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The “Crash” of OkadaBooks is a Call for Nigeria to Reflect on the State of Its Art Communities

The “Crash” of OkadaBooks is a Call for Nigeria to Reflect on the State of Its Art Communities

OkadaBooks closes down - Afrcoritik

Few things underscore the importance of OkadaBooks to African literature quite like the fact that it launched the careers of several independent authors who ultimately grew a huge following, earned from their penmanship, and found their way into hallowed spaces.

By Jerry Chiemeke and Clara Jack

When it rains, it pours… or in the case of Nigeria’s art ecosystem, it floods.

Monday, November 21, 2023, was a sad day for African literature, as OkadaBooks, the continent’s leading digital publishing platform, issued a public statement announcing that it would be closing down its virtual store by the end of November. Authors and subscribers to the platform had received their fair share of dismay a few hours earlier when they received an email urging them to request their payouts on books published, and X (formerly Twitter) was replete with snippets of displeasure. By noon, it had been confirmed that the wheels had fallen off for the boys in yellow.

After much consideration and reflection, we have come to a difficult decision. OkadaBooks will be closing its virtual doors on November 30, 2023. This has not been an easy choice. We have explored various avenues to keep our bookshelves alive, but unfortunately, the challenges we face are insurmountable”, the statement read.

Public reactions to the statement have unanimously tilted towards sadness in resigning to the inevitable, and disappointment in seeing one of Africa’s erstwhile thriving publishing structures cave in to the volatility of Nigeria’s business terrain. For many in Nigeria’s art space, OkadaBooks was a repository of diverse voices, and pain is the only valid response to news of the death of a trailblazing platform that democratised African literature.

Founded by Nigerian entrepreneur Okechukwu Ofili in 2013, OkadaBooks showed up at an interesting time in Nigerian literary discourse. After a lull in the 1980s and 1990s – no thanks to the stifling effect of successive military regimes – the country’s literature experienced a renaissance of sorts in the 2000s, with the success of books like Sefi Atta’s coming-of-age novel, Everything Good Will Come (2005) and Chimamanda Adichie’s historical fiction masterpiece, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). But there was still something amiss in the ecosystem. Books were still being written for the Western gaze, and writers felt immense pressure to concoct their stories in a certain flavour and texture if they were ever going to be heard. Nigeria was also quickly catching on with the use of social media, smartphones were becoming more affordable, and it was necessary for Nigerian publishing to evolve if it didn’t want to lose the attention of a whole demographic.

To their credit, OkadaBooks succeeded on two fronts: creating more room for diverse voices to meet the needs of an audience who were sick of the old tropes that bedevilled African prose and poetry, and easing the process for ambitious creatives who were looking to make a career out of their passion. Aspiring authors no longer had to wait for years to receive feedback from publishers who would hand in two-paragraph rejection emails, or hawk their manuscripts in search of literary agents who were willing to take a chance on an unknown writer. With the advent of the platform, all they had to do to start earning from their craft was simple: set up an account, upload a manuscript, get a cute cover, fix the pricing, and then share the link. At a rate of nearly 70%, the royalties were theirs, too. Whether or not the best editorial standards were always maintained is up for debate. Still, it was a true democracy, something that African politicians could learn a thing or two from.

OkadaBooks readership - Afrocritik
OkadaBooks readership

(Read also – The Architecture of Literary Prizes: What Does the Future Hold for the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature?)

The team in Yellow also created a smooth path for supply to meet demand. Readers simply needed to open an account on the mobile or desktop versions of the app, refill their credit with recharge vouchers or direct deposits from bank accounts, and start reading desired content at subsidised prices. For those who couldn’t buy paperback versions of the new books released by their favourite authors, OkadaBooks provided solace.

Authors who wanted to publish in Hausa or Nigerian Pidgin found home for their work on the platform after being overlooked by traditional publishers for eons. The ease of access also fed into the growing market for African Romance Fiction, a sub-genre that had until the early 2010s been snubbed by literary purists, critics, and curators. Those who wanted to read and write about stories that explored middle-class millennial hedonism rather than the “true and authentic African experience” found a virtual marketplace to meet. The audience that consumed Damilare Kuku’s uber-successful short story collection Nearly All The Men in Lagos Are Mad (published by Masobe Books in 2021) flows from the community that scoured the App for nearly a decade.

Few things underscore the importance of OkadaBooks to African literature quite like the fact that it launched the careers of several independent authors who ultimately grew a huge following, earned from their penmanship, and found their way into hallowed spaces. Writers like Sally Kenneth Dadzie (author of the Fish Brain series, The Fourth Finger, and Stranger in Lagos), Tomilola Coco Adeyemo (Reunion, The Heiress’ Plaything, Sugar Daddy Chronicles, Efun’s Jazz), and Amaka Azie (Thorns and Roses, The Senator’s Daughter, Melodies of Love, Be My Valentine) earned their paycheques and acclaim from building a faithful readership on the platform.

