Africans Do Read: The JJ Bola Effect

Let’s begin like this. It is 14:00hrs Kampala time and we are still outside Entebbe airport.  Our Writivism guest, writer JJ. Bola, landed ten minutes back and should be worried already. But the fleet of cars ahead of us squeezes out the little hope in us. We are not about to enter. Lewis is on the steering but it is as though I am the one driving. I always get this crazy, especially while watching Arsenal play. My legs and body always move with the ball as though I am also on the pitch. And I play all the numbers. I start visualizing our car flying over the rest into the Entebbe airport parking lot. I am beginning to sweat and heave.

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‘Calm down, these people also understand these things,’ Lewis, who chauffeurs most of our guests, says when he sees my worried look.

‘Man, we need a way out. He must be waiting for us already.’

I call Roland, our logistics person, to ask for JJ’s phone contact which I dial, but it does not go through. I send a voice message to apologize for the delay and assure him that we are outside the airport, we shall pick him in a while.

Thirty minutes later and we have not moved an inch. Our shortlisted writer, Charles King has also arrived at the airport. I call Esther, the person who has been communicating with the guests up until now, to send me Charles’ contact. We need to communicate over this delay. She can only provide his email. My Huawei shuts down as soon as she sends it. There is nothing I can do.

At 14:45hrs, we (finally!) enter the airport and rush to the Arrivals. We cannot trace any of the writers. We have only seen them in photos. If JJ doesn’t remove his papal cap, we shall find him. But for King, we need to retrieve the photo, which Lewis finds. We have their names on a big paper but the swarm of people at the airport makes it pointless. They will have to rely on our Writivism T-shirts.

JJ gets out of the Arrival exit at 15:10hrs. We recognize him at first sight and I rush to give him a Ugandan welcome. The customs have already given him one. He says that it’s at least better than the Congolese customs. He, in fact, promises to write a story titled ‘Airport Envy’. We take him aside and inform him that we are also waiting for King who should have arrived countless minutes ago. He is willing to wait with us instead of being taken to the car.

He tries accessing the airport Wi-Fi but, as much as he wants to update his Twitter and Facebook statuses on how he is in Uganda, it is a pain trying to connect. He resigns trying.

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We stand waiting while I engage him on several writerly aspects and his own life. I have read a few things about him in online interviews. His basket-baller height dwarfs me. As our conversation progresses, I get interested in reading his book.

We have been standing for an hour now. JJ needs to rest. I offer to stay and wait for King and let Lewis take him to the car. A few two minutes after, Charles appears. I rush him to the car and we set off for the hotel.

I should have recorded the 36 miles drive from Entebbe to Kansanga. The conversations we have on Ugandanness, Africanism and Diasporic life are mind-blowing. Charles expresses interest in reading ‘No Place to Call Home’. Lewis too.

Three books are already bought before the Festival begins. And you don’t want to believe what happened to Bola’s books in the four festival days.

‘No Place to Call Home’ sold out in the first two days of the Writivism festival. ‘So what?’, you may be asking.

But if you have taken your books to a literary festival before, you can attest to the frustration of coming out with no or negligible sales. ‘Africans don’t read,’ you console yourself after retiring back home.

African writer, given what I observed during the festival, Africans read and they actually buy the books. The problem is with you, the writer, and your publisher.

Maybe I should also let you know that Bola came with the biggest number of books to the festival. And that we had many other books. But his sold out two days before the end of the festival. Why?

I think there are a few lessons we need to learn from him.

Yes, I understand that being an African writer is no easy task. It comes with a status. But er, be humble. JJ, apart from talking with everyone so easily, also kept on asking the festival team if they needed help. As much as we tried to say no (because you don’t let your visitors in the kitchen), JJ did actually run around to ensure everything was okay anyway.

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At the festival, I was in charge of the Writivism Book Stall. I was overwhelmed by the way people told me to keep copies of JJ’s book for them before it is sold out. Whereas some knew the author, many didn’t even know the title. Actually, some neither knew the title nor the author. They used descriptions to identify the author of the book they wanted. By Day Two of the festival, more than half the books were already sold and the remaining ones had been booked. What was it about Bola’s book? How did people get to know about his book?

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JJ Bola and a Gayaza High School student. Photo by Zahara Abdul

The answer came tumbling before my eyes. Bola chose to attend all the festival events from which he made many friends. These are the people that were buying and booking his book. And instead of going out to look for his friends living in Uganda, he called them to the festival. Their coming increased not only his book sales but also for other writers that had brought their books to the festival. He even called his aunt who was in Congo to come over to the festival.

And then came his social media strategy. I doubt that there is any of JJ’s social media followers who didn’t know he was in Uganda. Besides creating a pre-festival FOMO, his social media platforms beamed with live updates of the festival events. How does this help? Some of the people came to buy the book at the recommendation of JJ’s followers. African writer, you have to unwind the Lazarus cloth of privacy around you and create accessibility. Make naked your movements- you are in the marketplace. Some writers came and went back without anyone on their social media knowing that they were attending the Writivism Festival in Uganda. There is this Ugandan saying that he who sells by showcasing never makes losses.

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Anyway, what do I know? Just three days of selling books and I want to claim mastery over the trade. Look at me!

But seriously the writer is at the heart of his or her book sales. Overprice the book and you will get book admirers, not buyers. Can you imagine that even when Bola’s book had a hardback and actually one of the finest paper qualities, it was one of the cheapest books we had?! Your publisher needs to learn how to negotiate this market dilemma. Unlike in the past, publishers are increasingly withdrawing from marketing their published writers’ books.

Left with only two of Bola’s books on the third day, we decided to make a package of five books, a Writivism T-shirt, notebook and five bookmarks at a subsidized price. And because Bola’s book was part of the package, the two packages sold out. We had to write down emails of those who came looking for the book on the last day of the festival. They left with disappointed faces for not being able to own a copy.

African writer, if a publisher can’t sponsor you to a festival, can’t create a better marketing strategy for your book and then he wants to overprice your book, why can’t you do all else it takes to market your book?

 

 

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