personally with [Nigerian] publishers on this issue, but still not getting the response. I guess they are still trying to see if we are legit or just a flash in the pan. And I try to tell them, that we are not…I am driven not by money, but by common sense, that Africans/Nigerians need to read more of our books. We are reading and consuming other cultures but not ours. I hope Okada Books will reverse that trend.”
Kemi Ogunniyi is an author, magazine editor and communications consultant. She is also a trained broadcast journalist who has done a few stints at the BBC and other reputable media organisations, and holds an MSc in Marketing. She tweets from @kemiogunniyi
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.