Parresia Books

Parrésia Publishers Ltd is a publishing company based in Lagos, Nigeria. They have published notable authors like Chika Unigwe, Abubakar Adams Ibrahim and Helon Habila.

Richard Ali, Chief Operating Officer at Parrésia, shares his opinion on the state of publishing in Africa.

READ: On Publishing Business in Africa: Louise Umutoni

Richard disagrees that acquiring (international) literary accolades is the express ticket to getting published by major African publishing firms. Publishers focus on good writing, he insists…

I do not agree that literary accolades, of any value, and definitely not for the sales-boosting value which you ascribe to them, can be merely “acquired”. They are not yams, nor cars, nor cowrie shells. To your question, my answer is that these young writers should test their talent and get known, then they can benefit from publishing opportunities that come to the known eh?

The truth is different. Publishers focus on good writing, particularly good writing that has a chance of selling. Publishing is a business. Now, where a writer has won an award, or is a TV personality, or has a vibrant social media following (not always), the chances of a publisher selling the book increase. It’s got little to do with the writers themselves or even the prizes or accolades they have won. It has everything to do with the psychology of the market, the psychology of the average book buyer who, beyond talent, are actually buying that accoutrement of talent—success.

The issue of international acclaim is a different one entirely. It has to do with the politics, for want of a better word, of the framing of stories. A story is a sociological creation and can be interpreted, and used, within a sociocultural frame. How this is done is the politics I refer to—what is emphasized, what is ignored and so on. Africa and the West have had power relations, colonization for example, to Africa’s disadvantage. Stereotypes, of the “African monkey” or the “childlike/noble savage”, have been created to aid and legitimize this adverse power relation. The question is, if we allow the West validate our writing, at what point does this legitimize the West’s agenda to our detriment? Put another way, at what point does the danger of legitimizing the validator’s stereotypes become a clear and present one?

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Talking about the West, African readers find western books sold on the streets easier to buy because of their cheap prices. Perhaps young readers shy away from buying books made here because of their high prices? Hear what Richard says…

I’m afraid this is well out of the hands of the publishers. The price of books, in Nigeria for example, is related to the cost of producing books. Then the question of how many corners a particular publisher is willing to cut comes in. Parresia Books and Origami Books, my company’s imprints, demand the highest production quality. I still have some of my father’s AWS books bought in the 70’s still intact, spines still holding. We refuse to cut corners in the belief that a reader who truly appreciates a well told story or poem, in a well-edited and qualitatively produced book, will pay the extra.

Most of these books from the West you say are cheaper are second hand books, used already. A brand new book in the West costs more than what it costs here. On the average, $15, that’s about N3500. What happens is that in the affluent West, when readers are done with books, or when they die for example, these books are picked up for cents by business people who then export them to Africa and sell for a dollar or two.

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Comparing the two…

It would be unfair to do a head-to-head comparison between the sophisticated book industries of the West, which the cheap used-books you buy at Wuse Market corner is merely the shit of, with what we have here. There is no single paper mill in Nigeria, not one. Nor is paper subsidized. Even the sheet of paper President Buhari writes notes of national importance on are imported from Asia and elsewhere. How do we compete then in terms of pricing? There are no proper bookstore chains; a publisher has to transport his books to small, often sole proprietor-owned, bookshops. This costs money. These costs are reflected in the cover price.

We would like to price our books cheaper, but there’s just no way. A ream of paper costs about N10, 000. The average book can take up a minimum of 10 reams. Then you factor in printing ink, and printer’s profits. Then editing, cover design, layout design. An average production quickly costs half a million naira. And then you factor in bookstore and distributor margins, ranging from 30% to 40% of the cover price. You find that with a book with a cover price of N1500, the publisher is barely making any money.

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Richard also speaks on structures put in place to ensure that writers are not left impoverished and chasing after publishers for returns…

We try. But let us pose the question with a different slant—what structures are in place to ensure that publishers do not go bankrupt chasing after their money from bookshops who have sold their inventory? What I mean, of course, is that there is always an element of risk in business and then there is fraud and sheer perversity. Does the writer refuse to write because of this? Does the publisher refuse to publish because of this? These are the dilemmas. And I guess the answers will vary, depending on what sort of writer is in question, what sort of publisher is in question.

At Parresia Books, we always pay our royalties. At least half of our writers receive advances on royalties, which usually covers royalties for the first print run of 1000 copies. For example, if a writer is getting N1 per book for royalties and I give him an advance of N1500, it means I’ve paid for his royalties for 1500 copies. And he’s off to buy himself a car or whatever. Then I, the risk taker, have to sell 1500 books. Some writers on our premier Parresia Books imprint do not get advances, of course. Yet there have been instances of writers who have received their royalties on print runs even before the print run is exhausted. We are in publishing for the love of books. Our writers trust us. We try not to betray that trust. Our logo is, in fact, Your Words. . .In Trust.

I cannot speak for other publishers. Nor can I speak for all publishers.

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On the amount of energy put into the marketing of books…

A lot. But not enough. I would like to have a well-staffed marketing department creating buzz over my books. But to do this, I would need to pay more salaries, which will be reflected in the cover price. Which cover price you, as a journalist, are already complaining on behalf of your readership about. So, we try to maximize what we can from the limited personnel available.

Richard explains what is done to improve the editorial and production quality of books in Africa…

Editing is a crucial aspect of book publishing and it is true that there is a question of capacity. There are just about four, about five, editors in Nigeria I can recommend. There is, of course, several times that number of editors so-called. Capacity is being built. Ellah Allfrey, former Editor at GRANTA, held a workshop in Nairobi two years ago to build editorial capacity. I believe the African Writers Trust is also doing something along that line. Our author, Helon Habila, is on the board of the AWT. A Ugandan friend, Jackee Batanda, also has a writing camp where editorial skills are taught to aspiring writers. A sort of workshop. So, things are changing.

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Young writers have their works published and after sometime, say the initial book tour, they seem to go extinct. Richard responds on what can be done to keep readers updated with works of these writers and bring them to full boom…

Give us money, buy the books, you will have all the tours you want.

To make publishing in Africa exciting and satisfying, Richard adds…

African governments need to step in and understand they shouldn’t be afraid of writers and books. Perhaps if this is done, the impediments to the free flow of ideas that publishing facilitates would be removed? Definitely the cost of production would go down. Access to loans for small and medium scale enterprises would see more players enter the key segments of distribution and marketing for example. The curriculum also needs to be looked into, to create, as it were, citizens who have a hunger for the written word particularly and culture generally.

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Richard says books are for everyone and so African governments must step into the publishing scene! I hope they are reading this 😀 Next is Sulaiman Adebowale, a Nigerian publisher based in Dakar! You don’t want to miss it 🙂

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