Text of contribution to a panel discussion on "Conditions of Production for Writing and Publishing in Africa" at a postgraduate seminar, Faculty of English, University of Cambridge, 1 February 2006, revised for a SCOLMA seminar with the present title at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, 21March, 2006.
Quite apart from claims made for Cyprian Ekwensi as the first Nigerian to publish a full-length novel in "modern English" (that is his 1954 novel, People of The City), it is generally accepted that Amos Tutuola's The Palm-wine Drinkard was the first novel in any variety of English to be published by a Nigerian. That novel was incidentally published in 1952 by Faber and Faber in the UK. Perhaps this has not after all turned out to be a good omen for publishing in Nigeria. And it seems to me that the history of the production of that text and the implications of that history are pivotal, as they clearly illustrate the centrality of the production and circulation of literary works and scholarly materials in the very concept of postcolonial literatures.
Incidentally, in the same decade that The Palm-wine Drinkard was published, Nigeria had experienced what, from this distance, could be regarded as an early boom in its publishing industry. In the eastern town of Onitsha, what some commentators have justifiably referred to as a literary revolution had taken place: the phenomenal generation and production of a popular form of literature later to be characterised as Onitsha Market Literature. In his pioneering work on this literature, Emmanuel Obiechina (Onitsha Market Literature 1972), and Ernest Emenyonu, following several years after (The Rise of the lgbo Novel 1978), highlight the factors that made Onitsha the setting of the extraordinary generation and production of such an enormous corpus of literature: its strategic location on the left bank of the River Niger, as the base of the earliest European missionary and commercial activities in eastern Nigeria, and thus later as the educational and commercial centre of Eastern Nigeria and the influence of lgbo pioneer politicians. Obiechina observes that by the late 1950s several hundreds of titles (among them Cyprian Ekwensi's 1947 works, When Love Whispers and Ikolo the Wrestler and Other lgbo Tales) had been published by firms based in Onitsha. In every sense, this was a remarkable event with the real potential and promise of a vibrant flourishing publishing culture that was hardly fulfilled.
Noting that publishing is one of the most unregulated and undercapitalized industries in Nigeria today, the Nigerian novelist, Chukwuemeka Ike, traces its collapse after what seemed an auspicious beginning to the economic downturn experienced by the country in the 1980s. Ike underscores the dominant roles of such foreign publishing companies as Oxford University Press, Longman, Macmillan, Heinemann, Evans; he observes that given the 1978 Nigerian Enterprises Promotion Decree which provided that at least 60% equity participation in book publishing must be by Nigerian nationals, these had reduced foreign equity participation to 40% or less and that some of them indeed took new names, Oxford University Press for example becoming University Press PIc. Through the efforts of these companies and several other capable, fully indigenous publishing companies, some Nigerian writing is read in print and the work of major Nigerian writers published abroad is reissued in the country, even if it often takes years. (It took Heinemann Nigeria a decade to offer Isidore Opkewho's novel, Tides, to the Nigerian audience). But on the whole the larger proportion of current writing in Nigeria is produced by much smaller under- capitalised companies desperately deprived of modern efficient infrastructure and adequately trained staff just as they are of funds, as well as studies of reading habits that could guide their production and circulation of texts. "Assessment of manuscripts" is thus restricted to the narrow evaluation of the cost of production, a substantial part of which the author is usually expected to pay in advance. …