Nigeria’s Farafina Books: Publishing By Africans for Africans

In Feature Articles by Belinda Otas

• Established in 2004, Farafina Books has become one of Nigeria’s leading independent literary publishers. With 24 titles on its list — including the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — the company is leading a revolution in the movement to publish books by Africans for Africans.

• Though Farafina continues to struggle against the limitations of publishing in Nigeria, notably poor infrastructure and distribution, the owners believe change is coming and have launched editorial workshops to help engender the next generation of African publishers.

By Belinda Otas

LAGOS: In Nigeria, demand is primarily limited to books for the education market. So, how does a literary publishing house thrive and stay profitable? This is the riddle that the owners of Farafina books have been working on since 2004 when they first launched their company. Along the way, they have helped break down barriers within the Nigerian publishing industry and become one of the nation’s leading independent publishers.

Owner Muhtar Bakare has been described by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as “a humanist, who is widely read, a pan-African, who is thoughtful and has an instinctive understanding of the nuances of Nigerian society, and a capitalist eager to prove that publishing can be a viable business.” His company was founded on the premise of “Telling Our Own Stories,” first to Nigerians and then to the wider world, as well as a desire to change the shape of Nigeria’s publishing landscape. “When we started Farafina, publishing in Nigeria was totally focused on textbooks and biographies. No one wanted to touch fiction, and for very good business reasons, too,” says Bakare. “Literary fiction writers in Nigeria were either published abroad or they were publishing themselves out of sheer necessity. We wanted to fill that gap, find and publish good quality literary fiction that could be commercially viable in Nigeria and possibly also exportable. We wanted to deliver quality at a goods price to Nigerians.”

Simidele Dosekun, chief operating officer (COO) of Kachifo, who runs the day-to-day business, adds it is critical for Nigerians to publish themselves, because “For too long, we have been misrepresented by others, especially by those who came and still come with colonizing, paternalistic and exploitative agendas. We have thereby to an extent lost touch with ourselves, our histories, culture and realities.”

New Outlets for African Creative Writing

Since its inception, the owners have developed three businesses, the best known of which is Farafina Books, which offers literary and popular fiction, general interest, children’s and educational books. Farafina has developed a reputation for strong work, particularly among literary enthusiasts, and has published over 25 books including, Everything Good Will Come by Seffi Atta, Purple Hibiscus and Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A Life Elsewhere and Goodbye Lucille by Segun Afolabi, the 2005 winner of Caine Prize for African Writing. Adichie and Atta have also gone on to win awards with their books, with Purple Hibiscus winning the Commonwealth Prize for First Book and Atta taking the Wole Soyinka Prize for Fiction in 2006.

The two other businesses include Farafina magazine, which was in print until September 2009 (there are plans to resume publishing under its non-profit organization, Farafina Trust) and Prestige Books, which offers offers contractual editorial and publishing services, primarily to banks and social organizations.

“The establishment of Farafina –- books and magazine provided a new and credible outlet for contemporary Nigerian writing, literary fiction in particular, in a context of relative scarcity,” says Dosekun. Farafina, she explains, strives to publish “the best in contemporary African fiction which, in our opinion, fairly represents the many complexities -– good, bad and everything else -– of the continent.” She adds, “We would not as a matter of policy shy away from a work which touched upon negative aspects of contemporary African life, but neither would we choose a work which was only defensive against the many negative stereotypes. We choose our books on their merits and hope they spark reflection and dialogue among our readers, reflect our African humanity and complexity to the world.”

Despite a long stretch in which Nigerian publishers were almost exclusively resigned to publishing educational books, Dosekun says their experience proves that people are hungry for new African writing, to see and read stories of themselves and their reality in print.

The Challenges of Publishing in Nigeria

However, she admits, African publishers have their task cut out for them. “We still have work to do; particularly with finding and developing new talent. A lot of the most successful and well-known contemporary African writers were first published abroad, including most in our stable. We also need to further develop our editorial capacity so that we can develop some of the manuscripts sent to us which have potential but maybe need further honing and crafting.”

