Friday, January 20, 2017

Literary Agents Can Accelerate Publishing in Africa

Literary agents are not a common sight on the African literary landscape but their numbers are now increasing and their impact is palpable. In fact, some of the continent’s most recognizable authors are represented by agents. Apart from massive international  agencies, like Blake Friedmann (London) and  The Wylie Agency (London / New York), indigenous agencies, like Van Aggelen and Lesleigh Kenya are also signing up African talents.

Van Aggelen African Literary Agency describes itself as a ‘boutique literary agency’ that is interested in ‘African fiction and non-fiction books and high quality cook books’. Lesleigh Kenya, which was jointly founded by writers/journalists Beth Nduta and Linda Musita, is a literary and art agency based in Nairobi. It was founded in December 2011 and has thus far helped publish the works of such  writers as Jo Alkemade (Belonging in Africa) and Mwangi Gituro (Lil' Kanji and the Falling Sun). Essentially, the job of an agent is to represent authors to publishers but in late 2015, Lesleigh Kenya took one step further and published a short story and poetry anthology themselves! The slim book is entitled The Fifth Draft and contains short stories and poems from a slew of emerging writers, including Mwangi Gituro, Euticus Mola, Rayhab Gachango, Maimouna Jallo and Mwende Ngao.

In 2012, a New York agent flew youthful Kenyan author Babior Newton to the US for a meeting after reading a manuscript the 20-year-old sent to him.  Babior had previously published a book entitled The Betrayed Nation in Kenya. He then sought an agent, sending out numerous letters to agents, two of whom responded, and one of the two arranged the US visit.

In 2014, UK literary agent David Godwin (credited with ‘discovering’ India’s Arundhati Roy) visited Uganda where he interacted with numerous authors, including the renowned FEMRITE Readers/Writers Club. David Godwin Associates Ltd (DGA) represents such African heavyweights as Nii Ayikwei Parkes (Ghana), Helon Habila (Nigeria), Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) and Doreen Baingana (Uganda). Uganda, a land-locked east African nation with a population of about 37 million, has no literary agents. As you might expect, aspiring authors turned up in large numbers to meet and greet the affable Godwin who, incidentally, previously worked for the three publishers: Heinemann, Secker and Warburg, and Jonathan Cape. David Godwin said that he was looking for books with ‘good voices and good stories’ and gave advice on writing query letters and approaching agents, among other things. Godwin's other clients include Vikram Seth, Aravind Adiga, Kiran Desai, William Dalrymple and Jeet Thayil. Below is a video of him speaking at a literary event in Kolkata, India:


One advantage of having an agent is that they usually know a lot about publishing and therefore make better proposals/pitches to publishers than authors (most of whom who consider themselves ‘artists’, not business people). In an online interview, American literary agent Michael Larsen explained the publishers’ point of view: ‘Publishing must tread the tightrope between art and commerce. Publishers want books they can publish with pride and with passion but to survive, they must publish books that sell.’ Larsen (whose agency has sold books to more than 100 publishers) is also a consultant to non-fiction writers, and the author of How to Write a Book Proposal and How to Get a Literary Agent.

Another agency active in Africa is the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency whose director, Isobel Dixon, says their clients have won ‘all the major South African literary awards’.  But the elephant bounding through the African literary savannah is The Wylie Agency. The super-agency has an international client list that sounds like a who’s who of famous writers and their African client portfolio is also impressive. It includes Chimamanda Adichie (Nigeria), the estate of Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe), Teju Cole (Nigeria/USA), Taiye Selasi (Ghana/Nigera), Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenya), Yvonne Owuor (Kenya), E. C. Osondu (Nigeria) and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (Ghana). The firm also represents British author/journalist Michela Wrong whose Africa-centred books include In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, It’s Our Turn to Eat and, most recently, Borderlines.  Chimamanda Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah (published in 2013 by Alfred A. Knopf), was a smash hit and landed the 2013 US National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Elsewhere, Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Books) has announced that it will publish a new book by Caine Prize winner Binyavanga Wainaina, entitled It Is Only a Matter of Acceleration Now, in 2019.

Even though the publishing industry worldwide is being rocked by the winds of change, agent Michael Larsen remains optimistic:

‘Now is the most exciting time ever to be alive, and it’s the best time ever to be a writer…The age of information is also the age of the writer. There are more subjects write about, more media, more agents, more options for getting your books published, more ways to learn about writing and publishing, more ways to promote your books and profit from them than ever before.’

Without a doubt, the surface of Africa’s literary potential has barely been scratched. For a continent of 1.1 billion people - containing the oldest civilizations, the deepest gene pool, some of the goriest conflicts, and the greatest natural wonders - Africa is a potential goldmine for both fiction and non-fiction stories. Thanks to improved technology and communications, ‘new voices’ are emerging from the world’s second-largest continent on an almost monthly basis. And literary agents, those most important talent scouts, are beginning to take notice. As in the Binyanvanga book title, ‘it is only a matter of acceleration now.’

Literary Agents Database by 'Poets & Writers' magazine: http://www.pw.org/literary_agents?perpage=*

Author website: www.AlexanderNderitu.com

2 comments: