Bibi comes to London.
NA: Congratulations to you and your team on launching Cassava Republic in London, a mere ten years after you started in Nigeria. Who are Cassava Republic and how much work did you have to put in to get to where you are now?
BBY: Jeremy Weate and I began Cassava Republic Press in 2006 without business or publishing experience, just passion and a desire to see African stories written and owned by Africans. Inspirational figures in publishing such as Margaret Busby, co-founder of Allison & Busby, were our guide. The first five years were the toughest, with sleepless nights, expensive mistakes, reading and replying to all manuscript submissions, handling editorial, publicity, marketing and production--and learning about [more] maritime issues than I care to know. We also had the support of my sisters and my mother who played active roles in the company, especially in finance and administration, as well as experienced freelancers. It was so intense and unrelenting for so many years, that any stress in the setting up of the UK office simply cannot compare. Ten years later, there are six of us in the company including Emma Shercliff, who recently joined as director of sales. The intensity and the brand equity we have built over time has made it a bit easier to enter the UK market.
NA: Is Cassava Republic's move to London a signal of the reversal of the back-to-Africa optimism of a decade ago? How successful is Cassava commercially in Nigeria and West Africa?
BBY: We have not moved to London. We have simply expanded into a new market. The UK office is a subsidiary of Cassava Republic Nigeria, not a separate company. Africa is still at the heart of our business. We believe that Africa is still going to be the biggest market for literature in the world. The move to London is not to privilege the UK. Rather, it is to give us easier access to other African markets and to the rest of the world. Our commercial success in Nigeria has given us the confidence and resources to expand into different markets.
NA: Does your entry into the English market mean that readers in England and in Europe will be able to access Cassava Republic authors in English bookstores across Europe?
BBY: Yes. Our entry into the UK market means that our books are now available from bookshops in the UK and Europe. We have signed up with a distribution and sales and marketing agency which markets our books to bookshops in the UK and across Europe. Our books are also available for purchase from UK sites such as www.wordery.com, http://www.waterstones.com/, http://www.foyles.co.uk/ and of course our website, www.cassavarepublic.biz
We are also expanding our distribution into other African countries, using the UK as a base because it is cheaper. For example, our books will be distributed in South Africa by PanMacmillan.
NA: What challenges do publishers experience in the African market?
BBY: Publishing in Africa involves doing everything yourself. There aren't formal distribution systems, bookshops are reluctant to pay for books, and you have to contend with a lack of affordable and quality printing. Few retail spaces stock books, the cost of transporting books from one end of the country to another is prohibitive, and poor work ethics also poses an added challenge.
However, having now experienced the formal distribution systems of the UK, I am not convinced that what we perceived as challenges are not really more of a case of the grass being greener on the other side.
There are challenges in Africa but I actually now see more opportunities.
As Cassava Republic, for instance, we don't have to wait for our books to be part of the curriculum before people hear or read them. We are simply creating African publishing brands whose curatorial skills readers trust, feel confident about and will remember for years to come. As a result of the confidence in our brand, educational institutions are approaching us to submit our books for assessment rather than us chasing them. We are also fortunate to work with some wonderful writers and colleagues and we have published some superb books. We're proud of having first published talent such as Teiu Cole, Lola Shoneyin, Elnatnan John, Fatima Akilu, Toni Kan, and we're excited about the authors and books we have in the pipeline.
NA: Language and cultural imperialism: Is the old debate about what language to write in still relevant today?
BBY: Yes, more than ever before. We would love to publish in African languages. Our only challenge is cost. Maybe Aliko Dangote is reading this interview and would be interested in supporting a translation of Elnathan's Born On a Tuesday into Hausa. It would be awesome to find African philanthropists who would support translation efforts into African languages. Translations everywhere are supported by institutions, not by publishers. Publishers cannot do it alone, without support from government and institutions.
When we only publish in English we enrich the English language. However, when we bring all the contours and shades of the English language back into our languages, we further enrich our languages, making them vibrant and alive.
NA: Still on languages on the African continent, Tram 63 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, a writer from DR Congo, recently won the Etisalat Prize, which is currently the sole homegrown African prize for longer works of fiction. Its translation, by Roland Glasser, an Englishman, after the book's initial publication by a French publishing house, is still the exception rather than the rule. Anglophone literature is rarely exposed to Francophone or Lusophone literature and vice-versa. What can be done to bridge the gap? Is this a field Cassava Republic plans to venture into any time in the future?
BBY: Good question. I have personally been interested in literature from the other Africa --Francophone, Lusophone and the Maghreb. In the past, we have discussed the idea of putting together a network of readers from these countries to recommend books in those languages to us, but we have not done much so far to activate that interest. Our new director, Emma Shercliff speaks French, however, and I am sure you'll see us publishing from that region in future.
NA: What is it that Cassava Republic, and the contemporary African literary scene, bring to the market that we have not seen before? Why must any reader in Africa, Europe or anywhere else in the world, read or care about African literature?
BBY: Our mission from the start has been to publish absorbing writing, rather than pander to the desire to see our literature as an anthropological treatise. From the bawdy humour of Fola Shoneyin's The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives, the insights into the surprising fragility of later life in Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Fadipo Manyika, the fantastical realism of The Hidden Star, by K. Sello Duiker, and the subtle observational nuances of Teju Cole's Every Day is for the Thief, our list is full of surprises about the African experience in all its diversity.
Readers all over the world read because they want to occupy another world outside of their own, to enrich their understanding of the human condition. African literature will continue to remain relevant for this very reason. The fact that the diversity of African writing is coming to the fore and speaks to different forms of experience will simply amplify this desire, outside of any didactic framing or excursion into cultural tourism.
NA: What makes an average manuscript great? What is Cassava Republic looking for from the manuscripts that are submitted to your publishing house?
BBY: One of our underlying goals is to shift the focus from African issues to African aesthetics--to the love of story, of place and of nuance.
We are looking for unusual or unconventional narratives that challenge stereotypes or are purely experimental in style. We focus on strong stories and characters rather than issues.
NA: Are there any plans in the pipeline for distribution or co-publishing deals with other publishing houses for distribution in Southern, East and even North Africa? If so, would you care to share them with us?
BBY: It is important to remember that the vast majority of Euro-American publishers who acquire world rights for African writers do not distribute or rarely co-publish in the markets you have mentioned, with the exception of South Africa where there's a developed distribution network.
We have now gone into a distribution partnership with PanMacmillan to distribute our books in South Africa and Southern Africa. Still, we have a number of shops that stock our books in East Africa. We are just about to appoint sales representatives for North Africa, the Middle East and for Asia. We are not there yet in terms of availability of our books in East Africa, but our presence will improve bit by bit. We are committed to having our books available across the continent.
NA: Do you plan to have more titles in children's writing and can we at any time hope for something for the young adult market?
BBY: We are certainly going to increase our children's titles, especially picture books, middle grade and young adult. We already nave a number of young adult titles on our list and are also working on some new titles due out in 2017, by writers such as Sylvia Ofili and Ayodele Olofintuade, for the middle grade market, which we are very excited to see come into the market.
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|Title Annotation:||Arts: ON THE COUCH; Cassava Republic's Bibi Bakare-Yusuf|
|Date:||May 1, 2016|
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