The Possibilities and Challenges of Digital African Publishing

In Digital by Guest Contributor

Ankara Press

Ankara Press’s new digital anthology of African romance writing posed unique challenges.

Emma Shercliff looks into the creative process behind publishing and distributing an anthology of digital romance writing from Nigeria’s Ankara Press.

By Emma Shercliff

Earlier this year at Publishing Perspectives, we covered the publication of the Valentine’s Day Anthology, a collection of short romance stories by seven leading African authors, translated and recorded in different African languages and published by Ankara Press.

Emma Shercliff

Emma Shercliff

At Africa in Words, Emma Shercliff took a closer (and fascinating) look at the creative process behind the anthology:

Earlier this month, I spent several days in Ibadan, the spiritual home of Nigerian publishing and a city which still houses several major educational publishers. As part of my Ph.D. research, I was interviewing Managing Directors and senior staff at publishing companies, asking about the key issues currently facing their businesses. Amongst the varied responses I received, three issues surfaced repeatedly: the cost of doing business in Nigeria (high price of paper, high price of ink, tariffs & import duties); the failure of government to understand what publishers do (as exemplified by the recent book import tax debacle, little distinction is made between the role of the publisher and that of the printer), and difficulties with the distribution of books (poor transport systems, weak bookselling networks, lack of decent bookstores).

The overhead [costs] incurred by these large educational publishing houses are significant and the environment in which they operate is very competitive; the stakes are high, which means that there is very little collaboration – or even contact – between them, despite the fact that the three largest publishers (HEBN, Evans Bros., University Press PLC) are located next door to each other (and opposite the Nigerian Publishers Association), on a small stretch of road in Jericho, Ibadan.

Writing up these interviews over the past week, I couldn’t help but dwell on the contrast in structure and scale with Nigerian contemporary fiction publishers such as Farafina, Cassava Republic and Parrésia. For example, UPL, a publicly listed company, founded as a branch of Oxford University Press in 1949, today has a staff of 305, 20 branch offices and revenues of 2.3 billion naira (£7.5 million). By contrast, even some of the best-known non-educational publishers have no more than two or three permanent members of staff, a minimal sales and marketing function and slim revenues. And whilst this new generation of African publishers do, of course, face significant challenges of limited capacity and reach, their lean structures also mean that they are amongst the most nimble, creative and experimental publishers operating anywhere in the world.

The Two Faces of African Publishing

Ankara Press Valentines Day AnthologyMany of the differences between these two different faces of African publishing are highlighted by a project I have been involved in coordinating for Ankara Press. Publisher Bibi Bakare-Yusuf and I asked seven well-known African literary authors to write a short romance story (between 300-1000 words), which would be translated and recorded in different African languages, collated into a pdf anthology and released on the Ankara Press website on 14th February, which was also due to be election day in Nigeria. The aims of the Valentine’s Day Anthology were threefold: to provide a counter-narrative to the negative portrayals of ‘Africa’ which we felt would inevitably circulate around the Nigerian elections, to showcase the very best of African writing and to show how versatile and creative African publishing could be.

Creating a literary product, in digital format, for a predominantly African audience allows a publisher a freedom that would be impossible for the more traditional, large educational publishers. I explore here the reasons why I believe that to be the case.

Speed to Market

From conception to publication, the Valentine’s Day Anthology took just under two months. Ankara Press was launched on 15th December (after three years in the making); we conceived the Anthology idea on the 18th December, wrote the brief the same day and contacted the first authors on 19th December (although, with a two-week break for Christmas, several of them were not approached until the New Year). The agility of the small, independent publisher – with no editorial board to pass through, sales departments from which to canvas opinion, or high street booksellers to consult about whether or not they wish to veto the cover design – is evidenced in the speed of decision-making and implementation. Of course, we were producing a 48-page anthology of 14 stories and not a 300-page four-color text book, but nevertheless one advantage of being a small, autonomous publisher is the speed at which ideas can be implemented, with the input of a few, committed members of staff.

Collaboration & Commitment

For me, this project was a fantastic example of how the African writing and publishing community can be incredibly mutually supportive. There are obvious reasons why this was particularly the case in this instance, not least that i) this project was not income-generating and ii) had clearly defined aims which were of interest to the broader writing and publishing community. We saw it as an opportunity to bring together authors and publishers from across the continent to promote African writing and publishing more generally, and this vision did seem to resonate with our peers. We were delighted that publishers including Eghosa Imasuen (Farafina), Billy Kahora (Kwani?) and Elieshi Lema (E&D Vision Publishing, Tanzania) were participants in the anthology as readers and translators. All the authors that we asked to contribute a story agreed to do so almost immediately, as did the translators. There were a few authors whom we asked to read stories that were unable to commit to the short timeframe, although absolutely everyone we asked was very supportive and helped to publicize the anthology once it was published, as did a large number of other publishers from across the continent.

