May 23, 2010

13 Questions for A. Igoni Barrett | Author Interview

Igoni Barrett is the author of the short story collection, From Caves of Rotten Teeth and was previously the managing editor of Farafina, one of Nigeria’s most vibrant publishing houses. He is partnering with the Silverbird Lifestyle store to produce the BookJam series that brings together writers and their book reading audiences. The fourth edition of this event was held on the 22nd of May, 2010, had Chimamanda Adichie, Sade Adeniran, Chuma Nwokolo, and Binyavanga Wainaina in attendance as the events guest writers. Here he is in an interview with Incessant Scribble. Enjoy!
1. The BookJam events are becoming more popular among book readers. How did this series begin?
The idea for the BookJam came to me during the “9 Writers, 4 Cities” book tour that I organized in 2009. The success of the tour readings, the fact that the audience responded enthusiastically to the presence on the podium of several writers from different genres and “generations”—if I may use that word—was the germ of the idea. There was also the realization that if I wanted to continue with such programmes I would as a matter of necessity have to find a sponsor who had something to gain other than the goodwill of readers. From thereon in my task was straightforward. To my mind there were only three groups I could approach with this idea: writers, publishers and booksellers. So I approached the publishers and said, ‘Look, you have produced these books and I have an idea that will help you promote them”. And to the bookseller I said, “You have this beautiful store and all these books to sell—my idea will bring in the writers to promote the books and the people to buy them up”. After I received some supportive noises from both parties, I sat down and drew up a format that I felt was best suited to achieve the goals I’d set. And christened it the BookJam.
2. Are there any plans to expand the event to other cities?
Yes there are. One of the reasons I chose Silverbird to work with was because they are in the process of developing a chain of bookstores across Africa. There are ongoing plans to have BookJams in every one of the Silverbird stores. I also believe that any good idea will travel, will evolve. So it’s my hope that one day, sooner than later, universities, secondary and primary schools, libraries, book clubs, village bookshops even, across Africa, will organise their own BookJams. I also hope they will take the format and turn it into something I couldn’t have foreseen. When that happens, if it does, we can begin to talk of success.
3. With the BookJam @ Silverbird you bring writers to their readers. I find it very impressive that admission is free despite all the time and effort that must go into planning, organizing and hosting these events. Clearly Silverbird and your guest writers have been very supportive and generous. Is this trend sustainable? We would all hate to see this vehicle die out.
Admission to the BookJam is free only because it doesn’t make any economic sense to charge our audience. About 70 to 100 people attend each event. What fee can we charge that number of people that isn’t too high for the average Nigerian and yet generates real money for our budgetary needs? 100 naira, 500? The 50 thousand naira we might hope to raise from a gate fee is not worth the risk of having a poorly attended event. The day we have 500 people attend the BookJam, we will consider the possibility of ticket sales.
I should also mention here that though Silverbird and the publishers and authors have indeed been very supportive, we should bear in mind that everybody gets something from this. The BookJam is not a CSR venture; it was devised as a profit-making initiative. The booksellers get publicity and sell books. Ditto the publishers. The audience gets entertained. Even I get something. I like to think of it as enlightened self-interest. As far as I know, that is the only way this sort of programme can ever be sustained—at least without NGO money.
Speaking of support: the BookJam wouldn’t be where it is today without the input of people like Anwuli Ojogwu, who moderates the programme and manages the publicity for each event through Auggust Media, and Sola Kuti of, who’s the brilliant designer of the BookJam posters. And there’s QF Photos, which handles the photography for each event. Silverbird Lifestyle store is of course the Maecenas of this project: they provide the budget, the venue, the media firepower.
4. The “9 Writers 4 Cities: The Book Tour” was wonderful. Is that something we will see more of?
Not in the near future. Not except some major corporation or government body decides to sponsor it. To ensure the book tour was a success all the participating writers very kindly put in their time and money, but as the initiator I had to put in more money and time than most. I’m still recovering from that. That’s not to say I regret the experience—without the “9 Writers, 4 Cities” book tour, there wouldn’t be the BookJam today.
5. Recently your short story collection, From Caves of Rotten Teeth, was published. How did it feel to be on the other side of things: sending in your manuscript, waiting for feedback, and working with editors?
My book was published in 2005 and rereleased in 2008. My father, Lindsay Barrett, was the assessor, editor, and publisher. Since its publication I’ve set up an online magazine, I’ve worked as a magazine editor, as a book editor, as an organiser of literary events, as a workshop facilitator—I’ve dirtied my hands in the engine of publishing, so to speak. Whatever feelings I had at the time have been superseded by the realities of the publishing landscape in my beloved country.
6. No doubt you get the “How do I get published?” question a lot. What is your response now based on your personal and professional experiences? Should writers just mail in unsolicited manuscripts? What steps should unpublished writers take?
This advice won’t work for everyone, but it worked for me and many other writers I know. Prove yourself; send your work—short stories, novel excerpts, and poems— to literary magazines, online and print, renowned or obscure. When you get published it builds your confidence, and your résumé.
7. There are many Nigerian authors making their debut on the literary scene. Do you think a lot of these new titles will be read many years from now? Is the quality of work improving or do we still have a lot of work to do in the way we tell our stories?
A few of these books will become canonical, and many won’t. It’s the way of the world. The number of writers producing quality work as has undoubtedly increased, as has the number of writers producing forgettable material. There’s always more work to be done.
8. Self-publishing is a route a lot of people take for varied reasons in their bid to get their books out to an audience. What are your views on self-publishing?
It’s a problematic route. The majority of writers who choose that option are not quite ready to face the rigour of the intelligent reader, and even when a talented writer self-publishes, he or she is most times denied the processes that are required to produce a well-finished book.
9. Have we progressed to the point where writers can live off proceeds and royalty from their literary works?
We don’t need to “progress” to that point—it has always been there, even in the times of the griots and the renaissance poet-dramatists. But same as in any other worldly enterprise, the summit is only meant for a few. There are only a small number of writers who can live comfortably off the proceeds of their art. The rest of us can either look and envy, or strive and hope for a bit of luck.
10. What steps are being taken by the industry to combat piracy?
Wider distribution. Better promotion. Lower prices. It will be a long and dirty fight, and in this one the good guys, unfortunately, are not promised victory.
11. What do you think the Nigerian publishing industry and our indigenous writers need the most?
One area where I think the publishing industry needs support is in the provision of basic infrastructure. Better roads, better schools, constant power—the issues faced by every business in Nigeria. As a writer, I would be happy to have some local writers’ retreat where I could live and write for many months without worrying about where the next meal will come from. But that’s just me.
12. Most times readers complain about how hard it is to find Nigerian titles. A lot of the time these books are available only in the big book stores, which is not where the bulk of our audience is. Why don’t publishing houses have a larger network of stores they distribute to so that the common man on the street who can’t drive to the fancy stores in Lekki, Ikoyi and other affluent areas, will have access to these books?
The publisher’s primary task is to produce books. The bookseller’s job is to sell them. In the UK, Random House doesn’t sell books, WH Smith does. So the question shouldn’t be directed at Nigerian publishers, who’ve done their job. It should be directed at the bookshops in Ajegunle and Borokiri and Gusau, which have refused to seek out the books, to order and stock them. As a book buyer, I’ve asked. The answer I get most times is that there aren’t enough readers amongst “the common man on the street” to make it worthwhile for them to stock anything other than the fastest-selling educational and religious titles.
13. What’s your favorite way to unwind after a long hard day?


