In Conversation with Nigerian Independent Publisher Cassava Republic
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Cassava Republic was founded in 2006 in Nigeria by Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, an academic with no experience in entrepreneurship. Her goal was to publish and make available to a local market talented African authors who were being increasingly published and read overseas. Ten years later, Cassava Republic is a small but established publishing brand, with a reputation for bringing out high quality fiction and non-fiction for adults and children alike. In 2016 it became the first African publishing company to expand to London and there are plans to open in the US later this year. Cassava Republic's mission is to change the way people think about African writing: contemporary African prose should be rooted in African experience in all its diversity, whether set in filthy-yet-sexy megacities such as Lagos or Kinshasa, in little-known rural communities, in the recent past or indeed the near future. Founder Bibi Bakare-Yusuf describes her experiences as an independent publisher:
What is your editorial line? What makes you stand out?
We look for manuscripts which combine a good story with a fresh perspective on the African experience in all its gorgeous messiness or the book is writing by an African located anywhere in the world. We’re not interested in an anthropological excursion into some ‘heart of darkness’ trope or attempt to explain Africanness or blackness to an external other. We’re interested in stories that are confident, boundary pushing and experimental, both in terms of theme and style. The script does not have to be perfect or even at all polished. We put a lot of effort into working with our writers in terms of structural editing, character and plot development. We take a team-approach to producing our books. We’re immensely proud of our editorial line and the beautiful books we produce.
What is the most rewarding aspect of being an independent publisher?
To have total editorial control to choose what we want without being constrained by market forces and profit orientated shareholders breathing down our neck. This for me is freedom and joy. It is the opportunity to get Africans reading each other across our differences and learning more about each other and projecting that stories to the world so that others can participate in the conversation unmediated.
What is the most challenging aspect?
In Nigeria, perhaps the biggest challenge is that it is almost impossible to find a consistently reliable local printer so we have to print abroad. Of course, that is not without its challenges. We look forward to the day when printing standards improve so that we can print locally and boost the local printing economy. Dealing with Nigerian Ports sometime threatens to take the fun and passion out of publishing.
How do you connect with your readers?
Social media has been central to connecting with our readers from the start. We are very active on Facebook and twitter and our readers see us as a repository of information about cool happenings in the African world – from Benin to Bahia. It is gratifying when people love our books so much that they generate their own content and share it on their social media. For example, when Yemisi Aribisala’s book about Nigerian cuisine, Longthroat Memoirs, came out, people started to record their favourite passages from the book and upload the audio to their social media channels. Its moments like this that make it all worthwhile!
How important are book fairs for you?
Book fairs are unavoidably important. They allow us to meet with our fellow publishers and on occasion, have our authors also give talks and readings. They are also a good way of finding out about new trends in publishing. They are also nice place for good wine and catching up on industry gossip!
How important are independent booksellers for your business?
In Nigeria, all booksellers are independent because we do not have chains. They are very important to us and we actively cultivate a relationship with them. Because there are so few bookshops in the country, we have to explore other non-bookshop outlets such as cafes, clothes shops, supermarkets and events based selling. These outlets off us our greatest sales.
Do you see more sales online or through bookshops? Traditional retail outlets remain our biggest sales channel. However, we are getting more sales online and we anticipate that as more Nigerians feel more confident and trust online payment, we’ll see more online sales. We also anticipate more online sales this year because of a major campaign we’ll be rolling out soon.
What books have helped you to stay afloat?
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi by Lola Shoneyin, Everyday is for the Thief by Teju Cole, What Sunny Saw In The Flames by Nnedi Okorafor and Last Days at Forcados High School by A.H. Mohammed which has sold over 2 million copies.
Can you give us an example of an extraordinary cover design that a larger publisher wouldn't have risked?
There isn’t one. We spend an awful lot of time thinking about our covers, and try to ensure that the design is both appropriate to the story and to our brand. For us, the cover is what turns the story into a beautiful package that the reader loves to pick up and hold in their hands.