Africa’s not for sissies is an oft-repeated phrase, but is Africa for authors?
The lists of renowned African authors contain all too familiar names. Why does it seem that the depth of our selection of authors is perhaps less than that of the other continents? Why do we seem to produce less authors, or is that a misconception bred from biased media coverage? Let’s have a look at what it means to be an African author.
Who are the famous African authors?
A quick search from Google returns names such as:
- Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Purple Hibiscus.
- Ayi Kwei Armah, author of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.
- Mariama Bâ, author of So Long A Letter.
- Nadine Gordimer, author of Burger’s Daughter.
- Ben Okri, author of The Famished Road.
However these name are quoted a bit too often, they fall short of depicting a wealth of African writing-talent. By-and-large our famous writers also seem to focus on a similar theme of sadness and struggle. What I was hoping for was a list longer than the popular click-bait-numbered lists of “The top 10”, or “The top 3”. Authors that showcased a writing skill across a diverse list of genres such as of romance, fantasy and hey, why not some erotica too. I was looking for those writers that lift the readers into a different world, not those whose writing continues the stereotype of an inhospitable and scary continent.
That list was harder to find.
The slow penetration of digital.
It should not surprise the reader that authors from Africa do not yet fully understand and embrace the online ecosystem of an eBook megastore such as Amazon. On a continent where internet access is sparse at best, writing falls low on the list of Maslow’s list, somewhere after clean drinking water and access to a bed. African writers naturally favour printed books over anything electronic and distribution of an author’s books is normally a door-to-door affair, carried out within the surrounding communities. I would wager the African writers could teach their American and European counterparts a thing or two about leveraging community support.
That said, the electronic revolution of the book has reached our sunny shores. A growing community of authors are dipping their toes in the cold water of the Amazon pool whilst others have jumped right in.
So, with access to internet on the increase, what are some of the reasons why we are not hearing more African-Amazon success stories? Here is what we are up against.
Ashamed of your name?
Many African writers are gifted with names that might as well appear as a final question in your high school’s Spelling Bee. I won’t go into why we use these names suffice to say that if the prospective reader struggles to pronounce the author’s name, perhaps they fear that this verbiage somehow infects the author’s writing.
The stigma of African and other non-familiar author names means that many of our authors make the decision to write under a pseudonym to cater for foreign readers who shy away at the sight of a double-barreled name using too many vowels in strange places.
This embarrassment of our African names means that there might already be successful and celebrated authors who, fearing the stigma of an African name cannot unmask their writing.
A broken postal service - How to receive your royalties in Africa?
Without earning royalties, would an author continue writing? If a disheartened author stops writing, what are their chances of becoming a success story?
Amazon’s default method of sending author royalties to those denizens of the Dark Continent, from townships of Johannesburg to sprawling cities of Kenya, is via posted check. Posted checks don’t work well in Africa. I could fill pages on the shortfalls of our postal services, needless to say, that rampant corruption and severe inefficiency of the postal sector result in an author with empty hands.
Authors from the US, UK and Europe are able to insert their banking details directly into Amazon. So how do African authors even the odds?
How to get paid, the African way.
Authors looking to reduce reliance on their respective postal services should look into using an online service such as Payoneer. Using this online-based banking service, an author living in Africa is able to open a banking account electronically in America. Amazon happily accepts these banking details and transfers the authors’ earnings directly. The author can then link a local bank account and transfer funds from the Payoneer account into their local bank.
A word of caution. I use the Payoneer service to receive my royalties directly from Amazon and can vouch for the effectiveness of the platform. I do know that the support for the Payoneer service varies according to each country. I would recommend contacting Payoneer directly to see if your particular country is supported.
For author’s wondering if PayPal will help them, sorry, Amazon and PayPal are not on speaking terms.
ITIN – What?
This metaphorical thorn in the author’s side is courtesy of the taxman.
Once the author has embraced the ease of Amazon and is enjoying some modicum of success, royalties will be earned. Before Amazon releases royalties to the author, it needs to know how the author intends to pay the tax on the earnings of eBook sales.
Authors living in the US would have a SSN (social security number) and would dance through the Amazon Tax Interview with little trouble. Authors living across the ocean, however, will find that unless their country has a tax agreement or treaty with the US, they will have a portion of their royalties withheld and fed to the IRS. This is an automated process, which very few international authors ever do anything about.
So how do we stop Amazon from taking 30% of our royalties?
The important point to highlight here is you cannot escape paying taxes on your earnings as an author. All you can do is reduce the 30% Amazon withholds. The ideal situation is having Amazon pay the author fully, up to 70% of the eBook list price. We can then settle the relevant taxes with our local tax-collection institutions. This means that we are able to offset the taxes paid with the expenses incurred in producing your book.
