Myne Whitman is a Nigerian author, currently based in Seattle, USA, who has self-published two books – A Heart to Mend (2009) and A Love Rekindled (2011). A trained scientist, Whitman holds a Masters degree in Public Health Research. She decided to follow her passion, and, in addition to her published work, she runs her own blog – mynewhitmanwrites.com, and a website – NaijaStories.com, which promotes upcoming Nigerian authors. In 2011, she was selected among the 50 Nigerians who made a Difference in 2011 by the country’s Nation Newspaper for her work promoting Nigerian literature.
In this interview with Africa Book Club, Whitman talks about her self-publishing experience and her remarkable success in using social media to promote her work.
Tell us about yourself and your journey to becoming a full-time writer.
I’ve been writing for a very long time, well, since I was about 11 or so. Unfortunately, most of those scribbles were lost when we moved cities. I started writing seriously around my third year in university, took a break for work and further studies and, now, writing is my full time career.
The decision to send my work out into the world matured aroud the middle of 2009. I had just moved to the United States and being unable to work at first, I began writing full time, initially for six months. I joined a writing group, started a blog, and people seemed to like what I had to write about. Eventually, I made up my mind to pursue this full time writing career and see where it took me.
What is your latest book about?
A Love Rekindled differs from my first book A Heart to Mend in that it spans a longer period of time. Readers will be transported to the years at the turn of the millenium and to the days of first love and loss. The two books are similar in that they are set in Nigeria and are about people dealing with issues of love, family, and personal development.
In A Love Rekindled, Efe is an independent woman who returns to Nigeria ready to face the future, after years in the United States. However, it is the past that she first has to confront when her former fiance, Kevwe, comes back into her life claiming he’s never stopped loving her. He has to unravel the mystery of their broken engagement before she is willing to rekindle their love.
The book I’m working on now is about a woman who has just clocked the big 30 and has to determine whether marriage is the next step in her life as everyone one around her expects. Being seduced by a local lothario during a vacation to Nigeria does not make this decision any easier.
Why the focus on romance novels? Is there really a market for African romance literature?
I prefer to refer to my writing as romantic fiction. Many of my readers have commented on how my style is less sappy than your usual romance. It has also been described as a marriage of literary and pulp fiction.
I do write about the romantic experiences of the hero and heroine in my story, and frame them against the background of a realistic day-to-day life setting. My stories are set in Nigeria where I grew up and lived for most of my life. My language is simple and direct, accented by the tones of local people in the Nigerian setting but adapted for an international audience. My target audience is international, anyone who has ever loved or felt emotions as they interacted with other people.
When I started A Heart to Mend as an 18 year old, I had at the back of my mind, not only the loads of Mills & Boon romances, but also the Pacesetters and African Writers Series I had devoured as a teenager. I was motivated to write stories that featured people like me, and that people like me could identify with. At the same time, I did not want to write literature. I decided on romantic fiction because romance is universal, most people will experience relationships more than anything else in their lifetime.
After I moved to the US, I went back to the story, and rewrote it as a story in which I could share my background and world view with those that were different from me. For everyone who reads the book, if there is one thing to take away, I want it to be the universality of what makes us human … the experiences, the emotions, and the aspirations of life and love.
What has been the response in your native Nigeria, compared to other markets?
For several weeks during summer of 2011, my first book, A Heart to Mend, stayed at #1 on the AmazonUK Kindle store for romantic suspense. To date, over 20,000 copies have been downloaded. In Nigeria, it is more difficult to track these things. My second book, A Love Rekindled, was at the top of the bestseller list for one of the major booksstores in Lagos between August and September. However, they only report 60 days after the end of the quarter so I don’t know how many copies were sold.
I do know from my reps there that we have almost finished the first run of my first book, and that bookstores keep requesting more copies of both books. The printers of A Heart to Mend in Nigeria held an open exhibition day in one of the universities and almost 200 were sold in a few hours. So it’s about finding the right price for the market. But regardless of where my books are sold, it is a very good feeling to know that these are people that will read the stories and it would fit into how they make sense of the world around them.
You are somewhat of a rarity among African writers, in that you’ve self published both your books. At what point did you decide to go the self-published route? Did you ever consider a traditional publisher?
