Pop-lit and the Literature Market
In any free market economy, the underlying assumption is that consumer demands form the basis of market creation and sustenance. That is to say, if there is demand for a product, suppliers will meet it at the most convenient price to maximize profitability while competing effectively. In the case of literature, the classic selling price of £7.99 (N2,800) for books represents a tough ask for the habitual African reader who usually goes through about three books a month. Not to mention, there is the rise of reading on electronic devices and an array of books now available for free online to compete with.
The relative dearth of bookshops in Nigeria, and probably other African nations, has long since been the reason for the non-availability of books, even when the willingness to read is present. I for one, remember growing up in Onitsha and having only one bookshop about the size of three toilet cubicles to select from. As a lover of books, words cannot express my joy walking into Waterstones in Harrow, UK, to learn that the shop was so stocked with books, that they couldn’t be contained on one floor alone. For the first time, I had the luxury of an extensive choice, and this meant I could try my hands on genres previously unavailable to me, like fantasy fiction and sci-fi. Today, any African child with a connected tablet device can also be spoilt for choice from comfort of his bedroom.
While for the child and any other book lover, this is certainly a step in the right direction, we have to ask ourselves what it means for African literature. In a larger market space, African literature, which focuses largely on themes that hope to teach before entertaining, will struggle against the likes of what one may call “pop-lit” aimed at simply delighting readers. Considering that young people, especially in Africa, form the majority of the reading culture, the appeal of pop-lit cannot be overstated.
Naturally, classics like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and contemporary masterpieces like Chimamanda Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun will always grab market attention. But such books are simply unable to compete with even the Mills and Boon series, a quick glance at the reading habits of the average female teen will confirm. This means Africa will have to start producing it’s version of pop-lit if we hope to build a market for literature that doesn’t majorly consist of foreign books. Abroad, it is no secret that the Twlight series and books like 50 Shades of Grey leave more critically acclaimed literary works like Ian McEwan’s On Chelis Beach in the dust as far as sales are concerned.
This stark reality leaves us potentially with a scenario where we might be facing cultural depreciation, which can have detrimental effects of societal standards and lead to decadence. Some strongly argue that the catering of literary art towards base consumer needs as is popular in the film industry Nollywood and on the Nigerian pop music scene, will kill its integrity. Granted, the quality of African literature will suffer with the emergence of a mass market aimed at popular demand, but juxtaposed against foreign books satisfying this mass demand, without any domestic competition, it appears the decision of publishing houses and writers to explore pop-lit has already been made. Perhaps, the best we can do now is create platforms to ensure critically acclaimed literature gets due credit and reaches broader audiences for the best chance at increased commercial success.