Armed with nought but your income tax number, authors from countries who have tax agreements with the US can trigger the release of all royalties to the author. This important update is made when setting up your Amazon KDP account, in what is called the Tax Interview.
For example, living in South Africa I am able to reduce the 30% to 0%. Here is the video showing you how I do it.
The alternative to benefiting from Amazon’s online tax interview is manually completing the paperwork needed for an ITIN (International Tax Identification Number.) This process is a painful one; I have yet to hear an author call this process anything but unpleasant.
Sharks that catch unwary authors.
This issue is not unique to Africa’s shores. However, I feel as a continent that is technologically naive we are more at risk of authors falling for a smooth-talking salesman promising an author instant success. The comments found at the end of my post warning authors about the predatory tactics of infamous vanity press, Author Solutions, should make authors think twice before opening their wallets for nothing but a promise.
Our local shark picking off straggling authors deep in the publishing waters is Partridge Africa; you have been warned.
For authors looking to better protect themselves from dirty and dishonest peddlers of sub-standard services, please visit the Writer’s Beware blog, often.
Taxed for reading
Reading through the International Publishers Association 2015 report on the tax levied on print and eBooks formats around the world it becomes apparent that there is no clear strategy from African countries with regards to reducing the burden of sales tax levied on the reader.
To quote from the report:
The map reveals some distinct regional approaches towards VAT/GST on printed books. Within the European Union, only Denmark and Bulgaria apply full VAT/GST, while the UK and Ireland are the only countries to apply a zero rate. In Latin America, Chile is the only country to apply full VAT/GST, while the norm across the continent is to apply zero-rate. In Africa and Asia, in contrast, there is no standard regional approach.
Amazons internal biases
When Amazon sneezes, authors feel an earthquake. The whims of the world’s largest eBook retailer have consequences for authors globally, here are common gripes from authors that are unique to countries outside of the US/ UK and Europe.
Lack of support for indigenous languages
Unless your book is written in a supported language, you will be stopped at the door. Whilst Amazon does have a growing Foreign Language section, they remain mum on how they decide when a given language reaches critical mass and is allowed as an option when publishing on the KDP platform. It would be great if the selection criteria were more transparent, as this would help readers and authors lobby for inclusion.
70% royalties that are out of reach
Amazon pays authors up to 70% of an eBook list price in royalties. This is well known. What is not as well known is that many African authors promoting their eBook to readers in their home countries will only ever earn 35%.
That’s right, US author sells the eBook in the US (within the prescribed price range) and earns 70%. African author sells his eBook to a fellow African and earns 35%. Feels like we are writing from the back foot, doesn’t it? If your country does not appear on Amazon’s 70% list, eBook purchases from your home country can only ever earn you 35% in royalties.
The Amazon Whispernet Surcharge.
I wrote a detailed blog post on Amazon’s Whispernet Surcharge here. This was a $2 surcharge added on the list price of an eBook for readers from certain countries. So the eBook was more expensive than the author intended AND the author did not receive any extra royalty from the inflated sales price.
I am excited to see that I my recent eBook purchases have not been inflated by the $2 surcharge. This might not be true for all other countries and I would love feedback from African readers if they see this surcharge affecting the price of their eBook purchases.
Amazon is helping authors, just not equally.
I really have no doubt that without Amazon; the world of eBooks would be sadder place. They have dominated the market for years and I don’t see why this will change in the years to come. Love them or hate them I don’t think that anyone can disagree that Amazon does put the reader first. Lower prices for eBooks, exciting programs like Kindle Unlimited and incredibly intelligent Algorithms whose only job is to recommend the most relevant books to readers all come together to create an immersive environment for the reader.
My gripe with Amazon is really that they create these awesome platforms that then exclude Africans from most of them. Don’t believe me?
Kindle Scout – A unique platform for self-publishing authors vying to win a publishing contract from Amazon. Authors whose manuscripts attract enough attention from readers will be given a publishing contract with Amazon with an actual monetary advance. Oh, only if they are written in English. Sorry.
ACX - The Great platform from Amazon puts authors directly in touch with voice artists and helps to facilitate audiobooks production. These audiobooks are then listed on the Amazon-owned shop Audible. Live outside of the US or UK? Sorry.
I have a dream
I dream of an equal publishing landscape where readers and authors from each and every continent are given equal opportunity to the abundance that is associated with an online environment. I would love to learn yoga from a best-selling Bengali writer from Bangladesh.
How long will the monopoly that Amazon has on the market for digital books continue to keep them oblivious to an obvious plethora of writers from the third world?