By Lola Akande, PhD
I thank the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) for inviting me to deliver a talk on “Literary Agency and the Promotion of the Author’s Craft and Business” at the 2018 INTERNATIONAL BOOK FAIR AUTHOR’S GROVE taking place in the University of Lagos. The topic is a very important one because it is at the heart of doing creative writing. Agents solve problems for the creative writer and writers who have no agents run into a lot of problems they do not know how to solve. It is for this reason that I implore ANA to endavour to produce a proper document capable of showing writers how to have and relate to literary agents. This is important especially for young writers so that they may know what it means to have a literary agent.
Who is a Literary Agent?
A literary agent is an author’s agent. Literary agents observe a code of practice in the conduct of the author’s business; they market and place manuscripts of writers with publishers. They may or may not charge a fee. Agents may suggest a revision of worth-while manuscripts where necessary. They may suggest what revisions should be done by the author, or in some cases, recommend a qualified person not connected with their agency to undertake revisions. In other cases, the agency may be prepared to undertake the revision.
What is the Role of a Literary Agent?
The role of a literary agent is to sell saleable material. Literary agents search for new writers and they are often prepared to take immense pains with a writer whose work, in their opinion, shows potential quality or distinctive promise. Agents do not teach people how to write. Every writer must expect disappointments at the outset of their career, but if they have something to say and know how to say it, and they are patient, eventually, they may learn how to satisfy an editor’s requirements, or alternatively, they may learn what to give up in order to become a writer. It is the writer’s business to decide to turn to some other form of activity. Reputable agents do not accept work unless they consider it to be of a marketable standard
Agents ask you to give them three chapters of your work. They use their own method: They can give it to outsiders to read. Some agents may request to see a larger portion of your work in order to be able to make a decision. They do not necessarily go for academic stuff; they go for creative writing. Also, there is a sense in which poets may not be as ‘favoured’ as prose writers because in most cases, a few poems may not give an agent a clear idea about the work. Besides, many agents do not go for poetry because the market for poetry is relatively small and may not sustain an agency.
Are There Literary Agents in Nigeria?
We do not have literary agents in Nigeria. To put it differently, there are no registered literary agents that we know. The nearest to literary agency in Nigeria appears to be Adewale Maja-Pearce who used to be an editor for Heinemann, UK. He could go out, source an author, and then recommend the author to Heinemann. However, the Nigerian environment seems to have transformed him to an agent for the author rather than for the publisher. Today, he looks at works and edits them. While it is normal for agents to edit manuscripts for publishers, their role goes further than editing to include linking the author to the publisher. The non-availability of agents in Nigeria derives from the absence of publishers. Nigeria had (and still has) well established publishers – Heinemann, Evans, Macmillan, Longman, Spectrum; but the market was not up to scratch and potential agents were not encouraged to open shop. Normally, if an author sends a manuscript to a publishing house, the in-house editors will assess it to see whether or not it is worth their while. If they consider the manuscript to be good enough, they may send it to three readers outside their organization for assessment. Of course they will pay the assessors. When the reports arrive, their in-house editors will look at them closely, some of the assessors may suggest either alterations or some changes in the manuscript. They may send the author a copy of the report and if the author agrees to any alterations or corrections that have been suggested, the author could make the necessary changes and empower the publisher to publish. This is the way agents and publishers operate elsewhere in the world.
For purposes of illustration, when Indian novelist, ViKram Seth who lives in Britain decided to write a major novel titled A Suitable Boy (1993) which is more than one thousand pages long, he invited all the big agents in Britain to an interview rather than the agents inviting him to an interview. He did this after he had written more than four hundred pages and was confident that he had a good script. Usually, an agent invites the author to say: I have read your manuscript and I think it is okay. It is also the agent who makes an offer by saying: I will give you an advance payment of this amount and when your work is published, you can get up to this percentile. It is interesting, therefore, that at the interview called by Seth, he asked the agents in turn what publisher they were likely to give his work to and how much each of them could afford to pay him. He got 800,000 pounds as pre-publication royalty; given to him by an agent before he finished writing. That is to say, the agent paid him an advance of 800,000 pounds before he finished writing. When the agents read the work, they realized it was very good. A suitable Boy is the story of a family looking for a suitable boy for their daughter to marry. The novel becomes the story of India. In their search for a suitable boy, the family virtually looks at different characters that represent the country.
Helon Habila wrote a collection of short stories and self-published it in Nigeria in 2000. He took the book to Britain and entered one of the stories for the Caine Prize for African Literature. It won. Then he got an agent who advised him to turn the story into a novel. He did. The agent linked him to a publisher and that is how Habila got his first novel – Waiting for an Angel. The author’s note tells the story: Parts of this book first appeared in somewhat different form in Prison Stories, first published in 2000 by Epic Books in Lagos. The opening section, under the title “Love Poems” won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2001 (Waiting for an Angel, Penguine Books 2003).
