By Toyin Akinosho
Someone once offered to pay one and half million naira to Kunle Kasumu to write his biography.
But he considered the money a poor reflection of the value of the writing.
“I’d sent him a bill for 3.5Million Naira and he cut it down”, Kasumu, host of the Channels Book Club, broadcast on national television, told a roomful of guests at a recent symposium: Why I Wrote Her Story, a discussion forum around the art and business of biography writing.
“I asked him: When is your book launch. He told me the date.
“I said who is your MC? He gave me the name of one of the famous comedians around.
“I said: How much is the hall you’re renting? He told me”.
Kasumu sighed. The audience giggled.
“You’re going to rent a hall for two million naira; pay the MC, who speaks for three hours, a million naira, but the guy who works with you for eight months to write the book you’re launching, he gets paid 1.5Million naira. What’s the logic in that?”
Kasumu said he should ordinarily be upset, but he found a way to respectfully explain to the subject and he understood. “Many times, in Nigeria, you need to help people to see the value. They don’t really see the value, because of our culture”.
The writing-pricing mismatch was a recurring theme of Why I Wrote Her Story, one of the events of the last edition of the Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF).
Earlier, Dotun Adekanmbi, author of The Will to Win: The Story of Biodun Shobanjo, had talked about an experience he had with a proposal for a biography that involved extensive, book length narrative about one of the military coups. The man looked at the proposal and asked how much the writing would cost. “I said look at the last page sir”. The principal considered the figure and handed the proposal to his lawyer, who looked at it and suggested a steep downward review of the invoice. Adekanmbi’s response: “Then give it to your lawyer to write”.
He continued: “Those kinds of projects are the type that give you the most headache”. Translation: once you take off on that note, things are likely to be problematic.
The lead up to these two stories was an account by Peju Akande, co-author, with Toni Kan, of A Safe Pair of Hands, the biography of Austin Avuru, founding Managing Director of Seplat Energy and, at a time, the highest paid Chief Executive of any listed company on the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
“When we think of writing biographies, we go for people who can pay for it”, Akande declared. “That’s not to say that we haven’t written for people who don’t have the money but have compelling stories. Sometimes we take on people who don’t have the money but have the right connections; he has a good story; he has great connections. We ask him to pay 2Million but you’re not going to be going around saying ‘I paid 2Million for it’. If his friends see the book and they say: ‘this is good, can you do the same for me’, we’d say Oga, pay 15Million”.
Akande, who writes the column Tales from the Streets every week on the website thisislagos.com, said that her partner and herself are flexible about invoicing. “There’s room for negotiation. But we’re not going to undercharge ourselves because if we’re doing any project for six months we have to commit to those months. We have to be strategic about it because it is a 24/7 thing. If you have a project, it means we are on call and that means we forgo other opportunities for that period of time. We have bills to pay. We have children in the University we have to pay for. If you don’t think what we are giving you is worthwhile then go somewhere else
“For those who might be thinking: I’d tell you one thing: It’s very lucrative. I don’t succumb to being a poor writer, because I have bills to pay. If you think my talent, my craft, my education matters to you, then pay me”.
The one member of the panel who didn’t get involved in the discussion about payment for biographies was Muritala Sule, author of A Lifetime of Friendships, his own personal memoirs. He was also the only panelist who was invited to speak as an autobiographer. When Kasumu asked Sule to provide a perspective on pricing of biography writing, he responded with a history of the collapse of the overall publishing architecture in Nigeria, dating back to the mid-1980s. The story is important and unique on its own, but it is outside the scope of this article.
Indeed, the profit and loss of biography writing was not entirely what the organisers had in mind when they included Why I Wrote Her Story in the programme of the 23rd LABAF. The choice of Kasumu as moderator was made on the basis of two things: He is a biographer who doesn’t put his name on the books: he is a Ghostwriter. His TV programme, Channel Book Club is the country’s top broadcast programme on the book trade. As Nigerian biographies are becoming less hagiographic in tone and context, the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), organisers of LABAF, noted that the extensive nonfiction narrative (not collections of essays) was becoming part of the mainstream staple of the Nigerian book culture. This event, the organisers imagined, was going to be the first annual LABAF event to bring biographers and memoirists together.
Kasumu did indeed kick off the conversation by noting that “there are two angles to biography. One angle is history-the need to document history. The second is the business angle”.
He introduced a bit of himself. “I’ve been a ghostwriter for many many years. Very few people know that I am a writer myself. In Ghostwriting, you collect your cheque and disappear”.
