The #NairaLife Of A Persevering Author

March 15, 2021

Every week, Zikoko seeks to understand how people move the Naira in and out of their lives. Some stories will be struggle-ish, others will be bougie. All the time, it’ll be revealing.


The subject of this story first got published in 2004. A lot has happened since that time, and most of it is about employers and publishers not holding up to their end of the deal. Now he’s taking a crack at building his own publishing company. But how did he get here? 

What’s your oldest memory of money?

That would be the allowance I got from my parents growing up. But the awareness really came when I got into university and published two children’s books in my first year at university. I was 19 at the time. 

How did you get into writing?

I had friends that loved reading and writing. We were bookworms. I also got lucky. When I was 17, an extended family friend started a publishing company,  and someone in the family suggested that we worked together. The man asked me for a sample of my work, and I sent him some — which were terrible — but he liked them. After that, he gave me a story pitch and told me to write around it. He liked what I did and signed me to his publishing company. 

Ah, great. Back to those books. 

 I published the two books in 2004 and got ₦8k in the first wave of royalties. My dad insisted that I bought shares at a bank and ₦5k went into that. I also paid ₦800 in tithes at my church. I’m not sure what happened to what I had left, but I remember that I bought gifts for my parents and my girlfriend at the time. 

What came after?

One of the books was selected by an international organisation for a project they were working on at the time. They bought 1000 copies and distributed them across libraries in Nigeria. 

Interesting. How much did you make off the book in subsequent years?

2005: ₦45,000

2006: ₦25,000

2007: ₦20,000

2008: ₦10,000

After the fifth payment, the publisher stopped paying me. The demand for the books had decreased, and he complained that people owed him money. In the middle of this, we had a fallout. He had some of my manuscripts he was supposed to publish that he didn’t, so I collected everything back. 

 That’s rough. 

Yeah, I know. I finished university in 2008, went to serve in the north, and got a job at an insurance company. I got ₦30k from the company plus  ₦9,775 from the federal government. I worked in three departments — admin, IT, and marketing. But I enjoyed the perks of working in marketing. I made between ₦2,000 and ₦3,000 every week on commissions alone. 

The company also gave me a furnished apartment. I lived on my commissions and put the remaining money in my savings.  By the time I finished service in 2009, I had saved about ₦1m. 

That’s impressive.

After NYSC, I got a job at an IT firm in a state in the south-west. They were supposed to pay me  ₦45k every month. I spent three months there and wasn’t paid once. Their excuse was that there were no sales, so they weren’t making money. 

Omo.

The only reason I stayed that long was because I wanted to learn more about system engineering and cable TV installation. After I left, I went out on my own and ventured into the same services the company provided. My dad has a company, and I’m a director there, so I used the company to get jobs, mostly cable TV installation. 

How much did this bring in?

In good months, I made nothing less than  ₦10k per week, especially if the cable TV companies were running a promo or a price slash. Things were even better during Christmas — I could conveniently make ₦10k  in a day. But when there was low activity, I could make the same ₦10k in a month. I made about ₦300k  in that year alone. 

I got job offers in the following year, but I didn’t accept them because I was working on my first novel. It was published in 2011. 

Lit. Tell me about that.

It was a young adult novel. I self-published with a publisher in the UK, and the whole thing cost me about £600. I also submitted it for the Commonwealth Book Prize, and although I didn’t make the shortlist, I got a notable mention. 

Aw.

In 2012, I wanted to do an MFA in the UK or go for a postgraduate management course at a Nigerian university after that. I got both offers, but my dad didn’t agree to sponsor my MFA, so I went to the Nigerian university angrily

I finished my masters in 2014 and got my next job as an admin officer at a security company. The salary was ₦50k, but when they didn’t pay me at the end of my first month, I jumped ship. I got another job immediately at a real estate company in the same building. My salary there was also ₦50k.

Wait, same building?

Haha, yes. My previous boss obviously wasn’t happy with it, but it was a good move for me — I actually had a job to do and was being paid for my troubles. 

Oh, I also got a Nigerian publisher who was interested in publishing the Nigerian edition of my novel in the same year. We agreed to a part-publishing deal. 

How does that work?

The publisher splits the production cost and royalties with the writer. The production costs for my novel was ₦400k, so I brought ₦200k and he raised the other half. 

I see. 

