Bibi Bakare-Yusuf has lost her voice. This means no Zoom chat for this interview, but in an era of Zoom chat after Zoom chat, followed by the odd rogue Microsoft Teams meeting, and possibly a cheeky Google Meet to round out the day, maybe one fewer video conversation is better for everyone. It’s interesting to think that video conferencing tool Skype fumbled a 17-year lead and lost its crown to Zoom with the emergence of the pandemic—but this reminds us that in the world of business you can’t be complacent. You have to work hard for customer loyalty.
African publisher Cassava Republic has been able to carve out a space in the industry by catering directly to the wants of its readers and trying to reach them directly, in non-traditional spaces. An academic, Bakare-Yusuf set up Cassava to “change the way the world thinks about African writing”, and as she didn’t have a background in publishing or business, she was willing to ask questions about how the industry operates. She was also open to help and guidance, which she received from generous industry leaders such as Allison & Busby co-founder Margaret Busby and Faber then-c.e.o. Stephen Page.
Although, because there is a lot of “deference to the way things have always been done” in the industry, Bakare-Yusuf says coming with an outside perspective enabled her to challenge things that others might take for granted, leading her to ask questions like: “Why can’t we have a more unmediated relationship with our readers? Why can’t we have an approach to bookselling that focuses on where the readers are, rather than where we want them to be?”
Finding a way to answer these questions is at the heart of what makes Cassava Republic such an important and pioneering company. Bakare-Yusuf says that not being able to rely on mainstream support in the way that larger, or less “niche” publishers can, is a “major opportunity” for the press, as it enables it to get creative about ways to reach readers more directly. Through initiatives such as the Black Literary Salon, which the press set up last year in partnership with communications agency A+F Creative, and launching a new podcast, the press is continually looking for new ways to get its books in front of readers.
For Bakare-Yusuf, it was important that she and the staffers at Cassava Republic were thoroughly embedded in the end-to-end process of publishing, and that Africans owned the means of production as well as the writing. “There are so many parts that come together to make the final product of the novel, so many communication channels, and we need to consider the possibility of what our stories would look like if we are reflected not just in the words but in the entirety of the process,” she explains.
“We need people from non-hegemonic groups to have ownership of their stories so that they will not be published as an afterthought, or as a response to crisis, but because there’s intrinsic value to the story on offer that has universal appeal.”
Along the same vein, I ask what Bakare-Yusuf thinks of this special Bookseller issue that is dedicated to Black writing, publishing and agenting. “I think it is a good thing, necessary, and a way to concentrate the mind for a moment—and I commend all the people that have made it possible,” she says. “However, it’s only valuable as long as it’s just one part of a broader cultural change at The Bookseller, and not just a voguish, appeasement measure. It’s good to give these books visibility now, but we don’t want a case where Black books are only featured in isolation or special issues.”
Cassava Republic started in Nigeria in 2006 with two members of staff, and launched in the UK in 2016. The press currently employs seven people across the UK and Nigeria. The differences between the two countries’ industries are pronounced and navigating the two has thrown up many opportunities to learn and innovate. With the Nigerian industry still in its “nascent stages”, according to Bakare-Yusuf, a lack of existing infrastructure makes distribution a difficulty both within the country and across the continent. That said, without rigid protocols and processes, publishers have a level of “flexibility and innovation” that the UK publishing industry is missing, and one which Bakare-Yusuf believes is key to ensuring that the industry is robust and resilient in the future.
Another difference is that Cassava Republic is able to be much closer to its readers in Nigeria, and as the firm sells directly to them, it’s able to harvest something that all successful businesses need: data. “In the UK, with online sales coming through third parties, [those third parties] have all the data, which I think puts publishers in a position of dependency and vulnerability,” says Bakare-Yusuf. “This was even more marked with bookshop closures and Amazon de-prioritising books during lockdown, and it goes to show the importance of publishers building relationships with readers.”
The issues brought about by Brexit and lockdown have been an “interesting combination”, Bakare-Yusuf says, particularly concerning distributing books into Europe. “Timeframes for delivery are longer and we have had some books go missing, only to surface on doorsteps months later,” Bakare-Yusuf says. “This has been challenging because customer satisfaction is at the heart of who we are, and having issues like this is hard to take not just professionally, but personally.”
Like many publishers, a significant portion of Cassava Republic’s sales come from Amazon, the press’ website and through its events, but with lockdown triggering the cancellation of author events and the resulting sales, as well as Amazon’s sudden de-prioritisation of books as non-essential last year, it was a “real blow” to Cassava Republic’s business. Although the publisher saw increased demand for books on its website, it wasn’t able to fulfil them because its small distributor wasn’t able to open.
Cassava Republic had to furlough staff and move most of its titles to 2021 so that it could have more time to promote its titles, empower booksellers to get behind the books and, importantly, to recalibrate. With a lifeline in the form of a grant from the Arts Council England, Cassava Republic has been able to hire two new staff members, who are focused on connecting with more readers and building a stronger online community.
Next year, the publisher will be launching a new non-fiction imprint called Cassava Ideas, which will be 30,000–40,000-word books on ideas that shape society. The first book, Sold Out: How Black Feminism Lost its Soul by Chardine Taylor Stone, will look at the current state of Black feminism today and how it has moved away from its socialist and anti-imperial roots. Bakare-Yusuf says: “We’re always looking to expand the kinds of books we publish, which in recent years has seen us branch out into graphic novels, and we want to do more of them, as well as our first business/travelogue book, Making Futures by Sangu Delle. So, expect more from here...”