What’s more a general lack of enthusiasm for reading still persists throughout the country. Dosekun points out there are a number of reasons which compound to this factor. “There are many things, which diminish the book reading culture in a country like Nigeria, especially among the youth, such as the dominance and popularity of multimedia entertainment. However this is not particular to Nigeria or Africa, it also affects reading in the West. Relatively high rates of poverty and under-education means books may be low priority for more people than elsewhere.”

Bakare describes the current state of Nigeria’s publishing industry as “severely challenged.”

Distribution remains one of the biggest hurdles Nigerian publishers have to overcome. “Our books are available in bookshops in the major cities of Nigeria,” he says. “However, they are not as widely distributed as we would like due to the fact that there is no effective or centralized distribution chain for books. Instead we and most other publishers employ sales representatives nationally and deal with lots of individual booksellers, retail outlets and schools scattered around the country. This is not efficient or cost-effective and is also risky. Our books are not widely available all over west Africa for the above reasons.” Hence, he says Farafina is developing creative means to expand its distribution network. He goes on to add the fact that small publishers across Africa need to develop a centralized and independent distribution network, who would in turn work with a chain of outlets; stating this is the model used in the west, which gives publishers the chance to focus on publishing and not distributing.

Printing, too, is an issue. Farafina prints from as little as 1,000 to as many 100,000 units of its books, depending on the nature of the title and the anticipated or established demand for it. Dosekun said Farafina prints both locally and when necessary, overseas in the Middle East and Asia. It is Farafina’s aim to make quality books affordable for its market, while imported books remain prohibitively expensive. “We keep affordability in mind when pricing, which is also affected by the quality of the book we printed, location of printing and the level of marketing we need to do in order to sell the book,” she noted.

And though the Nigerian publishing industry is lagging behind that of the West, both Bakare and Dosekun admit there is a renaissance with the new wave of writing and publishing coming from small publishing outfits and publications dedicated to fiction, general interest and niche genres. It is Bakare’s belief that the only way this can be sustained is for Nigeria and Nigerians, “To embrace freedom of expression, invest in education, literacy and subsidize the production of culture.” Dosekun adds that the business environment needs to improve to make publishing more viable. “If infrastructure is improved, reducing overheads and inefficiencies, more retails chains and outlets are established, the government offers incentives to publishers, and if people read more and are better educated, this will lead to more disposable income.”

Change is Coming: Farafina’s Editorial Workshop

In addition to its drive to deliver quality books and new writing, Farafina is also equipping the next generation of editors and writers in Nigeria. Earlier this year it inaugurated the first Farafina Trust Editorial Workshop for editors, with the aim of aim transferring knowledge of best practices and providing a forum to discuss the challenges African publishers face to the editors. The three-day editorial workshop was held in March and in Lagos, and facilitated by Ellah Allfrey, deputy editor at Granta, and former senior editor at Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Random House Group

In respect of the success Farafina has had as a publishing house, there are issues within the Nigerian publishing industry, they would like to see changed. “We would like to see the editorial and production quality rise, especially for children’s and educational books, “says Bakare. “There’s also considerable corruption in the industry as publishers compete to get their books on government lists which ensures them bulk sales, as well as the problem of piracy of books on government lists and those in high demand. The pirated version sells at almost half our price and is of very shoddy quality.”

All the same, Bakare and Dosekun believe African publishing will get stronger, more organized and efficient, and have more collaboration between publishers. “We will get amazing results from well thought out investments in education, literacy, a robust commercial infrastructure and a well designed and diligently implemented program of subsidies for the production of culture,” says Bakare. As to how Farafina fits into that picture, Dosekun says they hope to stay at the forefront of producing quality books of different genres, in addition to developing, “Multimedia content, including CD-ROMs, e-based learning platforms and films.”

“We are in the industry for the long haul,” adds Bakare. “We are pragmatic and believe in a well regulated market economy. We will continue to run our business ethically, continue to innovate and explore new channels while edifying African ideas to Africans at affordable prices.”

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About the Author

Belinda Otas

Belinda Otas is a versatile journalist, writer, cultural critic and an independent blogger. She has a passionate interest in Africa: politics, social development, arts and culture, gender issues and the African diaspora. Currently working as a freelance journalist with various publications aimed at the international community – she has contributed to: Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC News Online, The Africa Report, Selamta, New African, Wings, Divascribe, Zam and Under The Influence magazines, Think Africa Press and This Is Africa, among others.