Making a Presence (3)

Change should never be considered in exhaustible parameters; I believe we should be resigned to our inability to measure how we have been besieged (permit me — this is how I often think of it) by the inexhaustibility of the internet, the e-age, and a digital culture. In this concluding post, I will make an effort of contemplating how important it is for African literary outfits to ensure that their outlook is speculatively accommodating of the infiniteness of the internet (‘outfits’ is a necessary word because I advocated in the last post for efforts that look beyond just a web-presence. Not even double-edged seems to be the word anymore; perhaps x-edged, x being a value for infiniteness.)

Saraba, which I co-publish, is one of the few online literary magazines that is managed by Africans in Africa. This is disconcerting, knowing the huge impact the internet is having on literature and literacy. Although I am inclined to write a piece on the fiery word-war between e-book publishing and traditional book publishing, I am equally tempted to neglect that desire since Africa in many respects is yet to catch up with the requirements of an electronic literary age. Yet for the purpose of a discourse, and perhaps for a prophetic analysis of the future of African e-literature, I point the reader to such pieces on Guardian, Tara Books, The Million (which has a section called ‘the future of books), and Washington Post. I even think the comments that accompany the pieces are equally as important — I find that the war is indeed a war, and hopefully I can make a contribution, however little, to the conversation in my next post.

As I noted, there are few outfits online that seek to encourage the work of emerging writers, or even avenues for established writers to speak directly to their kin. I made an insistent search and found mostly links pointing to Kwani?, Chimurenga, Story Time, New Gong Magazine, Sentinel Nigeria which is not to say I was patient and careful enough (I came across Youthful Malawian Writers for the first time; there must be others out there). And of course there are those other outfits based outside Africa which continue to reflect a consciousness to publishing fine literature from Africa — African Writer, African Writing, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Sentinel UK.

Aside an x-edged approach, I believe it is important publishers of African literature take notice of other equally important facts. Such as, for instance, the amount of time potential readers spend on other platforms. By Alexa’s Traffic ranking of websites, Google is first, then Facebook, then YouTube, then Yahoo. How do we, as publishers, direct readers to our sites? How will they spend a fraction, however little, of the time they have to spend on the internet (say 13 to 15 hours in a week or more) on our websites? Or how do create our work in a way that appreciates the fact that Facebook is often a first-rate option before any other? Do we make our work as offline as it is online? Would iPad, Kindle, and Nook versions of our magazines be worth a try? So, for instance, we publish Saraba as a PDF magazine, and we get about 300 downloads (excluding the number of people who receive the magazine in a flash disk, or by Bluetooth, etc, etc). This ensures that our readers can read online (since a number of the works in the PDF is also published online) as well as on their computer, on Kindle, and on other apps that support PDFs.

And because I lately began to see that web optimization is equally as important as content or layout of the website — Saraba ranks close to 11,000,000 in Alexa Traffic Ranking, pitifully — I find it important to consider what is being sought for online (keywords on Google) and finding a way to incorporate it in tags and blog posts. As such, the publisher of online literature in Africa must ensure that the zine is not treated simply as art, or literature. There is the psychology of the internet which must be put into consideration, perhaps an exaptation as Stephen Jay Gould refers to music in response to the vexed problem of nonadaptative changes — which suggests we have a new behavioural pattern that is not innate in response to the internet. As publishers, we must consider this new form of adaptation, and respond to its challenges. We cannot depend on links on Twitter and Facebook alone to spread our word online — there is the power of search engines which can be used for our benefit. Except, of course, we are only concerned with showcasing the work of new writers that should not be seen, or we want to be visible to a tiny republic.

But most of what is required needs to be achieved with sizeable income. I do not know of any literary outfit in Africa that makes profit — and I forget to ask Ivor Hartman if the first (print) edition of African Roar made profit (there are indications that it did not, since the forthcoming edition is an e-book). We do not pay our contributors, because there are no sales on the website, not even adverts, which we often solicit for, are yielding fruit. Saraba hopes to apply for a grant next year — but from whom? Most grantors are non-African, and are increasingly hard to find. Not many people donate to the magazine. I can only think of two donations since Saraba was founded (I cannot say for other outfits). While we are intent on publishing print issues, the average amount needed is about five hundred thousand naira (approx. $3,500), and neither myself nor Damilola Ajayi, or any of our editors, can pull off that amount.  I am certain that if this challenge is overhauled, we can make reasonable progress in our work.

Yet, I am pleased with a number of glimmers that have appeared in the last five years — as a matter of fact, most of us (Saraba, Sentinel Nigeria, Story Time) are less than five years old. But then, there is Naija Stories, which for me represents Africa’s finest attempt to ensure a literary social network. The site appears to be a conversation, an exchange between writers and enthusiasts that otherwise will be sidelined. And there are the contests run by Naija Stories too (I won one of the contests in 2010, and I am shortlisted for the ongoing one; vote for me!).

The Naija Stories example points to the absoluteness I speak about. My head is swirling with ideas of iPad apps that can help African literature, or how Saraba can be published for Kindle users, or mobile phone literature, etc. etc. More or less, surely can create a keitai shoestsu for Africa? There are infinite possibilities, not infinite challenges.

The lesson we are learning, those of us whose passion have outlived insufficiency and ignorance, is that with consistency, prolificness, resilience, and foresight, we can create for Africa a contemporarily unique literary experience. We are yet to make a presence; the idea is that we are in motion — making — and we will not stop. As I am write this, I think of those writers who are making the sacrifice — Ivor Hartman, Emmanuel Siguake, Richard Ali, Damilola Ajayi, Myne Whitman, etc. etc. And I am freed from all despair.