Jan 29, 2013

Do we care about books?

Last year during the run-up to Zambia’s Ngoma Awards, I was approached by the creative minds at C1RCA1964 on suggestions from a consumer’s point of view; they’d been tasked with helping the National Arts Council of Zambia establish a brand presence online. I brought up the issue of book marketing for Zambian authors before and after the awards period.

Anyone who has ever looked for Zambian literature online or in stores is familiar with the frustratingly spare selections. I’ve always seen the Ngoma Awards as an opportunity for the nominated authors, in all genres, to get a leg up. However, this isn’t the case and the reasons are legion.

Talk to the writers and they’ll say Zambians aren’t supportive and don’t buy works by local authors.

Talk to consumers and they’ll say that books aren’t readily available, and when available the price and quality are insurmountable barriers.

If you ask me, I’d say it’s a combination of the reasons stated above. What’s left of Zambia’s publishing industry is mostly driven by demand for educational materials – textbooks, classroom readers, exercise books and so forth. Publishing novels has almost become an afterthought which makes the barriers to entry for budding authors quite high.

We don’t have publishers aggressively seeking manuscripts for publishing or editors plugging their abilities to take a manuscript from good to great. So, many writers are left to figure it out on their own and often times look outside the country for publishing opportunities. Getting published is no easy feat given the competition out there but having good resources available can make the difference between having your work read or not.

A worrying trend I’ve noticed is the pivot towards self-publishing. Though not as widespread yet among Zambian writers, it’s definitely on the rise and noticeable. Before you stone me, hear me out. I believe it’s a legitimate option and has created wonderful opportunities for people whose works might never have seen the light of day. However, the built-in shortcuts can be detrimental. An example is editing - skipping the intensive editing process in a bid to make a quick profit compromises quality and dilutes the writer’s brand. Is there anything more annoying than a poorly edited book riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, compounded with a poorly thought out story line? 

This is where I believe institutions like National Arts Council of Zambia can play a role. They are the conduit between artists (writers, painters, musicians, etc), the government and business community. We've had way too much lip service about the appreciation of arts and the need for a vibrant community when the structures remain deficient. The status quo is unacceptable. 

Publishing and bookselling remains a costly business but if we are going to see a revitalisation in our reading and writing culture, as well as the availability of quality works a concerted effort is needed. This is not something that we need to look to Scandinavian countries for generous donations. And it cannot be undertaken alone by government or writers themselves. Do we really value literary art, and if so how much work are we willing to put into it to showcase and preserve it? 


Anyone who has written a book will tell you that its a difficult process, the beauty is in telling the story... I wonder, are we telling the right Zambian stories? The ones people will rush to hear, like they once did gathered around fires in the days of old. Maybe that is what we should explore. Cost, patronage and apathy can't be the only determining factors. You raise some valid points mweh!

Writing is indeed a difficult process. Particularly when you do the proper research, edit, re-write, have editor comb through it - REPEAT. But it's all worth it in the quest to get a proper product in the end.

With regard to the kind of stories being told, it's hard to say if these are the right stories with Zambian voices. I've certainly read my fair share that tackle issues like child molestation, social impact of poverty and HIV, growing up in modern Zambia, etc. But very few have I been able to hold up as good literature.

I wonder, what are the stories people want to read about?

I agree with you, the publishing houses are geared towards educational material. and although Zambians' do love reading, look at our national library! it's so sad how awful it looks now, how can we inspire people to read if that's the state of the library in Lusaka?
I don't think there is a "right" story for Zambia. People will write whatever they want to write and the readers are the determinants of what is sellable or not. look at music, all genres sell, so do books.

teh structures are simply not in existence anymore and it is such a pity because there are so many great writers out there, as is evidenced by the growing number of bloggers. but whether this translates into actual authors, who knows.


I think people will indeed write the stories they feel compelled to write. This may be driven by personal experience, what they feel readers want to read and so forth. What I would like to see is support for writers to ensure better quality products. While every book isn't for everyone, we should work on harnessing people's talents to raise the bar on the quality.

We are a people of diverse backgrouds and thoughts, and our literature should reflect that reality. We have work to do.

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