Kasumu was careful to make it clear that he wasn’t a biographer; someone who writes the story of the life of someone else and inserts his name as the author. A Ghostwriter, on the contrary, writes the biography, as the subject wants it and denies (or accepts to deny) himself the credit of authorship.
His first question was to Adekanmbi. “Why did you write this book (The Will to Win; The Story of Biodun Sobanjo). Why did you become a biographer?
Adekanmbi responded that the writing of the book was, for him, a personal journey of discovery. Sobanjo is the giant in the Nigerian advertising firmament. He’d watched the man from a distance. He wanted to gain a deep understanding of his persona. “That caused me to write a letter to him”, he said. Then, to telling effect, he added: “I don’t know if there are many biographers who meet their subject one on one for the first time in a cemetery”.
There are a lot of successful people in this country, whose stories have not been written, Kasumu argued. “There are a lot of organisations in this country, whose stories are yearning to be documented”, the moderator allowed. “And that presents a space. I was on the phone with Mary Onyali, the great Mary Onyali…”
“I grew up trying to read some Nigerian biographies”, Akande recalled. “They felt like terxtbooks. I wasn’t interested”.
She dismissed the widespread misgivings that books on Nigeria’s wealthy businessmen don’t provide the details on how the wealth was accumulated. The phrase on the street is: ‘People like that just hammered’.
Akande said that there are people who didn’t just hammer and Avuru was one of them. She noted that her company, Radi8 Ltd, “decided to write our biographies like folk tales, to colour it”. She then read the first page of A Safe Pair of Hands.
Muritala Sule disclosed that he felt “an urge to tell a story that I thought was there. I am not important enough for anyone to want to tell my story. Readers have been telling me that it was a risk worth taking”.
One of the criticisms that people lay against biographies is that they are about ego-pumping, Kasumu observed.
“In Nigeria, when your book is an authorized biography, the subject funds it”, the moderator noted. “In the western world, where publishing is fairly developed, I can take authorization from you and yet write and publish objectively on my own terms”.
Adekanmbi said: “I own, not just the copyright to this book, but the words reflect my perspective of the subject. There was no imaginable question under the sun I didn’t ask the subject. He answered everything. It is an authorized biography but the subject is not interested in seeing himself as the next best thing outside sliced bread”.
KASUMU GAVE HIMSELF A MOMENT TO TALK ABOUT HIS GHOSTWRITING BUSINESS METHODS.
“What I do is Ghostwriting. It is a business. I am not a classical writer. I started out as somebody with writing skills who wanted to make money writing. That was how I started.
I defined my clientele. High Net worth individuals who have a story to tell.
People without money, I did not bother to talk to them at all.
It was a business designed to fit into my passion and my skill set, because I was in a different industry before and I was doing very well but I wasn’t very fulfilled. I looked down the road and I asked myself what do I want out of life?
I love books. I love writing I love communications. But what do I want to do with these things that I love? I started thinking about it.
One day many years ago in one small office I stumbled on the word Ghostwriting. It got me curious. I researched it and found out that there is a massive in the west where people write biographies of people without putting their names on the books; they get paid and disappear.
So I said I wanted to set up a company that is into Ghostwriting.
When I call people (well I used to approach people before. But now people call me).
This is how much it costs. Averagely between 2.5Million and 10 Million Naira.
It depends on who is writing, how much they have, what they are writing about and all that
If I look at you and I think you have a lot of money and you’re desperate to write, I’d jack up the money. So it’s simple. It’s just business.
Usually, Nigerians write when they have an anniversary. So they are 60..Or 70. They want to write their story and they don’t start on time. Five months to the event they start running: Eh eh, you want to write
That is when I know I must hit you with a bill, a good bill because if you’re desperate and if you really want to do it I have to leave other things in order to face your project.
It’s not a kind of business that will make you super super rich.
The problem with most young people in Nigeria, not just writers is that they want to follow their passion but they don’t take the time to understand the economics of what they want to do. It’s not just about passion
And I don’t just do it for individuals. I also do it for organisations too.
A lot of organisations in Nigeria have not developed this culture.
I went to some bookshops abroad and I bought some books written by organisations. I have a book at home written by Marks & Spencer. I took a copy to this organization, a company which has been operating in Nigeria for 60 years. They said: ‘Oh Ah…Come for a meeting’.
There are many organisations whose stories have not been written. The scope of the opportunity is wide”.