Nigerian Writers, Publishers Debate Future of Publishing in Age of Social Media

Nigeria ranks 35th worldwide in number of Facebook users and is the third-largest generator of tweets in Africa.

Nigerian Writers, Publishers Debate Future of Publishing in Age of Social Media

LAGOS, NIGERIA – Writer Chiagozie Nwonwu says that social media has helped him to advance his career.

“Social media has been very positive for my work,” he says.

He joined Facebook in 2008 and then joined Twitter.

Based in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, he frequently contributes to publications such as Daily Times Nigeria, a news website. He also writes fiction. He uses social media to find platforms for his work.

He is currently in talks with a publishing company about printing a collection of short stories. He saw the company’s call for submissions on Facebook.

“AfroSF,” promoted as the first African anthology of science fiction, recently featured one of his pieces, “Masquerade Stories.” He first saw the anthology’s call for submissions through his social media networks. Nwonwu submitted his manuscript, and the anthology included it in its e-book, published in December 2012.

“That book generated a lot of buzz, more than any other book that was published in Africa last year,” Nwonwu says.

The editor of the anthology also tags him on social media so he can see reviews of his work.

“All the reviews are online,” he says. “I see them on social media.”

He seeks feedback using social media on his other work as well. Soon after joining Facebook, Nwonwu began posting his writing on the website and tagging friends in the posts to solicit criticism.

He says this helped him to gain confidence.

“As a writer, you need others, people with like minds, who do what you are doing,” he says. “Facebook is the place that you can interact with them.”

As social media soars in Nigeria, publishers say they are using it to connect with an expanded pool of readers and writers. Writers are also using social media to market their work and to gather feedback. But some publishers caution that an increase in writers using social media has not resulted in an increase in writing quality. Others debate social media’s effectiveness in boosting sales and whether its dominance in Nigeria will affect long-form writing styles.

There are nearly 5.4 million Nigerians on Facebook, according to Socialbakers, a company that monitors and tracks social networks. Nigeria ranks 35th in a worldwide list of the number of Facebook users by country.

A 2011 survey conducted jointly by Tweetminster, a U.K.-based team of Twitter analysts, and Portland Communications, an international communications consultancy, analyzed 11.5 million geolocated tweets throughout Africa during a three-month span. Their findings revealed that Nigeria is the third-highest generator of tweets on the continent.

This represents a huge population of Nigerians that the publishing sector can reach out to, publisher Gbenro Adegbola says. Adegbola is the CEO of First Veritas, a publisher of educational content with a major interest in digital publishing, including e-books and online distribution.

Adegbola foresees digital and social media providing an avenue for publishers to extend their reach.

“It will bridge a huge gap in terms of access to content,” he says.

Adegbola was one publisher who gathered in Lagos from Feb. 18 to Feb. 22 to commemorate Social Media Week, a global series of events dedicated to exploring the impact of social media on culture and society. Crowdcentric, a media, communications and technology firm based in New York, first launched Social Media Week in 2009.

Social Media Week Lagos was the first satellite event held in Africa. One program held during the week, “Publishing in the Age of Social Media,” gave publishers an opportunity to examine the industry’s relationship with social media.

Nigerian publishers say they have already begun using social media to expand their network of writers and readers.

Azafi Omoluabi-Ogosi, who also attended Social Media Week Lagos, is the managing editor of Parrésia Publishers, a company based in Lagos that distributes fiction by African authors. It published five titles last year, circulating 1,000 copies of each.

But with social media, its work can reach more people. With more than 600 “likes” on Facebook and nearly 300 followers on Twitter, the company uses social media to promote discussion and update followers on events.

"We use it to break into the groups of literary people on social media,” she says. “It is used as a merging ground where writers, readers, authors from anywhere are aware of our products and the books we have to offer.”

She says the company now relies on social media to obtain new submissions.

"Earlier in the year, we sent out a call for submissions,” Omoluabi-Ogosi says. “We have gotten over 50 submissions. I am definite that all of them came via social media because that is the only means to reach out."

Oreoluwa Somolu is the director of Patabah Books, a bookstore based in Lagos. She says that social media can introduce publishers to new customers.

"A lot of people who tend to be on social media, I think that they are literate, educated and they are interested in seeking knowledge,” she says.

Discussions about literature via social media may result in purchases, Somolu says, even if readers were originally uninterested.

"Because of the discussion that social media promotes, that may spark their interest furthermore and get them interested in getting it," she says.

Online discussion can also benefit writers.

Nwonwu says he uses social media as a critical development and marketing tool. He says that social media has helped his work to reach a wider audience than if it were published and distributed solely using traditional methods.

“A publishing company publishes 1,000 or 2,000 copies in a country of millions,” he says. “Is that success?”

