The other day I got an acceptance for one of my novels from a publisher in another African country.
(Yay! Happy! Party!) At the time that the acceptance appeared in my inbox, I was having an email chat with a Motswana writer friend who is currently living in another country.
I told her about my good news.
She mentioned that a Zambian writing friend of hers was published with that very same publisher and that, if she remembered correctly, they had a good relationship.
I asked if she might ask her friend just to make sure.
In the meanwhile, I sent a message through Facebook to an educational writer I know who lives in the same country as this publisher, to find out what he thought of the company before I signed a contract with them.
He wrote back immediately that this publisher had a reputation for treating writers badly.
I was suddenly wary.
Meanwhile, my Zimbabwean writer friend sent me a message on the same issue saying she knew of two writers published with this publisher who have never been paid royalties.
Ever. She advised that I think twice before signing the contract.
It was all looking quite bad.
Then I got an email back from my Motswana friend telling me she had been mistaken, her Zambian friend said the publisher in question had given her nothing but headaches.
I decided to contact the Zambian writer directly; she’s a Facebook friend of mine.
She told me the entire sad story.
Six years no royalties, publisher has cash flow problems, now they don’t take her emails.
That made my decision. I thanked her for her honesty, and sent an email to the publisher – “thank you, but no thanks”.
This is a publisher who appeared reputable, they publish some of the biggest names on the continent, one of the reasons I sent my manuscript there in the first place.
If I didn’t have this network of writing friends around the continent, I would have signed that contract happily, and I would have likely had a never-ending headache.
Something I do not need more of.
There are two important things here. First, we are luckily living in a connected age.
On a daily basis I “talk” with writers all over the world.
We share our experiences.
In a matter of a few minutes, I can get help from another published writer on a variety of issues.
Secondly, African writers, especially the ones that live and publish on the continent, are a relatively small group that are known to each other.
Most of the writers I know or I am no more than one or two people away from in terms of connectedness.
Unlike writers who publish overseas, writers who live and publish in Africa operate, in the main, without agents.
We run our own business side of this business.
Because of that we all suffer from similar headaches.
We have to be aware of fly-by-night publishers.
We have to decipher complicated contracts on our own.
We have to deal with low readership and low sales.
We have to communicate with the publisher’s marketing departments on our own.
We need to get our books to places where we’re speaking, sometimes carrying those books in our luggage because of the poor distribution networks on the continent.
We need to demand accurate, understandable royalty statements delivered on time.
We need to make sure we get paid by the date agreed on the contract.
Being a published writer on the continent is not for sissies.
You need to be tough, and you need to get yourself educated quickly, or you’ll be eaten alive.
But the upside, as my recent experience has proven, we’re really not completely alone.
The writers on the continent have each other.
We give each other a heads-up.
Since I’ve read and signed many book contracts now- some good, some bad- I often get other African writers asking me to take a look at theirs.
I give them whatever advice I can.
If I know of calls for book manuscripts or shorts stories I think one of my writing friends might be interested in, I share it, as they do with me.
We give each other a hand because this business is tough anywhere, but in Africa it’s especially brutal.
So we’re a small, gossipy, talkative group.
Publishers like this one I nearly signed with should know that before they decide that paying writers is the last thing on their to-do list.
It’s not a secret they can keep anymore.