I arrived Frankfurt am Main yesterday after a brief stop over at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Parrésia Publishers Ltd was invited to the 2014 Frankfurter Buchmesse, popularly the Frankfurt Book Fair, and I was honouring that invitation. It was a doubly significant invitation in that, firstly, it heralds further recognition for this company I co-founded with Azafi Omoluabi-Ogosi, following the shortlisting of Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. Parrésia was the only in-Africa publisher at last year’s Caine.
Secondly, it is my first time in Europe. The magic of Europe, as far as Frankfurt is representative, is its order. The downside of Europe, for me, is that the Germans don’t seem to eat any rice at all. My palate remains Nigerian and unyielding.
Today was an introductory event organized by my hosts, LITPROM, the Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin American Literature. A total of 24 participants were drawn from these respective geographies. Other African participants included Bryony van der Merwe (Namibia: Wordweaver Publishing House), Abdulai Sila (Guinea Bissau: Ku Si Mon Editora), Suleiman Adebowale (Senegal: Amalion Publishing), Timothy Richman (South Africa: Burnet Media), Hassane Bennamane (Algeria: Dar el Oumma) and Mohammed El-Bady (Egypt: Sefsafa Publishing).
I was on a panel coordinated by Doris Overlander of the Frankfurt Book Fair. It comprised Volodymyr Samoylenko (Ukraine: Nika-Centre Publishing House) and Marwan Adwan (Syria: Mamhoud Adwan Publishing House). The subject of the panel was “Publishing and Bookselling in Difficult Markets”.
I made the case that distribution and marketing remain Parrésia’s most formidable difficulties, for the problem of quality, both in terms of content and book aesthetics has been solved reasonably well. I also expressed the hope that, following a rejig of the company by the end of the year, the rise in e-commerce would solve the issue of distribution and that our partnership with our agents, WriteHouse of Ibadan, would lower our handling costs and thus free up more money for marketing. To the question of interference by the State in the form of censorship, I noted that, sadly, the Nigerian State has not cared to censor any book recently having taken care to arm citizens, over the last few decades, with an education that can only foster ignorance, not curiousity, definitely not a curiousity to read books or to open minds to inquiry. The most recent instance of interference, the attempted imposition of a new import duty regime, was done mostly out of policy recklessness and not a perverse, censorious intent. Such recklessness is, of course, a symptom of the education system.
Volodymyr Somaylenko then gave a very emotive account of the way the war with Russia has affected his book publishing business adversely. His prewar figures showed an impressive picture of 1.5 books to every citizen in Ukraine being published and sold each year. The proxy war with pro-Russian separatists has seen a dwindling of these figures. It was very touching when Volodymyr presented Doris Overlander with a Ukrainian flag.
But by far the most touching presentation was the one by Syrian Marwan Adwan, whose publishing house is named after his late father, the poet Mamhoud Adwan. His PowerPoint slides detailed the devastation of Syria and its currency and with this the purchasing power of its people. It is inexpressibly sobering when a young man lists, amongst his operational challenges–
1.) People getting killed.
At one point, he asked, “How can people buy books when they need to buy food?” and, to highlight the danger that the business of publishers like him face even without the State interference of a Syrian regime too belaboured to censor books–“Extremists don’t like books and other opinions (either). But we are a publishing house and we (always) have other opinions.” To the question, Why Are We Here? he showed this slide:
HOPE. It is for this boy that Mahmoud Adwan Publishing House remains in business, in Syria, even as Marwan himself is an exile now living in Dubai. He said staying in business, against all odds, is his way of saying “Don’t do war. Reading is a way out of this.” He received an ovation. Suleiman Adebowale was very touched by the presentation and expressed our admiration for Marwan’s “bravery”, suggesting co-publishing to bridge the gap in getting the word on Syria out. In words that remain with me even now, Tamara Nachkebia from Tblisi, Georgia advised that Mamhoud Adwan Publishing House publish even more children’s books because “children must not be affected by war.”
This is a highlight of my first day in Frankfurt. I look forward to the workshop on rights tomorrow and preparing the Parrésia Stand for the Buchmesse proper starting Wednesday the 8th, October.