The publisher made a lot of noise about his plans for my book, but he didn’t pull his weight. When I got tired of waiting, I stepped in and took the book to bookshops. My cousin gave me the biggest boosts — she worked at a bank and took copies of the book with her to work. A copy of the book sold for ₦1k, and I sold about 100 copies.

There is a  digital edition of the book too. We built an app and hosted it on digital stores. ₦400 airtime unlocks the content of the app, and I get 70% off every purchase. I made about ₦50k in digital downloads in the first year.

And the publisher?

I have no idea how many copies he sold till today. We printed 1000 copies, so I took 500 copies off his hands and left the rest with him. 

How much have you made on that book since 2014?

About ₦250k, and I still get some ₦10,000 per year on digital sales. I stopped promoting the hardcover, so nothing comes from it anymore. 

Got it. Back to your 9-5?

I was at the real estate company until 2015. I was due for promotion and the general manager role opened at the time, but my boss passed me over and brought in a new person to fill the position. It didn’t sit well with me, and I resigned immediately. I didn’t work at another job until five months had passed. My next job was at an entertainment company, and it was also an admin role. They actually did a lot of things, but events and logistic management were their biggest drivers. Another division of the company handled Merchandise-In-Trade businesses. I was hired to work in both divisons. My salary was ₦60k.

I’m curious, what’s Merchandise-In-Trade about?

You see those branded trucks loaded with drinks you see on the road? There are companies who manage them on behalf of the bottling companies and ensure that the products are distributed. The company I worked for managed these trucks for a bottling company in a state in the south-west.

Interesting. 

When I started working there, I had 28 people under me. The job meant that I had to be on the road all the time to make sure everything ran smoothly. I also had to return as fast as I could to handle the entertainment division of the business. 

That sounds like two jobs. 

It was. The good thing was that I made more money in bonuses from the MIT job — an extra ₦100k – ₦120k every month. 

How did your role evolve?

The company had a very good year in 2016  and performed better than the other MIT companies working for the bottling company, so they gave us two more states. I was put in charge of those states, bringing the number of states I managed to three. The number of people I managed grew from 21 to 110.

That was more work, but I didn’t get a raise, which was confusing. I requested for my payslip and found out that my basic salary was supposed to be ₦200k. I confronted my boss, and he tried to sell me a story about how there were more expenses than revenue. I didn’t buy it. I resigned from the job. It was about time too. 

Why?

I was working long hours from Monday to Sunday, so my writing suffered. I decided that I wouldn’t do another full-time job if it wasn’t related to writing. I didn’t get a job like that between 2016 and 2017. However, my experiences with managing events at my previous job came in handy during that time. People started reaching out to me to plan their events. 

I charged clients 10% of the total cost of the event as my service fee. But at the end of each event, I usually got more than that because I had necessary contacts and vendors and leveraged these relationships to get discounts. 

On average, how much did you make from each event you planned?

It wasn’t a lot and depended on how big the event was. There was a time I made ₦200,000. There were also times I made ₦50,000 and ₦10,000 on a job.  My biggest payout was ₦900,000 from two events I did back to back. This got me my first car, which I bought for ₦650,000. 

Lit. What happened after?

In 2018, a friend called me and said he was starting a publishing company and was looking for writers to work on his first book project. After he explained what he wanted to do, I offered to come on board and help him kick things off the ground. I joined the company to manage a small team of four writers at ₦50k per month. I didn’t care about the pay because I had another stream of income. However, I didn’t know that I was making a mistake.

What happened?

He didn’t have a blueprint for his business or provide all the things he promised to ensure that the project ran smoothly. Then in April 2018, he decided on a whim that he wanted a break from the project, and that was it. Everyone on the team left. 

Omo.

I knew I wanted to set up my own publishing company, so I started the process soon as I left that job, and it took about four months. Later that year, the same friend reached out to me again and asked me to lead a bigger team. The direction had changed too. Now we would be ghostwriting academic books for other publishers. 

Sounds interesting. How did this affect your salary?

It increased from ₦50k to ₦70k. Things were more structured this time too. There were more people and more roles, which gave me room to focus on managing the other writers. It was exciting at first, then I started having problems with the boss when I got a publishing deal. 

 Let’s start with the publishing deal.

I’d been in talks with the publisher for a few years. I sent the manuscript in 2015, but we agreed on a deal in 2018. So, I signed the book contract and got an advance fee. 