Digital Distribution

Launching the anthology in digital (pdf) format from the Ankara Press website meant that the challenges associated with physical books (printing, shipping, customs, distribution) were avoided. None of the issues identified by the large educational publishers in Ibadan were factors here: no paper or ink costs, no tariffs to negotiate, no involvement with government, no involvement with the bookselling network, no physical distribution problems. However, we were still hampered during the production process by incredibly slow Internet speeds in the office – and a connection that often dropped out altogether. This meant that it took us perhaps one or two days longer to actually format and upload the pdf than had we been in London or New York (or even near a better connection in Abuja).

Ground-breaking Innovation

Content: The project brief specified that ‘We want to counter the stereotypical perception of romance by releasing a set of short, elegantly written stories, authored by men as well as women, to coincide with Valentine’s Day. The stories do not have to conform to a formulaic romance template; we want to publish romantic stories that reflect the realities of African lives.

Consequently, the anthology contains four happy endings, two stories that contain the frisson of seduction but ultimately end in disappointment and a romance within a murder scene that is so original it defies categorization. Our aim was to disrupt the romance genre, as well as providing the element of uplifting entertainment, asking authors to “make it meaningful for themselves,” and I think the stories largely succeeded in this, despite some of the subject matter perhaps being a little less upbeat than we’d originally anticipated. Moreover, all the stories were elegantly written, even if some of the tales were ultimately (and not just for reasons of extent) perhaps less empowering than the full-length romances published by Ankara Press.

Personally, one of the parts of the project I enjoyed most was being involved in discussions with authors about what it meant for a ‘literary’ author to write romance. Several of the comments made by writers – reproduced here with permission – highlighted their frustrations with feeling they needed to conform to a genre which needed a happy ending (despite the brief stating otherwise).

“I mean, how can you write a story and not visit some catastrophe on the characters?”

“Seriously, asking hardcore fiction writers to write a 1000-word romance story seems like asking a herd of cows to walk through a minefield.”

It was also revelatory that romance proved perhaps not as easy to write as the authors had imagined:

“Bloody hard this thing called romance. Me, I don’t even do it well in real life.”

Another writer sent through their finished story with the following message:

“So here is what I have been able to write. I know for sure now why I never thought of writing romance for a living. I would have died a hungry, frustrated writer.”

Language:

Each of the stories was translated into another language – Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Pidgin, Kiswahili, Kpelle and French – and an audio version of each original story and translation was recorded. We were enormously proud to publish Binyavanga Wainaina in Kiswahili for the first time, thereby opening up his work – in this case a story of a same-sex “romance” – to a much wider audience in East Africa. But Wainaina was not the only writer to be published in his native language for the first time: apart from Edwige-Renée Dro, none of the authors had been published in a language other than English before – and this was, to some extent, perhaps the most innovative part of the project. There is a lot of talk in literary circles about the importance of publishing fiction in African languages, but it is often difficult for publishers to make it work commercially. We felt it was important to use this opportunity, which was not bound by commercial imperatives, to reach a wider, non-English, readership.

However, commissioning translation is not without complications. Finding reliable translators and proofreaders in less-widely spoken African languages was an issue. For example, having attempted to commission a translation of Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s story ‘Painted Love’ in both Hausa and Egbira, we were (for various, complicated reasons) unable to use either of the translations that we received. Therefore, at a very late stage, Ibrahim himself agreed to translate (or re-create) his story into Hausa and we, regrettably, had to drop the Egbira translation. There were also associated difficulties involved in finding proof-readers, particularly for a language such as Igbo that has different orthographies and contested levels of formality. The audio recordings also presented problems; for example, how does one stitch together five separate Hausa audio files when one does not speak Hausa?

Format:

We encountered a range of challenges on the production front, although many of these would have been the same for publishers producing an anthology in digital or print format. Including less widely spoken languages meant that our designer needed to install additional fonts, although that ultimately proved a relatively simple process (when I asked him how we were going to cope with the Kpelle translation, he replied ‘by Googling ‘Kpelle font’ and clicking download’ – and so it proved). We had hoped to include a Gikuyu version of Binyavanga Wainaina’s story, but the translator encountered significant technical difficulties, needed to insert all the accents by hand, and simply ran out of time. Recording the audio component of the anthology proved relatively straightforward for some readers – most simply recorded the pieces on their Smartphones and emailed them to us – but significant difficulties for others, due to a combination of technical difficulties, unfamiliarity with the recording process, and the difficulty of finding a quiet place in which to record (four audio stories had to be re-recorded because of background noise). And, again, there was an Internet issue – trying to send and upload the audio files.

