BOOKED UP

How a boutique Nigerian book publisher is breaking into the US market

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

For eons, piracy in African book publishing has been something that booksellers lived with and factored in as part of the climate of doing business. But when Nigeria’s Joint Admissions & Matriculation Board, the body that sets the examination for students who seek to gain admission into universities selected the 2009 novel ‘In Dependence’ as required reading, the publisher declined.

Cassava Republic Press turned down what should be a goldmine because the publishing director was fed up with pirates cashing in leaving little for authors and publishers. But after some cajoling, came up with a compromise.

“Since the students have to pay for their registration, we said why don’t they pay for our book too. Let’s add it to the registration fee and they collect the book,” Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Cassava’s founder recounted. The book by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, already a strong seller, has since sold an additional 1.5 million original copies in the last two months.

In Nigeria, a country with millions of potential book buyers, publishing is a tough business. Many readers will happily pay for religious texts or textbooks but sometimes balk at paying for contemporary fiction or creative nonfiction. Yet local publishers like Parrésia, Ouida books, Farafina, and Cassava keep feeding Nigerians with high quality literary works, even with the ever looming piracy threat and unfavorable business environment.

Back in 2007 Cassava published the acclaimed writer, Teju Cole’s first book Every Day Is For The Thief unleashing his talent worldwide, and more recently nurtured Elnathan John’s Born on A Tuesday. The award-winning novel, Seasons of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, has also just been published worldwide by Cassava.

Bakare-Yusuf, 47, has always seen herself as a problem solver, and the coup with the examination board has paid off. “They’ve ordered 200,000 more so 1.7 million students have access to the book. When they have selected books like that in the past, publishers will sell 200,000 copies of that particular book when there are 1.8 million students who must read that book. Pirates go on to sell it,” Bakare-Yusuf, told Quartz.

Cassava Republic is now tackling the dearth of African writing among mainstream American readers by opening shop Stateside after successfully expanding to Europe last year. While British and American publishers have opened satellite operations in Africa for decades it is less common for an African publisher to launch in the West.

Four Cassava books will be available in bookstores across the US this spring in a distribution deal the Nigerian publisher brokered with partners. At the recent Pen World Voices literary festival in New York, Cassava writers, Manyika and Ibrahim joined authors the world over in showcasing new work.

Edozien-Bibi3
Bakare-Yusuf: “The means of production must be owned by Africans.” (Edozien/Quartz)

The US and Britain are center of the Anglophone publishing world and even though she began Cassava Republic in 2003 in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, she knew right from the start that the new company would one day have to launch internationally. Bakare-Yusuf said she needed time to build up a viable African business. And then go global only after it became a publishing force to be reckoned with. So the New York expansion couldn’t happen until 2017, a year after London’s.

“[London and New York] give symbolic legitimization to African writing whether we like it or not and we are acutely aware if that. But we are always saying even if they are the centers for legitimization, the means of production must be owned by Africans.”

For the novelist Emmanuel Iduma, and a founder of the acclaimed Nigerian literary magazine, Saraba, Cassava was ideal for his follow up book to ‘The Sounds of Things to Come.’ His new work, ‘A Stranger’s Pose’ is part memoir, and part travelogue and even part flash fiction. It would be a hard sell to a traditional publisher, but Cassava instantly got it.

“I sensed that their recent model of distributing outside Nigeria, in the UK and US, would liberate writers like myself from the worry of selling books to publishers who weren’t interested in developing, at least in the immediate, a support structure for African literature,” Iduma said.

The art critic added that he then understood fully “they were not only interested in books that could do well in the market today, but books that contributed, in the long run, to an archive of storytelling and criticism by African writers.”

Cassava editors view themselves as discoverers, midwives, curators and archivists for African literature. But they want commercial success too.

Manyika, who first published with Cassava a decade ago, turned to them for her new work ‘Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun’ about a senior citizen in San Francisco exploring her sexuality. It’s a novel that has at its center an African immigrant. So the American strategy is simply, make the books available to African-American women, the Africans in diaspora many of who are in the middle class, and then the rest of America will follow.

“They want to see to see themselves reflected in what they are reading. They want to see different worlds and that gives them a sense of cultural confidence. Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Adichie, these authors were built by African-Americans and other black people and it’s after the fact (other) Americans picked them up,” Bakare-Yusuf added.

She believes that people of color constitute 85% of the world’s population and from a business perspective it is making Cassava sit up “and recast our gaze. From a business perspective Africa is the future.”

As Cassava Republic builds its market share in the US, plans are in the works to expand to Paris with a focus on selling translated works on her current writers.

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