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.