Of course, this project was not without its stresses. Trying to corral 30 participants into an extremely tight production schedule was a challenge. At one stage we were trying to coordinate seven authors, eight translators, seven proof-readers and eleven readers spread across multiple countries. There were the inevitable delays to deadlines: in a couple of instances, the late delivery of manuscripts, without which the translators could not begin their work, in turn meant that the time for recording the translations of the audio was severely compressed (the Hausa version was finally recorded the night before launch). There was no question of delaying the publication date: a Valentine’s Day Anthology loses its sparkle somewhat if it launches on 15th February. I suspect that there may also have been a misapprehension on the part of some participants that, because there was no physical printing involved, our production schedule was not as rigid as we were maintaining. Perhaps we should have made it clearer that the formatting of a digital product takes the same amount of time as for a print product; in fact, arguably longer as we wished to insert hyperlinks throughout the anthology (e.g. linking to publishing websites mentioned in the biographies) and also needed to insert and test the fourteen audio links.

I recently re-read an article by Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani published in the New York Times in November. It had struck me at the time that it was rather at odds with my experience of the publishing industry in Nigeria (and indeed, more widely across Africa) but in light of my work on this anthology it now feels even more misrepresentative. Nwaubani argued that writers feel compelled to write for ‘Western eyes’ and that the content they are generating falls into the bracket of “savage entertainment.” I agree with Nwaubani that capacity within the African literary publishing industry is limited, but the industry that she describes feels out of date. There have been a number of spirited responses to this article already (notably by Igoni Barret and Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire). However, to me, the Valentine’s Day Anthology provides another example of an African publisher (and writers) clearly privileging the African reader over the Western one in terms of content – and using new forms of digital production to counter some of distribution issues that Nwaubani outlines. I acknowledge that physical distribution of books remains problematic throughout Africa, and an expensive and inefficient postal system can make e-commerce challenging, but Nwaubani describes online shopping as “still an esoteric venture” and says that “the struggling local publishing industry is unable to make books available and affordable.” In reality, an increasing number of publishers are making their books available both from their own websites and via online platforms such as Konga, Buyam, Kalahari and e-Kitabu; Ankara Press is selling e-books at N500, available to anyone with a credit card, debit card or Paypal account; and readers worldwide can buy a Storymoja Drumbeats ebook romance from Amazon for as little as £1.

I am fully aware that one has to be careful about extolling the virtues of this Valentine’s Day Anthology project too highly for the simple reason that there was no commercial imperative (one could argue it is easy to get support for a project where one is giving away the content for free). However, the hugely positive response we’ve received – both from within Nigeria (including articles in national newspapers such as The Guardian, Punch, Tribune and the Weekly Trust), internationally (including coverage on CNN and CNBC) and on social media means that we are convinced there is a market for this type of ground-breaking project and there is no reason why this project cannot be used as a model for a future, paid-for anthology – where all the participants would receive a share of the income.

Of course, there are many other innovative publishing initiatives all over the continent: The Jalada Sext Me anthology is a particularly interesting example of innovative increasingly pan-African publishing (albeit with, for me, a more problematic portrayal of relationships, and of female sexuality). And there are many other initiatives – Saraba, Chimurenga, Storymoja, Kwani?, Short Story Day Africa, StoryTime – which are breaking ground in their own ways, as well as initiatives designed to give more profile to African languages, such as the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize.

The Valentine’s Day Anthology is just one individual project, not without its shortcomings, but for me it does give a snapshot of both the possibilities open to and the challenges faced by an African publisher. It has carved out a space to experiment with content, language and form, and to present an alternative view of “everyday” life in Africa. There are things we would do differently next time (not least, start commissioning pieces several months earlier!). We would have liked to include authors from other countries, particularly from South and North Africa. Perhaps next time, we could ask participants to contribute works in African languages, which we could then translate into English. We could make the stories longer, use video as well as audio, produce a print-on-demand version of the anthology. The possibilities are endless. All it takes is a supportive publishing community, a far-sighted publisher and a group of extremely talented and open-minded writers and translators.

Emma Shercliff is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Education, University of London. Her research explores and documents the role of female publishers in shaping the literary landscape in Africa. Emma worked in the publishing field for over ten years and was formerly Managing Director of Macmillan English Campus, a digital publishing division of Macmillan Publishers. She is currently based in Abuja, where she is working for the British Council on a research project looking at approaches to gender within teacher training in Nigeria.

Download Ankara Press’s Valentine’s Day Anthology, featuring short stories by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Binyavanga Wainaina, Chuma Nwokolo, Edwige-Renée Dro, Hawa Jande Golakai, Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Toni Kan for free here.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.