Abuja — When Bibi Bakare-Yusuf holds her two reviewers' copies of Kemi's Journal—one printed in India and one in Nigeria—side by side, the difference is night and day.
Abidemi Sanusi's 2005 release looks vibrant with its red Indian-printed cover depicting Kemi's world—her thoughts, her person, her attitude. The same book, printed in Nigeria, looks a bit dull. The blue hues fade into the surroundings and the thinner paper inside smears slightly from ink that is not quite refined enough.
Cassava Republic, Nigeria's newest literary publishing company, prints in India. Bakare-Yusuf, its founder, says she wants its books to rival those published in London and the United States—not just in literary quality, but in appearance as well.
Cassava Republic is unique in Nigeria, not only for its quality printing but because it exists at all. When Bakare-Yusuf returned to Nigeria after a period of living in the United Kingdom, she was astonished. Literature and its publishers had all but disappeared, leaving religious works, self-help books, and textbooks to fill the shelves.
The mood had changed, too. "I found it upsetting," she said. "Someone will spend 5,000 naira on a self-help or management book, but ask them to pay 850 naira for a novel and they will moan and groan."
Nigeria was once home to a flourishing market, but years of military rule pushed international publishers out; not a single one remains in the country today. Economic decline hit the pockets of average Nigerians hard and their budget for luxuries such as books even harder. Thousands from the chattering middle class left the country, including the intellectuals and consumers of Nigerian literature.
"It was the Sahara Desert period of Nigerian literature," says Ken Ike Okere, a co-founder of the Abuja Literary Society. "We didn't know if people were writing because we were not seeing it." Newspapers suffered too; while any of three large papers could sell 500,000 copies a day in the 1970s, today all the papers together are lucky to sell 350,000.
With no retail market and no capital, most publishers now survive by printing textbooks or religious publications, which have guaranteed sales to schools and churches. The market for literature is tougher, and most works that do appear are self-published. Distribution is limited and costly. Most publishers focus on urban centers because the cost of transport and the small market make sales elsewhere unprofitable.
With the exodus of intellectuals and the books they read, many aspiring writers in Nigeria have had no opportunity to learn from their peers. It is no surprise then, that Bakare-Yusuf has struggled to find good manuscripts from the 50 or so she receives every week.
"Think about Yoruba drum training," she says as an example. "It takes years to be a master drummer, years of listening to others, so why should writing be any different?"
Today, Bakare-Yusuf thinks she might just know how to reverse the decline.
"I'm interested in the bottom of the pyramid; the top can go to London to buy books. If I can get books to the masses, conversations about literature will start, a questioning spirit will develop," she explains.
So Cassava Republic is cutting prices and boosting quality. Books like Kemi's Journal that stand out on the shelf cost just 650 naira, compared to the average price of 1,000 naira.
That has meant taking a smaller profit—or none at all. But it's the future market in which Bakare-Yusuf and her company are interested. Once the masses start reading, demand will pick up, she says.
Elite book stores with proper shops are out. Instead, books are being bought in rackety shops outside city walls. In Abuja, where Cassava Republic is based, that means leaving the tidy streets of the capital and heading for the suburbs, where most people live in mud and metal houses. It is on the winding streets of Maraba, Kuje, and Nyanya villages that Nigerians are buying books.
Cassava Republic's raw material is different also. Its books are new, catchy, and accessible. Sanusi is just one of a handful of writers that Bakare-Yusuf has found herself. Another, Teju Cole, author of the forthcoming Every Day is for The Thief, had a blog that caught the company's attention.
And while some titles, including Cain Prize winner Helon Habila and Orange Prize winner Diana Evans, are reprinted from abroad, Cassava Republic has turned down offers from international publishers to reprint.
"I'm interested in authors who engage with the African experience—it's not enough just to have an African author," she explains. "They must be able to speak to the complexities of African realities." Soon, Cassava Republic hopes to re-publish The Hidden Star, by the young South African author, K. Sello Duiker.
Someday soon, more of those authors may come from Nigeria itself. As part of her work, Bakare-Yusuf invites authors whose manuscripts are turned down to take part in writing workshops and join a mailing list of tips and events. Elsewhere in Nigeria, others are doing the same. The Abuja Literary Society also edits manuscripts and helps authors with their work.
All this, says Bakare-Yusuf, is about getting deeper than literature: "When you ask someone to read literature, you are asking them not only to look into the past but to look into the future—to suspend their beliefs today." That just might help Nigeria think its way out of more than just the end of a novel.