‘One country at a time, one book at a time’: An interview with Bibi Bakare-Yusuf from Cassava Republic Press
Bibi Bakare-Yusuf is one of those infectiously inspirational women who leave you feeling very hopeful about the future of publishing. She has a cast-iron confidence in the lists of her publishing house, Cassava Republic Press, which she co-founded ten years ago in Nigeria, and her positivity about their recent move to the UK shines through. Here, we discuss Cassava Republic’s beginnings, UK expansion and how African writing fits into the wider world.
"We started ten years ago in Nigeria with the idea of filling up empty shelf spaces in bookshops, homes and libraries," begins Bakare-Yusuf. "I came to work in a university as an academic and I discovered very few books in the bookshops and there was the beginning of new African talent emerging in in the west, but they were not being introduced in Nigeria or on the continent as a whole. There was a real emptiness."
At the time, trade fiction publishing was almost non-existent in Nigeria, with everyone choosing to publish less risky academic and educational books, but Bakare-Yusuf and co-founder Jeremy Weate saw a need for fiction. "Obviously with educational publishing, your book gets on the curriculum, and you can get government subsidies and things like that. Trade publishing is a little bit more scary – you’re relying on the market. No one was foolish enough to take on the risk of publishing fiction. I think it’s probably only two idealistic academics that would think publishing fiction would be a viable option and business!"
Ten years later, Cassava Republic has managed, not only to survive, but to thrive. "We’re probably one of the best known contemporary publishing brands. We’ve managed to really generate interest in African authors, and for people to take trade publishing seriously. It has spawned other publishers to take trade publishing as a serious potential business too. There’s sense that we’ve managed to build readers who are interested in reading writing from the African world."
Expanding to the UK
In April, Cassava Republic launched in the UK, taking on Emma Shercliff to direct UK operations from London. "We felt it would allow us to not only expand into other African markets, but also to engage with the world. It’s an exciting time!"
Yet there are differences between the UK and Nigerian publishing environments, and Bakare-Yusuf points out that each has its own advantages and disadvantages. "One of the things we always used to lament in Nigeria was, ‘If only all we had to focus on was publishing!’" Bakare-Yusuf says, explaining that in Nigeria, unlike the UK, they have their own warehouse and take care of all the sales and distribution themselves.
"It’s almost the 19th century/early 20th century model of publishing where everything is being housed and owned by the publisher. But there’s a real advantage to that because you get to know your customers, you build up relationships with booksellers and you also think about creative ways of selling." Nigeria has few bookshops, and those that do exist are seldom patronized, so Cassava Republic sells most of their books in unusual places, like hairdressers, cafes and large events. "We do more sales outside of bookshops than in bookshops in Nigeria!"
In the UK, because of the developed infrastructure, Cassava Republic can focus on publishing directly. "That’s a really good thing! But the disadvantage is that you don’t really have control over your relationship with bookshops. One of the things that we want to do is develop that direct relationship outside of the sales agency, so that we can also support and augment whatever it is they’re doing. It’s disheartening in the UK when bookshops only order three or ten copies of a book. In Nigeria at launch, we could expect to sell 800-1000 copies within a month. In the UK it’s considerably less, because people have so much to choose from. Our effort is to make sure that when they are choosing they think of Cassava Republic, because we want to push volumes."
The expansion has brought them into a "predominantly white" European market, an imbalance Cassava Republic is addressing. "London is a very diverse city – probably one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world – yet the publishing environment doesn’t reflect that diversity. It’s time a company like Cassava Republic and shows the potential of publishing writers of African descent. I think when we’re able to show that it is economically viable, that people will start reading books by African writers and people of African descent, and it will inspire other publishers to take African writers more seriously, rather than just the one or two authors who they have on their lists."
These ideas have been met with a huge amount of enthusiasm by the trade. "When I started Cassava Republic in Nigeria, we were starting in a vacuum. We were having to build something fresh because the infrastructure just wasn’t there for trade publishing," remembers Bakare-Yusuf. "I was working in the dark, so to speak. Now, moving into the UK market where you have a developed infrastructure, it’s almost as if the industry is really ready for publishing houses like us, and they’ve really embraced us!
