Parrésia is not a very old publishing house, even though you are moving oceans. Tell me the Parrésia story. When did you start?
I like the idea of my modest company moving oceans, you are very kind. Yes, it is true that we are a very young company, just three years old now, we set up shop in 2012. Parrésia started as a publishing service cum literary agency, believe it or not. And the original ideas that became Parrésia were incubated on Facebook where I met my business partner and Parrésia’s Managing Editor, Azafi Omoluabi-Ogosi. I had an interest in publishing and she had spent years in the industry already, having worked for Farafina-Kachifo in Lagos as an editor. The idea, originally, was to offer editorial services to writers in order to make their manuscripts more likely to get picked by the new wave publishing firms in Nigeria–principally Farafina-Kachifo and Cassava Republic Press. So, the first of the Parrésia businesses to be registered was the Parrésia Literary Agency.
We edited a number of manuscripts but in time it became obvious that some of our favourite manuscripts were still not getting published. You must understand that there was a new wave of Nigerian publishing following the flight of the bigger international firms, the Longmans, Heinemann and so on in the 80’s and 90’s. The return of democracy saw a stir in the sector with new publishers taking risks on new fiction, literary fiction, short stories and so on. This matched the coming of age of a new Nigerian writing–Helon Habila, Chimamanda Adichie and similar. By the time Parrésia came in, in 2012, there had set in certain diminishments of capacity. The risks on brash new writing that had made these companies were no longer being taken.
So, we decided to set up shop as a publishing house and registered our first imprint, Parrésia Books. It was set up for literary fiction and creative non-fiction strictly and has remained true to this, we set out to publish between two and four books each year. We decided that new authors would get an advance on royalties of roughly $800, a practice that had been unheard of for decades in the Nigerian publishing industry. This expression of confidence endeared us to our market. Eventually, the Origami Books imprint was registered as a generalsbody–poetry, drama, anything at all of sufficient quality and of interest to the company–to provide publishing services. In 2013 we set up the Crime-and-spy fiction imprint called Cordite Books in partnership with Helon Habila. Zimbabwe’s Blessing Musariri won the $1000 manuscript prize and we will be publishing her book in 2015.
What do you consider your biggest feats thus far?
Our greatest pride is in our Publishing List. Some of the most powerful writers in Africa are on our List and for some of these, we were the very first platform they had. Name it–Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Helon Habila, Chika Unigwe, Molara Wood, Emmanuel Iduma, amu nnadi (Chijioke Amu-Nnadi), they are all on our List. Abubakar, Emmanuel, Molara Wood were published first by Parrésia and we are very proud of this, this platform provisioning. Blessing Musariri is our first international author and we are comitted to publishing more writers from East and Southern Africa, from North Africa as well, in the coming years. Our motto is “Your words. . .in trust.”
Our moment of great pride, our greatest feat to use your term, was Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s being shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing last year. The reason is that Abubakar was our very first author. He is the one whose stories we loved so much enough to wish to take a risk on. He was the one who liked the idea of Parrésia enough to entrust his manuscript in our as yet untested hands. So, the Caine nod was a nod to the efficacy of Parrésia’s chasing its dream. We were the only in-Africa publisher in the lineup that year, I repeat this because it is important, it demonstrated our keeping words in trust. That was one fine moment. The publication of Emmanuel Iduma’s Farad was also of great personal importance to me in that we have published, in that book, Africa’s most amazing literary stylist. The taking of risks on an unconventional book like Farad is fittingly Parrésia conduct and we wish we had the money to take on more risks like that.
The arrival of Helon Habila, Chika Unigwe and Molara Wood are also great feats. And, of course amu nnadi’s being shortlisted for last year’s NLNG Prize for Poetry was a good turn. The NLNG Prize, while a local Nigerian prize, has a prize sum of $100,000. So it’s a big deal. amu nnadi’s through the window of a sandcastle went on to win the the 2013 Association of Nigerian Authors Prize for Poetry.
We are proud of these modest mentions. We are just three years old. We look forward to even more. I’d like to publish an Egyptian or Namibian writer and have them win some major prize. Then we would be demonstrably holding Africa’s words in trust.