“Okadabooks is a huge part of my journey as a writer. Because of them, I could continue to grow a community as an indie author in a genre that’s not that accepted in local publishing. I say it all the time”, Adeyemo posted, in the wake of the public statement.

(Read also: Is Nigerian Literature Truly Dying?)

On her Instagram page, Dadzie shared a screenshot where she revealed that she had made N1,238,280.00 (One Million, Two Hundred and Thirty-Eight Thousand, Two Hundred and Eighty Naira) as an author on Okadabooks.

The shutdown of the platform after a glorious decade-long run is another sad addition to the list of Nigeria’s art spaces, physical and virtual alike, which are folding up for a myriad of reasons. Nigerian author and editor Joy Ehonwa recently expressed her displeasure at an email requesting her to retrieve copies of her book Dear Elona from the Terrakulture Bookstore in Lagos on account of impending closure. In 2021, Afropolitan Vibes, the monthly concert that held at Freedom Park (and later, Muri Okunola Park) in Lagos, slowly ground to a halt after eight years of functioning as the city’s cultural melting pot that featured live music and palm wine. There are also rumours that Bogobiri Lounge in Ikoyi and the African Arts Foundation in Victoria Island, both hubs for the promotion of visual arts and performance poetry in Lagos,  will soon close up shop or at least be acquired by new owners with a different vision.

OkadaBooks closes down - Afrcoritik

Amaka Azie, in a heartfelt tribute to Okadabooks, acknowledges that the platform helped connect her with her present readership.

“When I started out as an indie African romance author, I had no audience. I hoped to reach African readers, people who would relate to my love stories, and people who shared the same or similar experiences with my characters. OkadaBooks gave me that platform. I became a bestseller there instantly. I’m so grateful for the role they played in giving me and other indie romance authors an audience. I really hope this isn’t a final farewell.”

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Nigerian romance author, Rosemary Okafor, author of the novels Akwaugo, Many Waters, One More Night, and Paradise, also handed in her words of gratitude.

 “Okadabooks was instrumental in bringing books closer and cheaper to Nigerian readers who couldn’t afford the high cost of printed book copies. For independent authors, the platform opened an easy channel to reach a wider range of readers, sell books, and connect to fans. It removed the bottlenecks and  bureaucracy in book publishing, and gave independent authors the power to navigate their success in the book community.”

(Read also: Has the “Great Nigerian Novel” Been Written?)

 The imminent demise of OkadaBooks triggers a debate on the future of virtual publishing, and the sustainability of platforms that run on similar models. It also invites consideration of the broader challenges faced by art spaces in Nigeria and the African continent at large. How do we preserve these cultural clusters? What can be (or could have been) done to keep the doors open? Are there any viable investment models to keep the ships from sinking? Is a drop in demand, or lack of purchasing power occasioned by an economic crunch, the reason for caving in?

The shutting down of Okadabooks is more than a bookstore closing indefinitely. It has also taken with it a community, and considering the rumours that “Nigerian Literature is dying”, communities parting amounts to letting the fabric rip apart. Another lesson to glean is how naked the Nigerian literary space has become. The absence of communities to hold writers up is impacting the quality of Literature in these parts. 

There are a lot of unanswered questions, and it’s easy to predict that it won’t be long before another literary and art platform folds up – we have seen this with so many magazines and journals – but flowers are due for OkadaBooks. The outfit revolutionised digital publishing in Africa, stayed at the top for a decade, and provided the blueprint for several e-publishing websites that exist today.

We need communities that welcome writers just as they are, like Okadabooks did. With the work going on at publications like Pencilmarks & Scribbles and Iko Africa, it is hoped that the democratisation of Nigerian literature doesn’t fade out before long. There needs to be an active effort on the path of everyone in the literary space to prioritise collaboration over competition, no matter how tempting the latter might be. 

Jerry Chiemeke is a communications executive, film critic, journalist, and lawyer. His works have appeared in Die Welt, The i Paper, The Africa Report, Culture Custodian, and Statement Africa, among others. He has been selected for international film festivals like Berlinale, Durban International Film Festival, and Blackstar Film Festival in Philadelphia. Jerry lives in London, where he writes on Nollywood, African literature, and Nigerian music. He is the author of Dreaming of Ways to Understand You, a collection of short stories. 

Clara Jack is a writer, editor, publisher and legal executive. She terms herself an academic during the week, but on Saturday nights, she enjoys intimate films with a glass of white and puzzles. In her free time, she attempts recipes she sees on cooking shows and curates Spotify playlists. Clara, an author of four collections, runs a Substack letter called Memoirs of Middles, and also manages a literary publication. She currently lives in Southern England.

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