"Even before last month, we have had an incredibly supportive publishing environment. People are excited for us – they’re excited about us – and they have been full of advice. We couldn’t have asked for a better environment to launch in. It’s been really exciting and it’s very heart warming as well, to see that level of support."
A very African publisher
The response in Nigeria has been similarly positive. "Not just in Nigeria but across the continent, there’s a real energy, people feeling a sense of pride. What we usually have is European companies coming into Africa, rather than African companies going the other way, so people are excited that a small Nigerian company is dipping their toes in the waters of London! Nigerians and Africans in the UK have been extremely supportive and that buzz has also filtered back to Nigeria and created an interest in our publishing house and our books."
One of the interesting things about Cassava Republic is that they are very clear about describing themselves as an "African" publisher. "When we started Cassava Republic we specifically thought although we’re based in Nigeria, our remit is the African world. The African world meaning the continent itself and the diaspora – both the newer and the older diaspora – so we were very expansive in our ideas. We felt that we wanted not just people of the African world to write their own stories, but they must own the means of production for telling and disseminating those stories.
"Yes, people might want to be called Nigerian writers, or Ugandan writers, or Zimbabwean writers – and they’re all their specific national identities – but they’re also the continental identity as well. My position is that I want to own the term ‘African’ rather than seeing it as pejorative or feeling embarrassed by it because European writers are not called ‘European’ writers. I want to be able to claim that, and in claiming that boldly, we can also remind other continents that they are also part of a continental literary tradition.
"I think the reason why many authors feel reluctant to be called ‘African writers’ is that they don’t hear the same corollary for European writers in terms of marketing. The reality of the matter is that Europe, whether we like it or not, has this symbolic power – both the economic and the symbolic – to frame itself as the centre of the world. But there’s a power in being part of a collective. That can have strength. I personally don’t have a problem with being named as a Nigerian, a Nigerian-British, or an African. I am tapping into a long legacy of struggle, of creativity, of transformation. Those are things I want to embrace."
This expands to calling out for more exploration of African history in literature. "One of my dreams still remains is to have authors writing tons and tons of books that mine the wealth of African histories – and histories in the plural! We are not getting that as much as I would like. I am interested in historical fiction to the extent that it can shed light on the contemporary and to encourage writers to look into the past, present, and how they relate to each other. The reason why it’s difficult is because authors today are writing about the contemporary now. That will become the historical, so in a hundred or two hundred years people will have been given a body of literature that speaks to them in the future, it’s just that we in the now, we’re starving for the past."
Though sales of international fiction, and in particular fiction from the African diaspora, have risen significantly since the beginning of the century, Bakare-Yusuf is not content with that modest market share. "Being able to name two, three, four – or even ten – African authors doesn’t make a scene! I’m looking forward to the day when we say, ‘Who’s your favourite African writer?’ and you’ll be stuck because there’ll be so many that you’re not able to name all of them!
"This is a moment where we’re experiencing the new voices of young Africans who are feeling more confident in their writing, their power of storytelling, and the ways in which they’re connecting to other worlds, other Africans, and other non-Africans. We’re going to be seeing more of that confidence in the literature coming out of the continent as well as the diaspora. It is not enough to have stories that focus on Africa, we also need stories that explore what it means to be a young African today in the UK, for example. I’m excited about that, I think we’re going to have more of those stories as time goes on."
Looking to the future – and Cassava Republic does look set for a very bright future – more expansion is on the horizon. "Obviously, we would like to go into the US, because there’s a big market there. But we want to maintain our list together as it travels, rather than take it apart into individual authors. I think we’re building a strong brand, a brand that both Africans and non-Africans will feel very much aligned to and want to be a part of. We want to maintain that so that it can reverberate across the world… But, let’s do the UK first! One country at a time, one book at a time."