  1. Had never heard of him; interesting...

  2. I'm glad you found it interesting. Thanks.

  3. This is one interview I've looked forward to, Igoni seems a very private person. Kudos to him on the BookJam concept and I hope it stays around for a long time and propagates like he hopes.

  4. @Myne
    Thanks. I share your sentiments. I hope Igoni and his BookJam events get the attention they rightly deserve.

  5. Igoni was right about saying that it is not the responsibility of the publisher to promote books but that of the bookseller. I will also add here that it is very important that the reader also makes sacrifices in the area of getting the latest titles he wants to read. In my own case, in spite of the fact that I was in Ikorodu, where I had come for a visit from Osun State, I still found the time to attend the 3rd edition of the Bookjam, and comfort to expend my hard-earned savings as a student on books at the Lifestyle store in Silverbird Galleria- this just a path of making sacrifices as a reader.

  6. @Strong Self

    True. I am really glad he explained that issue. I know exactly what you mean by going the extra mile to get the books you want. I think most of us who are truly interested in these books go that extra mile. Thanks a lot for leaving a comment. I've got another really interesting interview coming up soon so check back often.


  7. @Baroka
    Thank you very much. I'm glad you liked it and cared enough to leave a comment.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Congratulatios to Igoni on the Book Jam. I'm certain in the near future, i'll be one of the participating authors in the event. Good interview; Osundo. Things are looking bright.

  10. @ House of a million minds

    It would be great for you to invest your time into the BookJam vehicle. Kudos to that. Thanks for commenting.

  11. Very interesting interview and the questions are really apt... a very good blog, congrats Osondu

  12. @Isaac Anyaogu

    Thank you very, very much Isaac.