I have noticed that several universities in Nigeria are adopting Parrésia books for their Literature curricula. How does this happen? Do you approach them and ask or do they come to you and ask?
The universities have been a critical market for us, so much so that we shifted our strategy and now have student editions of most of our books and these cost about 30% less. A month ago, we delivered 70 copies of Chika Unigwe’s Night Dancer to an English Department class at the University of Jos. The academic market is a personal one in the sense that it leverages on relationships nurtured with academics over the past decades. My partner, Azafi’s father was a psychology Professor at the University of Lagos. I have had long association with dons at the Departments of English and Theatre Arts in the University of Jos. I studied at the Ahmadu Bello Umiversity, Zaria. And so on. Our agents in southwestern Nigeria, Messrs WriteHouse, have also brought to bear their own contacts within various universities.
It is a mix of both strategies. Some academics approach us. We give out consideration copies. Sometimes, we’ve had students recommend our books to their professors and a don calls us and makes inquiries. We follow it up from there.
I don’t know how it works in other countries but professors in Nigeria have wide latitude in the setting of undergraduate texts for their courses and beyond their obvious discourse forming and channeling activities, they are also critical to booksellers as access points to a considerable market.
Does putting books on the syllabus increase sales, considering that education is fair use under copyright law and so people can photocopy etc. without infringing on your or the writers’ rights?
It does increase sales. But the reality of photocopying textbooks is there and it would have been a bigger problem if we had had access to the secondary school market. There, piracy would be an added challenge. But, at present, with the universities, this is not a serious issue. We sell an average of 40 – 50 books to each class. I don’t know about class sizes in other countries but an average undergraduate class in Nigeria contains about 70 to 80 students. The pressure is higher than in the West, but then the population is higher. Nigeria has 160 million people.
Some young readers prefer popular fiction (think Mills and Boon) to literary fiction, yet they get compelled to read the latter because it is on the syllabus. Literary fiction then gets branded boring and too academic. Does Parrésia consider these readers in its strategy? Is pop-fic on your agenda?
What do you learn from Mills and Boons? There is a certain pleasure to it. You read it for pleasure. Like taking sugar. Genre fiction works in the opposite way that literary fiction works. It starts from a core set of assumptions, that the reader already is predisposed to certain thematic and plot expectations. A whodunnit is a whodunit, it isn’t particularly interested in the peculiar taste of a slice of apple and how this leads to thoughts of traumatic moments in childhood. Or how a chance glance in a market, a question seen in the eyes of a stranger who is then swallowed up by rush hour crowd, can alter the entire course of a life. This is not the stuff of romance or crime fiction or YA. A whodunit expects a cop or journalist, or private eye, and a smoking gun, and some resolution. Am I articulating myself correctly? The same way genre fiction is specialist writing, it should be specialist study. A student can study them for his Masters or doctoral work. But secondary school, undergraduate study, I say no.
Now, there is the lazy misconception that literary fiction is impenetrable. The silly deduction that since genre fiction is built around pleasure it follows, so the thinking goes, that literary fiction is bereft of pleasure, that, even worse, it denotes the opposite of pleasure. This is a vulgar error. The purpose of literary fiction, in so far as it features in syllabi, for pedagogical purposes for example, is to lead a young mind into life. There are universal themes, human themes, that writers have grappled with. In entering the world of this fiction, a young mind receives an introduction into some of these world interpretive themes. An introduction, mind you, not an education. For a true education lies in what is done with the material given, what is abstracted, what is submitted and concluded on at the end of an independent mental process. Do you understand me? And do you see Mills and Boons serving this purpose in a school syllabus?
Now, there is the serious issue of books, the so called classics, being mindlessly boring. This is not a problem of literary fiction but of the choice of literary fiction. Great new literary fiction is being written in exciting new ways each year, why are these not making it into the curriculum? Why is such a collection of stories as Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees not on the secondary school curriculum in Nigeria? Has Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi made it in Uganda yet? But these are literary fiction, and these are very interesting and will engage the young very much in the crucial stage of human development that is youth. I cannot read Moby Dick to save my life, nor do I see what the hue and cry over To Kill a Mockingbird is. You would note I am using American classics here, not African ones, for my private political reasons and not because some of these African classics are less mindlessly boring. We need to shakeup the curricula and infuse new blood into the classics, we need to de-ossify the classics. I understand this. But this understanding, and the need and reality that inform it, should not lead to a jettisoning of literary fiction in favour of genre fiction as far as education goes.
