AiW Guest Emma Shercliff
Review of panel discussion with Bibi Bakare-Yusuf of Cassava Republic Press; Valerie Brandes of Jacaranda Books; Verna Wilkins of Tamarind Books and Susan Yearwood, agent and founder of Susan Yearwood Literary Agency. Chaired by Simi Dosekun.
Genre fiction was a hot topic at Africa Writes 2014, with panel discussions on sci-fi, travel writing and romance providing a contrast to the greater focus on literary fiction at the 2013 Festival. There had been some discussion of genre publishing at the previous day’s session on ‘Developing Contemporary African Writing’, but the difference in this panel (expertly moderated by Simi Dosekun, who stepped in at short notice after Margaret Busby was unable to raise her voice above a whisper) was that speakers were asked to explore ‘the business of publishing genre fiction in Africa’. This focus on the commercial aspect of the publishing industry made for a particularly thought-provoking and entertaining session – and one of particular interest to me, as I am working part-time with Cassava Republic as part of my PhD research.
There was general agreement that one did not establish a publishing house, particularly in Africa, to make millions: Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, who is based in Abuja, suggested that if one is insane enough to found a publishing venture, one has to be either ideologically or economically driven – and it became clear that all four panelists were the former rather than the latter. Verna Wilkins set up Tamarind Books (now part of Penguin Random House) in 1987 when her own children didn’t see themselves in the books that they were reading. Valerie Brandes established Jacaranda in order to expand notions of ‘black writing’ in Britain, aiming to represent the cultural and ethnic diversity and heritage of readers in London today. Bibi (and her husband, Jeremy Weate) founded Cassava Republic because they felt that ‘the conversation about African writing was taking place elsewhere’.
The panelists were asked why a publisher might choose to publish genre fiction. Susan Yearwood, who established her literary agency in 2007, said that she was interested in expanding into genre fiction because it ‘opens the doors financially’. Bibi explained that the creation of Ankara Press, an imprint of Cassava Republic that will launch in October with six romance novels, all by African writers and set in Africa, marks a decision to branch out from an initial focus on literary fiction and high-quality non-fiction into publishing with more of a mass appeal. The reasons for this are two-fold, and complementary. Firstly, if Cassava Republic wishes to reach a broad (and therefore commercially more rewarding) audience they need to publish the type of fiction that those readers wish to read. Secondly, Bibi has a strong ideological motive for publishing genre fiction; she wishes to produce ‘progressive’ romance novels that reflect the lives of modern African women. Creating novels with African characters and settings alone is not enough (‘if I’m going to dare to go into romance, it has to be meaningful, it has to have a message’); Bibi wishes to transform ‘the way in which women see the world and the way the world sees women’.
Valerie Brandes’s motivation for establishing Jacaranda was similar: she wished to provide ‘an answer to the way in which black people in the UK were being represented’, with the aim of publishing ‘broad and true stories about who we are’. Valerie talked about the difficulties of breaking into the publishing establishment – she has found herself pigeon-holed by agents as a ‘black’ publisher (‘they look at you and they see your market on your behalf’) – but recognized that technological changes had made access to publishing tools and the market easier than in the past.
Both Valerie and Bibi were quick to acknowledge the role played by ‘pathfinder’ publishers like Verna Wilkins and Margaret Busby. Verna talked about her struggle to establish Tamarind Books where, in the early days, she was writing, publishing, marketing and selling the books herself. Verna had to convince the publishing establishment that a market for her children’s books existed when not a single bookshop on the Charing Cross Road was selling a children’s book featuring a black character. She recalled taking her books to the Afro Hair and Beauty Show in order to make sales – which she did, selling £3500 of books in 3 days. (Verna relates elsewhere how her 5 year old son brought home a ‘This is Me’ booklet from school in which he had coloured himself pink – assuming that it wasn’t possible to have a black child in a book, as he had never seen one). However, thanks to ‘pathfinders’ such as Verna, today’s children – and Verna emphasized that her books were for all children, not just black children – can read about a black tooth fairy or a strong, black female giant who makes rainbow lollipops and pineapple jam to cure hiccups. Tamarind Books are widely read in the UK and further afield – and have spawned a new generation of children’s books that reflect the reality of our multicultural lives.
The panelists were asked where they found their authors. Valerie said she had received two books from agents but had discovered other authors herself by following writers on Twitter, reading blogs and magazines and attending events. Bibi said that the call for submissions at Ankara Press (in 2011) had yielded a lot of interest, but most of the manuscripts they had received had been unuseable in their original formats. She had worked closely with a small number of authors to develop them and it has been ‘a long gestation period’. Nevertheless, Bibi said she has found working with the Ankara Press romance writers ‘the most joyful experience of my publishing career’. She attributed this partly to the fact that ‘they had no sense of baggage or a sense of super-stardom’ and were more responsive to editorial suggestions than some more established ‘literary’ authors she has worked with (perhaps because romance authors may be more used to working in this way; editorial guidance for romance writers is often extremely prescriptive, resulting in the formulaic fiction that their readers – and publishers – desire).
