The New Gong Magazine

Publishers of New Writing and Images                                                    
      
Selling Africa
                                        By
               Adewale Maja-Pearce


We were in Accra for the 32nd Annual Meeting and Conference of the African Literature Association.
Usually held in the United States for academics who teach in the African Studies programs there, it
was coming to Africa for only the fifth time in its history. This was lucky for us. Just last year we had
decided to do what we had been discussing for a long time and start a publishing house for high
quality Nigerian prose in English when we discovered that we already had two manuscripts on our
hands: War Games, Dulue Mbachu’s first-person novel about a boy coming of age against the
background of the Nigerian-Biafran war in the late 1960s; and my own Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa
and Other Essays, which had originally been accepted – and paid for! – by a small British company
until the publisher suddenly discovered that the title essay was too controversial. So it was that The
New Gong was born. We had hoped to also have our two forthcoming titles – God of Poetry by Uzor
Maxim Uzoatu, his first collection which narrowly missed winning last year’s NLNG Prize; and Vision
Impossible by Isidore Emeka Uzoatu, a novel about the climate of fear under military rule – but they
were still being printed in the US as we set off for Accra so we settled instead for a colourful flyer with
the relevant details.
The decision to print in the US was informed by a number of factors. In the first place, we wanted to
ensure the quality of the product itself. We have since been assured that any number of Nigerian
printers could have achieved the same high standards but always with the caveat that you must sit
down with them to ensure that they properly attend to the work you have paid them to do, which
struck us as unreasonable. More importantly, however, we saw the US as our prime market and so we
needed our books to be readily available there. It was a small matter to arrange storage and postage
facilities and sell directly through the internet. And the internet was central to our purposes, especially
after we discovered that we were able to develop and maintain our own website. In other words, for
the cost of printing alone we could become an international player without even leaving Lagos. All we
had to do was guarantee the editorial integrity of the books we published, which was precisely where
our own expertise lay. Content and not hype was the key in this brave new ICT world.
So also was attending the ALA Conference. In the six months since we had launched, we had tracked
down as many individuals and groups as we could to alert them to our new initiative. Naively, perhaps,
we had thought that our books would fly out of the warehouse, although we had since come to
understand that our initial sales, although modest, were respectable, especially when we also
discovered that US libraries were reluctant to patronise foreign publishers, protectionism being a key
economic policy of the developed world even as it encourages the underdeveloped world to go in the
opposite direction, thereby guaranteeing its underdevelopment.
Another problem we faced was the existence of an outfit called the African Books Collective, although
we had in fact approached them when we were still feeling our way. On the surface, it seemed to be
just what we needed given that it was originally established in 1989 as a self-help initiative for African
publishers wanting to sell their books outside the continent. The head office was in Oxford in the UK
on the grounds that ‘targeted promotion and marketing of books from Africa to the North is financially
and administratively impossible for any one individual African publisher, and it is practically most
effective to access the Northern markets from a Northern base.’* This sounded reasonable enough
on the surface but turned out to be a ruse that may have applied in the pre-internet days of sluggish
communications. The internet, and with it the possibilities offered by virtual bookshops like Amazon.
com, had actually altered the equation in favour of Africa, as we ourselves quickly discovered. In that
respect, Oxford was no more helpful for accessing the US market than was Lagos, where the
overheads were in any case lower. But having got in there quickly we also discovered that ABC
operated what was effectively a cartel. Time and again we were told by potential buyers from the
African Studies programs that they would wait to order our titles from ABC’s US warehouse based at
the University of Michigan and couldn’t seem to understand when we tried to explain that we were
selling independently of them. Moreover, when we first approached ABC we were sent a long list of
terms and conditions which boiled down to them taking 50 per cent of our sales receipts, which also
included any orders we generated on our own account and which had to be routed through them; in
their own words: ‘ABC has exclusive distribution rights for the titles it stocks in the English-language-
speaking markets: the UK, Europe, North America and Commonwealth countries outside Africa.’ The
fact that they excluded Africa itself, the origin of the books, was merely the final insult.
So it was that we arrived in Accra on Wednesday, May 17, 2006 ready to do battle and noticed at
once that ABC had already taken a stand in the room allocated to publishers at the plush conference
centre. Unfortunately, their representative wasn’t around, either then or on the following day when the
conference proper opened. Their stall was taken over instead by the energetic publisher of the
Bayreuth African Studies series, Professor (Dr) Eckhard Breitinger, whose impressive display of
esoteric academic titles – Female Identity in Contemporary Zimbabwean Fiction, Cinema and Social
Discourse in Cameroon, Role-Play in South African Theatre - attracted a good number of sales. ABC
did finally turn up the next day again but only to display their Autumn 2005 catalogue (‘The main
catalogue, the primary vehicle for marketing new titles, is issued twice yearly in Spring and Autumn’),
half-a-dozen badly produced titles from Nigeria (‘Membership is judged by…standards of production’),
and a sheet of paper asking passers-by to write their name, contact and comment (‘The key points for
ABC about participation at book fairs and exhibitions are advance evaluation, preparation, proactivity
at the event, and subsequent follow-up and evaluation’). At one point a Ghanaian representative did
show face but only to dump some more copies of their outdated catalogue. I took the opportunity to
talk with her. Unfortunately, she wasn’t well informed and could only repeat what I have already
quoted above regarding their need to operate out of Oxford. She must have noticed my scepticism
and quickly added that the Oxford salaries were paid for by Northern donor agencies - the Humanist
Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries, the Norwegian Agency for Development
Cooperation, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency – which put me in mind
of Ayi Kwei Armah’s quip in a different context about a neo-colonial coffle owned by Europeans and
misnamed African.
The idea that Northern donor support is a good thing – and not only as it concerns an outfit like ABC
– is taken as a given even as it is used to pay Northern salaries:

ABC is donor-supported, enabling the member publishers to receive the benefit from their overseas
earnings through more favourable terms than would be available under conventional commercial
arrangements. ABC sets its own prices and remits to publishers… The share of the income retained
by ABC is a contribution to the promotion work and overheads, and the shortfall over expenditure is
met by donor support.


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