AFRICA’S MILLS & BOON A SURPRISE HIT

Mills & Boon romantic novels have become a worldwide hit since they first arrived on book shelves in 1908, with global sales currently clocking in at over 200 million every year.
Nollybooks, South Africa’s answer to the popular love story collection, may be some way off scoring a similar feat but its rising popularity in the country is hoping to pave the way for the rest of Africa.
Created by and written for a female audience who are young, urban, black and can but maybe don’t read, the romantic tales contain subtle differences from their western counterparts.
Firstly the hero’s eyes are brown rather than blue and instead of hailing from the British upper class, he might head the Africa division at MTV.
Secondly Moky Makura, a Nigerian-born author and publisher who set up Nollybooks in 2009 after picking up on Mills & Boon’s huge global figures, also points out that sex is portrayed very differently from its steamy counterpart.
This is primarily down to the fact Aids kills nearly 1,000 people a day in South Africa.
“I don’t believe that you need sex to have story-telling,” Makura argues.
“I am trying to show young girls that you can have a heroine who is educated and doing well, but who doesn’t sleep around or have to have sex, and still ends up with a good guy.”
Nollybooks is inspired by Nigeria’s thriving movie industry, Nollywood.
“Nollywood proved that Africans want to see themselves reflected in what they consume, and that is exactly what Nollybooks represents,” says Makura.
She feels that it is important to challenge the perception held in Africa that books are purely for education.
“We don’t see books as entertainment yet,” Makura explains. “I see Nollybooks as almost having a soap opera in your hand.”
For Makura, initial sales prove that the concept works, but there are challenges.
“I still feel the cost of the books is high at around $10 (£6.50) each,” she says. “We need to get more books out there so that I can bring the price down.”
Although this is half the average price of a book in South Africa, Makura is aiming to make romantic fiction even cheaper.
“I think it should be like a daily newspaper, you buy one, read it, chuck it out and buy a new one,” she adds.
She is not the only one who has discovered this market.
South African publisher Kwela Books has created Sapphire Press in response to a need for “black romance” in the country.
“Mills & Boon sell more than 20,000 units per month here,” explains Lindsay van Rensburg, a junior editor at Sapphire.
“We thought it would be quite appealing for those readers to have access to books set in South Africa.”
Unlike Nollybooks, the characters do have sex in Kwela Books.
But there is a strong emphasis on safe sex points out Mokopi Shale, who has written two novels for Sapphire Press – Love’s Courage and A Prince For Me.
Nollybooks tend to avoid focusing on sex in their romantic stories “I am conscious of what it is to be born in a time where love is the most dangerous thing around,” she said.
“Of course, I have to write about safe sex, my heroes and heroines always reach for a condom, always.”
Kwela’s romantic writers currently earn just over $1,500 (£970) per manuscript and Makura says that her writers get a similar fee.
Shale says that it is difficult for writers to make a living primarily because South Africa is not a reading nation.
However, Makura believes that once she cracks distribution, this may all change.
Her plan is to expand into West and East Africa.
Ultimately, romantic fiction offers women an escape to a world where true love is “respectful, gentle, understanding and passionate”, says Shale.
Empi Baryeh, a Ghanaian writer and creator of online community Fiction Writers of West Africa, agrees.