The question is: Is it possible to get agents who will make pre-publication offers to writers in Nigeria? The answer is that it used to be possible. Odia Ofeimun got paid in advance by Longman, for example. He was still a postgraduate student at the University of Ibadan when his first poetry collection, The Poet Lied, was accepted for publication by Longman; although, he reportedly submitted the manuscript in Nigeria and got paid in London. Perhaps, one of the reasons why it may be impossible for writers to get pre-publication offers in our country today is because the market for books is in a very bad shape. Writers of Nigerian descent like Chimamanda Adichie and Helon Habila who are making money from their works are able to do so because they do not live in Nigeria, hence, they have agents. They have editors who are well trained to serve as agents. When they read the manuscript and like it, they ask the author to give them authority to market it. In a country where there are good publishers, it is good business for the author because an author gets about 10 – 15% over a certain range. For instance, if your book begins to sell in the 20,000, or 30,000 ranges, you get more money. That is to say, above a certain range, you could get up to 30%, and above that range, you could get much more. This is possible because the more your book sells the more money you make. It is just about market and how it functions.
In most cases, people who are interested in agency work do it outside of Africa. To be an agent means that you are going to arrange for an author to be linked to a publisher and to be linked to the market. You could organize a book lunch, media and other promotional events around the book. But not in Nigeria. The Nigerian author is usually his own agent, his editor, publisher, printer, marketer, promoter and seller. The implication is that a self-publishing author wastes about 90% of their time carrying out activities that are not contributory to the quality of the work – marketing. It may not be difficult for us to understand why there are no literary agents in Nigeria. How many proper bookshops do we have, for instance? Many of our bookshops sell more of inspirational books. Elsewhere in the world, when you enter a bookshop, you are truly in a world of books from all over the world. What we have in Nigeria are corner shops. Again, if we want to know why we do not have real bookshops, we only need to ask ourselves if we have genuine market for books. Do we have proper libraries? What about our school system? Does it encourage students to buy books? Our school system is such that teachers take just a copy of a book to the class and students make hundreds of photocopies from it. The university management does not permit the teacher to sell books to students. The basis for literary agency just does not exist.
Also, the good old publishers like Heinemann, Longman, and Spectrum Books have given up the Nigerian creative writer in favour of books that are of immediate consumption at schools or for work. These are the books that people will buy. It almost requires you to be a stalwart, a big writer from scratch in Nigeria to be given a chance by publishers; whereas, the agents in the West will nurture the writer from when you are nobody. The average Nigerian publisher cannot have enough spare money from all the books they are publishing to invest in an author who has not yet shown the kind of promise that you can invest on. Largely for this reason, the young Nigerian writer is left alone to self-publish.
If pirates have not yet taken over your book, it means it is still a relationship between you and your publisher. Unfortunately, some publishers do not pay their authors; sometimes because they are unable to sell the book. Bookshops that sell do not make returns. Hence, it makes a lot of economic sense these days for a writer to be his own publisher. That way, you know that if you borrow money and people like your book, it is between you and the market. But if your book is doing very well, pirates may take it over, you know that you have a chance to either spread your name or make money. In any case, even if you have a publisher, pirates can still take over your book. And in some cases, your publisher is the pirate who deliberately pirates your book so that he can escape paying you your well-deserved royalty. The situation in Nigeria at the moment is that there is no way for a writer to earn a living through writing. Publishers who are honest and eager to pay royalties do not get returns from bookshops. Everywhere you turn in Nigeria is a dead end. Another problem is that people do not know where to buy books if they want to. If we want to find out why Nigerians do not read, the biggest reason is that they do not know where to buy books. Nigeria is simply not yet in the modern world. Consequently, most things that apply to other countries do not apply to us. One of such things is literary agency. Because literary agents do not exist in Nigeria, there is no one to promote the author’s craft and business. To remain, you must promote your own craft and business.
Conclusion – The Way Out
One of the ways to solve our problem is through what ANA has been trying to do with its annual prizes. If you are shortlisted, ANA would have done for you the job of an agent by letting you know that your work is good and publishable. Publishers are then supposed to pick it up and publish. Unfortunately, looking at the Nigerian market, publishers cannot dare because even when you have won the prize, what is the guarantee that your book will sell? The reason why the book does not sell is because the school system in Nigeria does not function the way it does in other parts of the world. People do not read for pleasure, they read for examinations. Even students of English who have graduated do not read books for pleasure. Once they finish their examinations, they begin to look for jobs, and they forget about books completely. Who reads the Nigerian writer today? People who want to be writers. The circle of people who read Nigerian writers tends to be very small. This is one of the reasons why potential agents are not encouraged.
To correct the current situation, we must begin by having a school system that works, where a teacher knows that if you photocopy a book, you are supposed to pay the author. People who engage in the business of photocopy ought not to allow you to photocopy an entire book because they should know that it is against the law. The law permits you to photocopy only a fraction. But in Nigeria, people photocopy other people’s books as if they own it. Also, it is time for Nigerian writers to begin to make use of the Writers’ and Artists Yearbook. The book, which is published annually, gives you a list of literary agents in various parts of the world. If you are truly looking for an agent, for novels, poetry, drama, books on photography, etc, the writers’ yearbook gives you their list across the world every year. The agents in the book are agents for the whole world; and when an agent is for a specific area or specific country, they indicate it. A Nigerian writer can send a manuscript to any of them.