Now, to the last bit of your question, Parrésia is a publishing house responsive to the demands of its market. There is an increasing number of people with increasing amounts of disposable income all across Africa. These number in the tens of millions. Surely we wish to deliver our quality books to this demographic? It makes business sense. Our first, ambitious gamble in this direction is Cordite Books. An independent crime and spy fiction imprint edited by Helon Habila. So strongly did we feel about this genre that we are willing to take a huge pan-African risk on its success and Blessing Musariri’s manuscript gives us great confidence that our foray will be a rewarding one. Following my return from Frankfurt, thoughts for a West African children’s fiction imprint and a pan-African romance imprint are being mulled over.
The modern African has many reading needs, a company such of ours, which has pretensions to internationalize our Publishing List and add more national African markets to our current ones, is interested in satisfying these needs both in terms of content and in terms of platforms. I think, but don’t go putting money on it now, that audiobooks is a platform set to deliver juicy returns in the urbanising, commuting Africa.
It is interesting that the Cordite books editor, Mr. Helon Habila is himself a literary fiction writer, or is he not? Will the Cordite prize of $1000 and a book deal be annual? How many titles are going to be published under the imprint? And of course why crime fiction? How many other pop-fic imprints are you thinking of?
Absolutely, but the shift I alluded to in one of my earlier responses comes to bear. Helon Habila is a literary fiction writer, but this classification, literary, does not carry the connotations most seem to assume it does. Being boring, for example. We have sold a lot of copies of Oil on Water. I met with Helon’s German publisher, Manfred Mentzner, last year. In Germany, the very same book, seems to be marketed as crime fiction. The exact same book. See? And it is selling so much that I had regular Germans stop at my stand in the book fair on recognizing the name Helon Habila on my shelves. The love for that book in Germany is without a doubt extensive. Literary fiction is being written these days in all sorts of interesting ways. It is not the stolidity that sets into Moby Dick immediately after the first famous paragraph. It’s in themes and in the way these themes are handled. Okay? Naturally, this is my opinion of Helon’s writing. Perhaps he will have different, more reliable, opinions on whether his fiction is literary fiction or perhaps some definition defying thing. You’ll have to ask him, no?
Helon has always had an interest in genre fiction and an early part of his career as a journalist, before his current academic offices in America, was spent writing for Lagos, Nigeria based Hints Magazine which was genre true-life romance. He was there with masters of the genre like Parrésia’s great friend and supporter, Toni Kan. Cordite Books is a following through of that interest in genre writing.
The plan, as we speak, is to publish Blessing Musariri only in the first year. The $1000 prize helped in getting us a better quality of submissions than we would get normally if writers, bless them, didn’t feel there was some good cash and a publishing deal at stake. So, that may be retained. But that is Helon’s decision and he is the Editor of Cordite Books. You should interview him. Next year, we will probably expand the call for submissions to include spy fiction as well.
We are in exciting new terrain here. So, let’s keep our fingers crossed. We are excited.
Are you making profit, however tiny, or you are still investing and hoping to reach the profitable phase later? There must be something good going for you, as I notice that you are expanding and growing.
Parrésia Publishers Limited is a long term project, we hope we can stay in for the long term. The larger statistics are in our favour and we feel we can break the African market and scoop a bit of the pure gold that is consumer spending in Africa. The bible of the African businessperson is McKinsey Institute’s 2010 Report, Lions on the Move. It gave consumer spending as at 2008 at $860 billion, set to reach $1.4 trillion by 2020. Surely one percent of these figures can be book sales to African consumers? I want me some of that pie.
In real terms, Parrésia remains a labour of love. I don’t draw a salary from it. Sometimes, I might draw a plane ticket from some place to another, but most times, what money we make goes right back into the business.
We are here for the long term, we hope we can stay in business for the long term.
Thanks for speaking to me Richard.