The difficulties of marketing and distribution for small publishers were touched upon. Valerie noted that even in the UK and US it is ‘extremely difficult to get distributors to notice you’. Bibi stressed that ‘we have to think of marketing in unconventional ways’. Ankara Press’s target audience is ‘online & mobile’ and social media is the obvious way to reach them. Ankara Press will launch its first six titles in e-book format, downloadable to e-Readers or to mobile phones, before publishing ‘purse-sized’ novels in print form several months later. This seems an ideal way to test the market and to circumvent some of the distribution issues faced when selling physical books in Africa, where, even in the comparatively developed economies of Nigeria and Kenya, bookshop and distribution networks bear little comparison to those in Europe or North America.
Books for the masses?
To what extent a move to genre fiction will result in ‘books for the masses’ remains a matter for debate. Even in Nigeria, now Africa’s largest economy, the female literacy rate is only just over 50% and GDP per capita a paltry $3000. Reading is associated for many people with education, and not something that is done ‘for pleasure’. However, crime and romance novels – alongside self-help, business and faith-based titles – have long been the staple diet of the African reader. Well-thumbed copies of James Hadley Chase and Frederick Forsyth novels are sold from tiny dukas across Tanzania and Kenya. Shelves of (imported) crime and romance novels are on offer at bookstores in Ibadan, Lagos and Abuja. (And it is not just women that read romance – a man sitting opposite me in Lagos airport recently was avidly engaged in a Harlequin novel). In northern Nigeria, there is a vibrant market for locally-published love stories, or Littattafan Soyayya, written in Hausa and published as cheap pamphlets. These sell in their multiple thousands, echoing the heyday of the Onitsha chapbooks.
Clearly genre fiction in Africa is not a new phenomenon. What is new is the focus on creating romance, in English, specifically for the African market, ensuring that these novels reflect and empower modern African women, and the use of new digital formats to reach the reading masses. Cassava Republic is by no means the only publisher to have spotted the gap in the market. South Africa has led the way in romance targeted at a black female readership, with Sapphire Press and Nollybooks both publishing novella-length, affordable stories of aspiring city-based career women juggling work and love-lives. In January 2014, Kachifo (Lagos) announced that it was launching Breeze Books to publish genre fiction, which it defines as romance, mystery, thrillers, and Sci Fi/ fantasy novels and short stories. Cordite Books, an imprint co-founded by Lagos-based Parresia Publishers and writer Helon Habila, put out a call for submissions in August 2013 for crime novels by African authors. In 2012, Storymoja (Nairobi) launched its Drumbeats Romance series, featuring ‘passionate, sexy love stories from East Africa’.
The rewards for these publishers are potentially vast. In 1998, Nouvelles Editions Ivoriennes (NEI), based in Abidjan, launched a popular romance list called Adoras – a Francophone Mills & Boon, set in West Africa. Over 10,000 copies of each of the initial 6 titles were sold in the first few months and the list was subsequently expanded to 38 titles. Whilst some of the gender stereotypes perpetuated in the novellas are problematic, the commercial success of the series is undeniable and the list continues to sell throughout Francophone West Africa. Several titles on the Adoras list are now available as e-books via Amazon and one of the titles, Cache-cache d’Amour, has been made into a short film and watched by millions of West African viewers. Affordable pricing (and clever marketing) was a key factor in the success of the series – the books cost the same as a lipstick.
The power of the publisher
For me, this panel discussion highlighted the potentially transformative power of the publisher. So often overlooked in literary debates, the publisher can be vital in contributing to social change. Bibi suggested that ‘we need to think as black & African people how to use genre fiction to create our own myths & symbols’. The key will be to meld this power with commercial success by ‘giving the audience what they want, but in a way that is different from what they imagine they want’.
It would be easy to surmise from attending Africa Writes that the African publishing industry is thriving. It is therefore important to put this panel in context. Perennial issues such as piracy, problematic distribution, the high cost of paper and the poor quality of production continue to bedevil publishers on the continent. The Nigerian Publishers Association is battling to convince the government to repeal a 62.5% book import tax, which has the potential to decimate the industry. 90% of African publishing is still dominated by textbook publishing, upon which most publishers rely. Literary output is tiny in comparison and, in many cases, donor funded. This funding will inevitably, in time, shift elsewhere – and publishers must produce commercially successful fiction to become sustainable.
On the positive side, by providing African readers with content they want to read, scenarios in which they can imagine themselves and characters with which they can identify – as well as an accessible and affordable mode of delivery – a small number of dynamic publishers have a real chance of transforming the African literary scene and the contemporary reading culture. Watching companies such as Kachifo, Parresia, Cassava Republic and Storymoja shape the world of genre publishing in Africa will make for fascinating viewing.
Emma Shercliff is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Education, University of London. Her research explores and documents the role of female publishers in shaping the literary landscape in Africa. Emma worked in the publishing field for over ten years and was formerly Managing Director of Macmillan English Campus, a digital publishing division of Macmillan Publishers. She is currently based in Abuja, where she is working for the British Council on a research project looking at approaches to gender within teacher training in Nigeria.