I researched the available options, and gave traditional publishing a try for a few months. The rejections I received had a common thread. While most agents liked my writing, they didn’t think it suited them, and there were a couple that suggested I change some fundamental parts of my story to suit what they thought best for their market. I found that idea abhorrent, and further research yielded some resources on self-publishing.
So how did you go about getting your first book out? And how have you managed to sell your book without the support of a publisher?
When I had satisfied myself that I understood what self-publishing entailed and was ready to face the challenge, I decided to go with Authorhouse to design, print and distribute my books. On the editorial angle, I drafted my manuscript several times, working with feedback from my writing group, beta readers on my blog, and finally an editor, to make sure it was ready for a mass audience.
Looking at your own experience, would you consider self-publishing to be a realistic option for other African writers? What lessons have you learned along the way?
I think it is a very realistic option for African writers especially, considering that the traditional publishing companies are so thin on the ground. However, it is not an easy decision and I wouldn’t advise anyone to rush into it. The few things I’ve learned, and I am still learning, are as follows:
- Take your time and do some research on what others have done, what has worked and what hasn’t.
- Make sure you have a good story, and one of the best ways to do this is to have a writing group critique it for you, not friends and family, but people who generally do not know you.
- When you’re ready to publish, have your manuscript professionally edited.
- Use a good production company to produce your book, it has to look as good as a traditionally published book to be able to compete.
- Either hire a proper publicist or be ready to work really hard to promote your book. Social media has been very helpful for me.
- Don’t forget to keep writing, it is very easy to get mired in publicity for the first one and lose sight of writing.
- Self-publishing, or even simply being a published author, is not a get-rich quick scheme. You may never even get rich.
Who are your favorite African writers, and what is the best book you’ve ever read?
The authors that I take as my role models include Buchi Emecheta (The Bride Price), Cyprian Ekwensi(The Passport of Mallam Ilia) and Helen Ovbiagele(Evbu, My Love), among others. I love these authors because of their writing. Their works drew emotions out of me, they made me think, and they also educated and informed me. I also respect them for what they have been able to achieve. They are prolific and their stories are accessible to a wide audience. They write stories that a large number of people can relate to.
Three books by contemporary writers stand out for me – Half of a Yellow Sun (by Chimamanda Adichie), The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s wives (by Lola Shoneyin) and I do not come to you by Chance (by Adaobi Nwaubani).
Besides writing, you also run a successful blog – NaijaStories.com, which supports Nigerian writers. Would you like to tell us about this project?
NaijaStories.com came as an idea from my experience blogging and coordinating an online interactive story. I felt Nigerian aspiring writers could benefit from a platform like Authonomy. Today Naijastories.com is the leading community for Nigerian writers and book lovers, combining elements of a writing critique website and a social networking site. It is not only committed to telling Nigerian stories, we also promote Nigerian authors, writers and book publishers through publishing news, events and literary opportunities. The website currently has almost 2000 members on our mailing list and an average of 1000 daily visitors.
Our online community welcomes Nigerian writers of all skill levels and readers of both genre novels and literary fiction. Since inception in 2010, we have published over 3,500 stories in various categories, including short fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, and organized several writing contests. With this mix of content and activities, Naija Stories is especially versatile, attracting a diverse crop of readers, writers, and those with general interest in Nigerian affairs. And we continually think of how we can benefit them.
Writers use the Naijastories.com platform for peer review and as a networking community. Most of the members aspire to be authors and realize that their first draft may not be as good as it should. They post their stories so that other writers can critique and review them. They go away with this feedback to redraft and edit their manuscripts. They then have the opportunity to put forward their best work for the quarterly writing contests that we host which usually come with cash prizes.
We also have a lot of editors, literary agents, publishers and journalists as members. They either use the site as a conduit to offer opportunities to the writers or they approach them directly through our private messaging service. We currently have our stories running in a newspaper in Lagos, as well as being read on radio. This spreads the name of the writers and for some, this is their dream – to be read or heard by an audience bigger than they can imagine.
The other way it has helped is by serving as an online writing portfolio. One of our members was recently accepted for a creative writing and journalism course at an Australian University after he sent a link of his author page on Naijastories to the admission officials. By also being on our email list, our registered members receive regular updates of writing news, including publishing opportunities, writing tips, and contests.