Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Discussion: Self-Publishing Platforms and the African Writer

The surge in self-publishing platforms has taken publishing from the confines of large publishing corporations into the hands of individuals. Somewhat. It has thus broken that humongous monopoly these corporations enjoyed. It has also ensured that wide variety of books are published by cancelling out those weird decisions some coterie of individuals, sitting in an obscure corner in a paper-laden office behind cluttered desks, set for themselves as to which book to publish and which not to. For instance, I am not sure if this was the exact position taken by the Heinemann African Writers Series by its editors when that label was in full-swing, but it is clear that with the exception of one or two books (such as A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (267 pages) and Search Sweet Country by Kojo Laing (352 pages)) almost all books published were less than 200 pages. This creates the impression that such is the nature of African literary writings (novels, plays, anthologies (poetry & shorts stories) etc.). However, this might not be the case as several other books have shown (Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie (435 pages), The Famished Road by Ben Okri (500 pages), Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters by Kojo Laing (366 pages), etc.). But this is the only visible observation one could make. There possibly might be several within the bosom of the publishers.

However, the upsurge in self-publishing platforms that handover complete control of the publishing process into the hands of the writer could lead and has led to the publication of some works of unreadable quality. This is not to say that every self-published work is inferior but the checks provided by these large firms with regards to proof-reading (for structure, presentation, and most importantly spellings) gives the purchaser an assurance of quality. Some self-published books have thus ended in disaster for readers who have no patience for spelling mistakes. I must add that it is okay if you meet one in an entire work of over 50,000 words but to encounter it on every page or every other page takes away the pleasure of reading. Thus, some readers do virtually stay away from self-publications.

Africa, however, does not have the freedom of choice that much. The number of publishing firms which could churn out significant titles each year is scanty. Thus, to many African writers, self-publishing would present the easiest of routes towards authorship. It has all the benefits; one need not go shopping one's manuscripts or shopping for agents. All one needs is a computer with an internet service. And a lot of time. Heart-wrenching rejection letters are obviously nonexistent to the self-publisher. Except that the task of marketing rests on the author. But this is not much if he has the necessary techniques.

The question is, in view of all these pros and cons, will self-publishing: 
  1. Benefit or harm the writing industry of Africa? Will the increase in quantity move in tandem with the quality? Or will the quality be so much affected as to entirely discredit the works produced in such a manner? 
  2. Harm or destroy authors? For instance, a self-published author who falls into the problem of poorly-edited book will see a significantly reduced patronage of his or her next book to the extent that he or she might completely fall out of the scene, entirely.
What is your take on this? Is self-publishing good for African literature and writers or not?

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