After releasing six romance titles in print, Ankara Press is set to reshape how we tell love stories. But can the imprint survive the vicissitudes of Nigerian publishing, queries Solomon Elusoji

These women are independent, strong and bold. They are far from perfect, but they embrace their imperfections and wear it like a halo. They are confident that they have the power to shape their own destiny, that they can dream and be. These are the type of characters you would find in an Ankara Press’ romance novel, far from the willy-nilly stereotypes popularised by harlequin-esque narratives.

Sometime in 2014, Ankara Press was launched as an imprint under Cassava Republic, one of Africa’s most forward-thinking book publishers. The imprint was dedicated to publishing romance novels. It was a brilliant decision. For decades, African publishers have not paid attention to genre publishing, despite its potential to rake in hordes of readers and, obviously, bigger profits. There are definitely tonnes of reasons why genre publishing has been ignored on the continent, but Bibi-Bakare Yusuf, the Cassava Republic chief, has never seemed like a woman interested in excuses.

In December 2014, the imprint released six brand new romance titles from six different authors. They were not printed on paper, but were delivered to the reader via e-books that could be downloaded from the imprint’s website for a charge of 500 naira per download. Then an article was published in THISDAY, noting that selling the titles as standalone e-books was a short term solution to the avalanche of problems involved in producing and distributing the titles in paper, since a large chunk of the audience had yet to make the transition from paper to the screen.

Last February, however, the Abuja-based romance imprint announced the release of its first six titles in print format. The six books became available in Nigeria since last Sunday (Valentine Day), and were priced at 750 naira. The six print titles include: A Tailor-made Romance by Oyindamola Affinnih, Black Sparkle Romance by Amara Nicole Okolo, A Taste of Love by Sifa Gowon, Love’s Persuasion by Ola Awonubi, Finding Love Again by Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam and Elevator Kiss by Amina Thula.

“We have had a fantastic response to the e-books, but have also had a lot of enquiries from readers asking when we will be publishing the books in hard copy,” Ankara Press’ publishing director, Emma Shercliff, said in a press release.

The first question that cropped in this journalist’s mind after getting wind of the news was how the imprint plans on distributing these books – the book distribution network in the country is at best haphazard. Ankara Press’ publishing director, Emma Shercliff, was glad to provide answers.

Emma said the imprint was planning to distribute the books, not only through the usual and limited book retail channels, but to outlets such as pharmacies, hair salons, cafes, bakeries and supermarkets.

“We’ve designed some small counter-top display boxes so that any retail outlet can display and sell the Ankara titles, even if they don’t normally stock books,” she said. “Our aim is to reach people who might not usually be inclined to buy books. And we’ve tried to keep the pricing affordable, at N750, in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. We have printed 5000 copies of each title and hope to sell these through as quickly as possible so we can reprint again soon.”

It is difficult to predict how this could play out. The publisher is taking a big risk in diversifying its retail channels, as it would face fresh challenges in collecting revenues from book sales (retail outlets usually carry books on credit) and managing additional expenses. But, if it can pull this off, the rewards are equally huge, not just for Ankara Press but for Nigerian publishing as a whole.

More importantly, however, is the imprint’s model – one that minimises risk and allows the publisher continue to produce a stream of titles. Ankara Press seems to have settled on the digital-first, print-later model. Together with the six print titles released on Valentine Day, two new novels – The Seeing Place by Aziza Eden Walker, the story of an up-and-coming actor who falls for his casting director and Love Next Door, the second novel for Ankara Press by South African writer Amina Thula – were released as e-books.

“Yes, this is our model for Ankara Press,” Shercliff confirmed. “When we launched the first six titles, one of our aims was to test the market for digital books. We knew that if we released the books simultaneously in print and digital then people might not be inclined to buy the digital version as e-commerce is still a relatively new phenomenon here in Nigeria. So this strategy has allowed us to test the market for romance e-books in Nigeria. We are planning to continue with this model; it means we can release the e-books as soon as the digital files are ready, so readers can enjoy the books as early as possible if they don’t wish to wait for the print!”

So, what has been the scale of revenue that has accrued from digital sales of the original six titles released in December 2014? How has the market responded? Shercliff wouldn’t share figures, but she said that the imprint was “pleased with sales.”

“I think there are still some barriers to people buying e-books in Nigeria, even though we have tried our best to make the process as easy as we can by making it possible for people to pay for e-books by credit or debit cards in naira, dollars and pounds, or via Paypal,” she said. “And we’ve had a few emails from people overseas saying that they are wary of using credit cards online in Nigeria, so there is still a learning curve to convince people that e-commerce in Nigeria can be safe and secure!”

Meanwhile, it is delightful to note that the Ankara Press e-books were free from Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection. This should encourage sharing and, ultimately, increase book sales through inducting more readers into the e-reading world. However, Ankara Press limited the sales of the e-books to their website. It was not available on any digital bookstore. Shercliff said it soon would.

“When we launched Ankara Press we were keen to test the market and we thought that the best way of doing that was to keep control of our retail channels, at least to begin with, and selling only from www.ankarapress.com,” she said. “This allows us to see very clearly where our customers are from and if we do promotions on the site we can see immediately if that has an impact on sales. It also meant we could control our pricing more tightly because when a publisher sells books via Amazon, for example, Amazon sets the price.

”It has been fascinating seeing where our customers are based – I would say probably about a third of them are from Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, notably South Africa and Kenya; a third are from the US, and a third from the UK/Europe. I love seeing where our readers are based – it is fun to think that readers in Chile, Finland and Russia are reading African romance! But we always intended to roll out the books to other online retailers. Since 14th February 2016 all of the Ankara Press titles are available via online retailers worldwide including Kobo and Amazon, as well as from www.ankarapress.com.”

There’s a unique verve to how things are done at Cassava Republic, since it was set up in 2006 to “change the way we all think about African writing.” That verve has been channelled into Ankara Press, and it would be interesting to see how the imprint scales up its romance titles and infiltrate an untapped market with its empowering ideology.

“We are trying hard to keep up with the demand from our readers and hope to publish another four titles in e-book format before the end of 2016,” Shercliff said, adding “We will also release the first six print titles in the UK and Europe on 1st July 2016.”