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Abuja-based publishing house Cassava Republic opens UK office, interview

media Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim published by Cassava …

Cassava Republic Press, one of the continent’s prominent publishing houses, speaks to RFI about new books slated to come out this year, as well as their new UK launch. Emma Shercliff, the Abuja-based director, discusses why they are opening offices in Europe and the popularity of their electronic books (e-books).

Interview: Emma Shercliff
Having books that engender debate is important for us.

How would you characterise Cassava Republic Press?

We publish authors from across the continent. The majority of our authors are Nigerian, and we have a number of authors from east Africa. We are always looking for authors, from wherever they may be in Africa.

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Do you touch on different genres, or are you dedicated to one?

We do adult fiction and non-fiction, and then we have a crime list, Cassava Crime, we have a romance imprint, which is one of the most successful parts of the business it’s got a lot of interest. That’s called Ankara Press. And we also have a children’s list. Within the children’s list we have illustrated fiction, so for quite young readers. We also have a young adult list with some wonderful authors on that, including Nnedi Okorafor. Her book, What Sunny Saw in the Flames is one of our most successful titles. We sold 24,000 copies of it last year. We’ve got a range of titles.

Can you give us an overview of Cassava Republic offerings for 2016?

One of our big areas of focus this year is the launch of our UK operation. We are based in Abuja and we publish out of Africa. But we’re taking some of our titles and some of our authors to the UK - we’ll launch the operation in April.

In February, tied to Valentine’s Day, we are launching another two titles in our romance imprint. So far, we’ve launched a digital romance list at the very end of 2014 with six titles. One called Love Next Door and the other one called The Seeing Place. But we are also releasing a print version of the six digital titles. They’re really cute they are purse-sized books. We’ve had a lot of interest in those and we’re really excited about the romance.

And we’re really building up for the launch in the UK we’ve got three new literary titles: Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday, and then a book called Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, and the third title is the Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. So these are authors who are all well-known in Africa, in Nigeria, but we’re taking them to the UK and really hoping to establish them internationally.

I should also mention that we have Cassava Crime. Our first title was Mukoma wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat, which we published a couple of years ago, which was very successful, and it’s taken a while to bring those lists to fruition, but we’ve got another three titles on that crime list this year.

The first is called Easy Motion Tourist by an author called Leye Adenle set in Lagos. It’s a gritty thriller but an exciting one. Then we have a female author from Liberia called HJ Golakai whose novel is called The Lazarus Effect. It’s part of a series she has this investigative journalist called Vee Johnson. This one’s actually set in Cape Town and it’s fantastic. So we’re publishing that in May.

Later in the year we’ve got an author we’ve already published Toni Kan Onwordi. Nights of the Creaking Bed was one of the first titles he published with us. And his crime novel, also set in Lagos, is called Carnivorous City, and that will come out in the second half of 2016.

Are you launching in the UK to find a new audience for your authors, or is it for logistical reasons?

It’s a little bit of both. Bibi Bakare-Yusef, who founded Cassava Republic here in Abuja, she’s done a fantastic job at discovering authors like Teju Cole, Helon Habila, Lola Shoneyin and bringing those authors on. But the issue that we’ve always had is that we’ve just published for Nigeria, or for Africa, and we really didn’t have the outlet to publish these authors overseas.

The business model is now signing authors for world rights, that we can now publish not just in Nigeria and Africa, but also in the UK. That’s part of the model. But it’s also just in terms of ease of distribution. Ironically, it’s going to be much easier for us to publish into east Africa and South Africa out of the UK. The intra-Africa distribution channels are pretty cumbersome for print issues with customs, tax, tariffs and barriers. It’s costly, so the model is the really to become a global company. We’ll still have Africa as our base, but will use the UK to get to other markets.

Are e-books popular with your readers?

One of the reasons we launched Ankara Press as a digital imprint to begin with is that we really wanted to test the market. So we thought that if we launch with print and online at the same time, people would just buy the print...We’ve had a really good response. We’ve made it as easy as possible to pay in pounds, naira or by PayPal, and you can then download those titles to any device. People are going online and buying e-books, but our experience here in Nigeria is that the tendency is still to buy print in the first instance.

Obviously things are changing quickly in other markets and we see that here. Part of the problem was the issue of payment not having credit cards to pay for e-books, but now we can use PayPal, that’s certainly made things easier. All of our titles going forward will be in e-book and print format.

Can you give us an idea of the books you’re launching in the UK in April?

Elnathan’s title tells the story of a young boy who’s educated via religious Koranic education, and it’s his coming of age story. It’s set in the north of Nigeria, and it’s told in this very disarmingly simple way from the perspective of the young boy. But it addresses issues of religious fundamentalism, religious extremism, which are obviously on the cutting edge of debate here in Nigeria. Having books that engender debate is important for us.

The book by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Season of Crimson Blossoms, is already published here in Nigeria. Again, it’s set in northern Nigeria, but it’s quite different. It’s about an illicit affair between a 25-year-old weed dealer and a 55-year-old widow; there’s a 30-year age gap and it’s about how they conduct this illicit affair in a very conservative, northern Nigerian society. But again, it gives us this window into society that’s really not written about. Even in Nigeria, both those titles in Nigeria have created quite a stir, because there’s just so little writing in English from the north of Nigeria.

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