Today my column takes a deserved break from writing about politics. Given the nature of politics – contest over power, resources and privileges – especially in an almost anarchic environment like ours – the topics one writes about could quite often be depressing.
Today I am going to crave the indulgence of my readers to write about myself. Not really about myself as such but my modest effort to contribute to Africa’s knowledge base through the publishing firm I founded in the United Kingdom in 2003. Called Adonis & Abbey Publishers (www.adonis-abbey.com), the company celebrates its 15th anniversary on March 18, 2018 (coincidentally just a day after my own birthday). I borrowed the title of this piece from one of the company’s slogans: ‘Contributing to Africa’s knowledge base since 2003’.
How do I celebrate this anniversary without coming across as vainglorious? In several cultures, one of the manifestations of humility is the ability to take second place and eschew the temptations of self promotion. However, the line between self promotion and sharing a story that could incentivize a few people could be quite thin.
I loved reading novels in my secondary school days – especially series by James Hadley Chase, Macmillan’s Pacesetters and Longman’s Drumbeat. I also enjoyed the works of cultural activists like Dilibe Onyeama, Naiwu Osahon and Obi Egbuna. When I read Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s novel, A Grain of Wheat, I was enthralled when I read that it was written while Ngugi (who was then known as James Ngugi) was studying at the University of Leeds. I resolved that once I entered the University I would do the same. So as soon as I completed my WASC in 1980 and found myself studying political science at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the same year, I began to churn out what in hindsight were half baked manuscripts. I was churning out these manuscripts at the rate of about one every two or three weeks. I would bind each manuscript, with the title of the novel and my name nicely imprinted on the cover. I imagined myself being called a novelist and began to develop what they called ‘artistic temperament’ to match.
Apart from Fourth Dimension Publishers at Enugu which accepted and published my first novella, Fools’ Paradise (written in 1982 but published in 1984), no other publisher was interested. I felt there was a sort of conspiracy by these publishers not to recognize me. Even Fourth Dimension that published the first one and got me to give them the first right of refusal in my subsequent works, wasn’t interested any longer. Self publishing was a rarity in those days.
There was hardly any known publishing house in Southern Nigeria that I did not visit to find out why they were rejecting my manuscripts. I was there with MacMillan Pacesetters in Ibadan where the white woman who was the editor told me I had the record of the highest submission for the series but out of politeness did not add I also held the record of the highest rejection. I visited Longman Drumbeat in Lagos, Fagbamigbe Publishers in Akure, Tana Press in Enugu (owned by the late Flora Nwapa) and Delta Publications also in Enugu (owned by Dilibe Onyeama). The visits changed nothing.
After a while, I suspended indefinitely my interest in being a novelist and found outlets for my creative energy in student politics and football. By the time I left the country in 1988 for Denmark, I had already begun the process of decamping from fiction and concentrating in writing political commentaries which I had no difficulty publishing. By the time I relocated to London from Denmark in 1998 (already with a PhD), I felt I had matured enough and gained enough worldly experience to have another go at fiction writing.
Unlike my other attempts that took two or three weeks on the average to complete, this took almost six months. And when it was completed I submitted it to Heinemann African Writers Series in London, which was then about to wind down the series. I followed up the progress in its evaluation and was getting very positive feedback. One day I got an envelope from Heinemann. I was almost sure it was an acceptance letter as I suppressed my joy while hurriedly opening the envelope. It was the same rejection slip! I was heartbroken.
One day I went to see my friend Baffour Ankomah, a Ghanaian who was the editor of the influential London-based monthly magazine, New African. I was a regular contributor to the magazine. As we chatted I told him of my plans to set up a publishing firm that would publish fiction. I did not mention my rejected novel by Heinemann. Baffour was extremely enthusiastic about the project and was offering tips. The truth is that it was at that meeting in his office that I began mulling the idea of self-publishing my rejected novel. The following month’s issue of the magazine carried a full-page story of the proposed publishing outfit under the title, ‘New Hope for African Writers’. Baffour was effusive in his praise of my supposed ability and mentioned that I was one of the few people he believed could pull such a project through. He obviously trusted me more than I trusted myself.
I registered a company, Adonis & Abbey Publishers on March 18, 2003, and in June of the same year, I published the debut book, Broken Dreams, the novel that was rejected by Heinemann. I was later to meet the Ethiopian scholar Professor Mammo Muchie, who was also Baffour’s friend and equally a regular contributor to New African. We struck up friendship immediately. Mammo was an Africanist to the core and he influenced me a lot. It was not surprising that our second book was his, and was entitled, The Making of the Africa-nation: Pan Africanism and African Renaissance (November 2003). Mammo was later to introduce me to Gamal Nkrumah (the late Kwame Nkrumah’s son), the late Professor Ali Mazrui (we became his European publishers), Bankie Forster Bankie and several Africanists. What was originally meant to be a publisher of fiction became a publisher of Africanist titles. Our titles come from virtually all parts of the continent. Ali Mazrui, who became my senior friend, later introduced me to Professor Isawa Elaigwu. We also became the European publishers of several of Prof Elaigwu’s books while he, in turn, became my ‘oga at the top’ in Nigeria.
In 2004, we felt we needed to start publishing academic journals “to enable African researchers own their research agenda rather than constantly anticipating the needs of the funding agencies.” When we published the first issue of African Renaissance an Africanist in Ethiopia sympathetic to what we were trying to achieve tried to convince the librarian in the African Union to subscribe to the journal. It was a tough sale because the librarian insisted that African journals hardly last up to two years. He reluctantly took out a subscription. This year will be the journal’s 14 years of continuous publication. And we have since added several other journals including Journal of Somali Studies and Journal of African Union Studies. All the journals are indexed by EBSCO, ProQuest, J-Gate, Sabinet and accredited by IBSS. Accreditation by IBSS means that scholars from say South Africa who publish in them automatically qualify for research grant.
One of my hurrah moments was in 2008 when I was invited to the Horn of Africa conference in Sweden which normally brought together several academics from the Horn of Africa – Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti. We had by then published several books on Somalia, including an English-Somali dictionary. As I was entering the hall, Professor Mohammed Haji Mukthar, who invited me, introduced me as the man behind Adonis & Abbey Publishers. I was given standing ovation. My eyes swelled with tears. I remembered all the publishers that rejected my manuscripts.
Though we have remained standing for these 15 long years, I know within myself that I am an awful businessman. I know I am more at home as a public intellectual and academic. Yes, we have published over 150 professional and academic titles; I know we are sustained more by hubris than any successful business model.
Can our 15th anniversary be a turning point? Only destiny can answer that. But there are a few things we plan to do differently.
In 2012 we set up an office in Nigeria, which currently has five employees and some freelancers. But the office only does production for the company’s activities abroad. We neither print nor market anything here. Less than five percent of our authors are Nigerians.
We plan to engage the Nigerian market this year while not compromising our pan Africanist credentials. As part of this engagement, we plan to start printing in Nigeria and offering both local and foreign editions to Nigerian authors. We however want to remain publishers in the real sense of the word, rather than printers that print whatever is thrown at them.
We plan to publish secondary school materials. In particular we plan to launch novellas for young adults specifically for the Nigerian market – along the lines of Pacesetters and Longman Drumbeat series.