How much was it?

₦50k.The deal was that the publisher would hold the rights to my book for five years. If a contract renewal doesn’t happen, the rights return to me and I can take it elsewhere. But in those five years, I’m entitled to 10% of the net sales as my royalty. 

The deal was finalised in September 2018, and I had to go to a literary festival. My friend, who was now my boss, was not happy that I was going away for a week. When I came back, he started acting off. 

I didn’t care so much about that until he started changing the direction of the business every week. 

We could be working on a math textbook this week, and he would come in the following week and ask us to start working on a math comic book. It was a lot but I had just registered a company in an industry that isn’t very profitable. I stayed for as long as I did because I wanted to see how he made money from his business. 

When did you leave?

2019. I travelled for a book tour in August to promote my book. While I was away, my boss had a meeting with the staff. I don’t know what he said to those guys, but everyone turned in their resignation before I returned. When I heard the news, I knew I was done. I wasn’t even paid for that month. 

Omo. But what about the book deal? How’s that going?

In 2019, I got a royalty statement that stated that I made  ₦37k in royalties between October 2018 and November 2019. 2020? Nothing. When I asked for updates, the publisher was like, the people they were working with stole from them. So yeah, no money.

Ah!

I just started focusing on my own thing after that. I started operations at my publishing company in October 2019.  For my first gig, I ghost wrote four articles, and got ₦200,000 from it. An editing job, which paid ₦50,000 followed. The year had almost ended, so a lot didn’t happen in 2019.

2020?

I signed my first writer, and we published his first book in February. Right now, I’m working with 8-10 writers, and we have some new titles coming out. 

I’m curious, what’s the cost of publishing a book?

It costs between ₦400k and ₦600k  to get a small book out. The cheapest book we’ve done took about ₦200k, and it was a book of 40 pages. The author bears most of these costs, at least for now — I’m running a self-publishing company, so they bring the resources and I help them publish and market the books. 

I see. How do you earn from this?

I do editorial work on manuscripts and charge between ₦50k and ₦150k depending on how much work the manuscript needs. However, if the deal is to ghostwrite the book from scratch, I charge between ₦200k to ₦300k to get it done. Also, I get another 10% cut of the total publishing and printing cost. 

It’s dicey understanding how money works in this business. I mean, I made ₦500k in a month last year from a project — ghostwriting, editing and printing. But there was another month I incurred an ₦80k loss.

How much typically comes in every month now?

Between ₦100k and ₦150k. I’ve not pushed a book out this year, so the money has been coming from ghostwriting jobs. 

Let’s break down your monthly expenses:

Do you have an emergency fund?

I try to save as much as 70% of what I earn in a month, but I don’t always stick to it. However, at least 40% go into my savings, and that’s how I raise my ₦300k rent. I have about ₦1.3m in my savings account now. 

What’s the last thing you paid for that required serious planning?

My wedding. I got married recently, and by the time we were done, I’d taken about  ₦1.2m out of my savings to fund it. 

Ah, Congratulations. What do you imagine the next five years will look like?

I’ve realised that it’s easier for people to take advantage of you if you don’t have a big platform. I’m building that for myself now. I got a new publisher in the UK earlier this year, and while I’m not putting all my hopes on the deal, I know what it can do for me. I’ve taken my writing to the international space, and if it works out the way I hope it will, I’ll start getting capital publishing deals and publishers who will stick to their end of the bargain. 

For my publishing company, I pushed out about 6000 copies of books this year. I’m hoping to do 40,000 copies this year. In five years, I should be able to do 2 million copies in a year. It sounds ambitious, but it’s really not. About ₦6M passed the company in production costs last year alone, and I made more than ₦1M in profit.

You have quite the experience with publishers and employers, how has all of this shaped you?

Well, I know money must be made. Nigeria has terrible labour and contract laws, and I’ve not had the best experience with publishers or employers, but is that the reason I should fail? No! I’d rather learn from it and find new ways to make my money.

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your financial happiness?

4. The income is not steady yet. I want a system where I know when I’m getting paid and how much to expect. But as it is now, people are always owing me money. I can go to a 7 when I’m working at optimum capacity and making at least half a million every month. 


If you’re interested in talking about your Naira Life story, this is a good place to start.

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Toheeb Lanlehin

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