Social media platforms such as Naija Stories, a Nigerian online writing community, complement traditional publishing, writes founder Nkem Akinsoto. Akinsoto, a Nigerian currently based in the United States, commented through Gmail chat that the forum helps budding writers to improve and to market their work.

Naija Stories boasts more than 3,000 registered members and 60,000 views per month. Writers gather on the site to share and discuss their work.

Naija Stories also shares writers’ work through its social media profiles. These include a Facebook group with more than 1,500 members and a Twitter network with more than 700 followers. This exposure has generated success for various members, Akinsoto writes.

One writer recently began negotiations with a publisher who contacted him through Naija Stories’ messaging system. Another user’s portfolio on the website helped him to gain admission to a graduate-level writing program at a university in Australia. Others have won writing contests or have received publishing contracts based on work they published on Naija Stories.

Akinsoto, also an author under the pen name Myne Whitman, says her first book was first published as an e-book in 2009. Akinsoto partly credits social media for her success.

"Social media helped me as a writer by providing access to materials to improve my craft and also communities that boosted my confidence and helped to critique my work,” she writes. “[M]ore importantly, it gave me an opportunity to publish and promote my work."

Although Nigeria’s enormous social media presence has connected publishers, writers and readers, social media also presents challenges to the publishing industry.

Omoluabi-Ogosi is enthusiastic that Parrésia Publishers has received more submissions thanks to social media but adds that writing quality often suffers online.

"There are a lot of people who write online but who do not understand what writing is," she says. “There are two sorts of writers. First, the ones who post their stuff on Facebook, write a poem, a short story or do the blogging."

She says that she is wary of publishing writers solely based on the work they share via social media.

"There was a girl who recently published a short story online, and it was shared all over social media,” she says. “We asked her to send the first three chapters to us for consideration. She didn't have anything to send in. In fact, that was her first story and first writing ever."

Her company rather uses social media to seek out the second type of writer – authors who write actual books.

Bibi Bakare-Yusuf is the co-founder of Cassava Republic, a publishing house based in Abuja, the capital. She agrees that easy access to social media does not necessarily create good writers.

"Many of them are not really writers,” she says. “They are just people who are commenting, tweeting. That doesn't mean they are writers, doesn't make them writers.”

But Bakare-Yusuf, who participated in Social Media Week Lagos, remains optimistic that even these forms of writing, such as tweeting, can be helpful for the industry.

“It is a lazy form, but it's a form and it is OK,” she says. “I don't see any problem with it in any way. We need all of these things to emerge."

Meanwhile, some doubt that social media can make people buy books.

“People online see book reviews and want to read the book,” Nwonwu says. “Social media can take it that far. But can it take it beyond that the level of, ‘I will like to read this book,’ to that level of, ‘I actually want to buy this book?’ I don't think so.”

He suggests that publishers become more aggressive with their social media strategies, recommending buying advertisements or promotions rather than relying on free options for circulating content.

Bakare-Yusuf is more concerned about social media’s effect on readers. She wonders how new forms of writing encouraged by social media will affect literary styles.

"People are consuming information in sound bites,” she says, “so the level at which they are able to digest information is shorter.”

Social media lends itself to shorter forms of fiction, she says.

“Flash fiction is on the rise,” she says, referring to a style of fiction marked by its brevity. “Haiku is on the rise. Now, does that mean that it is going to displace long form?”

Nwonwu agrees that the dominance of social media may cause a decline in traditional forms of writing.

"You have to actually love literature to spend so much time reading an article of 5,000 words,” he says. “People are more comfortable with shorter pieces because of the short attention span. As you are reading this, you are looking at other opened tabs.”

Publishers in Nigeria are debating how to accommodate these changes in reading habits as a result of social media.

“It might mean that long form might end up being broken down,” Bakare-Yusuf says, “and we will return to the Dickensian times, when things were serialized. So people take on the form in bits, but it's still the long form.”

Omoluabi-Ogosi disagrees.

“It is a funny thing for me when people say that maybe flash fiction will work, maybe shorter stories will work,” she says. “We are now translating it into the fact that what is attention-grabbing text-wise should be shorter. So, what will happen to full-length books? Are you going to say that will phase out, too?”

But other publishers and bookstore owners remain optimistic that social and digital media will complement traditional publishing.

“We should stop talking about the digital ousting the traditional,” says Adegbola, who suggests publishers take advantage of the new forms, including e-books. “We should be looking at newer forms, but not as digital as coming as a threat to oust the traditional form."

As long as people are reading, Somolu says, less attention should be paid to how they are reading.

"I think that maybe we do need to think less about reading books, but more about the fact that people are gaining knowledge," she says.