The domestication of the romance genre
In December 2014, Nigerian publisher, Cassava Republic Press, launched the digital romance imprint, Ankara Press, with six titles: A Tailor-Made Romance, by Oyindamola Affinnih; A Taste of Love, by Sifi Asani Gowon; Black Sparkle Romance, by Amara Nicole Okolo, Finding Love Again, by Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam, Love’s Persuasion, by Ola Awonubi; and The Elevator Kiss, by Amina Thula.
It was heartening to see the drive towards the domestication of the romance genre begin with so many titles, but then, I worry that readership would be lacking, inadequate to reward the effort. It is doubtful there are as many people reading the books as there were the Mills & Boon series in my time, Nigeria of the ‘90s
“Not a lot of people are talking about these books. It is not trending on Twitter or Instagram. Admittedly, we do not have records of how many copies have been sold, but in the digital world, success is not exactly measured by sales; it is measured by engagement,” wrote Solomon Elusoji in ThisDay.
Too much to read; no time
Considering the barrage of information the average young person – who I suppose is the target audience of these novels – has to process on social media on a regular day, the assumption is that he or she is too distracted or jaded to pay attention to any long-form writing on screen. Stories online are getting shorter, not longer. And with mobiles, readers have become narrators, writing their own fairy tale on Facebook.
In the era earlier mentioned, the Mills and Boon, with its subordinate, Harlequin Romance, resonated with young adults because there was little else by way of romantic literature. The African Writers Series, was literary, Pacesetters was a mix of crime, romance, adventure, politics. Love was just not enough.
“The most renowned African writers usually write literary fiction, while romances read on the continent are usually set in Europe or America and written and published on those continents,” Cosmic Yoruba wrote in This is Africa .
For love stories, you took the Mills and Boon and supplemented it with Nollywood film – it was yet to be so called – and whatever the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) had to offer, which was mostly the weekend line-up of Latin American soap operas and Indian films.
The return to democratic rule in 1999 has ensured better standards of living, so now more persons can afford mobile phones. 82% of mobile phone users in Nigeria access the internet daily. Ankara Press has thus decided to go where the fish are. Its novels are published as e-books, not too long (45,000 limit, according to its latest call for submission), and easily downloadable to mobile.
In an interview with Emma Shercliff for African In Words the co-founder of Cassava Republic, Bibi Bakare Yusuf, said, “It’s an African imprint so we wanted to ensure we could reach African readers across the continent and in the Diaspora, as well as in Nigeria. There is immediacy about publishing digitally – readers all over the globe can have access to the stories on the day of launch. And a digital imprint solves many of the distribution bottlenecks we have experienced with Cassava Republic.”
Good. But are Africans, Nigerians in particular, buying books online or even reading for free the Valentine’s Day anthology? Whatever hope I held for an affirmative was dashed by Bibi herself.
“But this is a short-sighted approach to selling books to a Nigerian (or African) audience. While it is true that a digital imprint solves a lot of distribution bottlenecks and downloads may rake in a sizeable profit for the publishers and authors (cost of paper printing and handling is off), the number of Nigerians who pay to download books online is very low,” she added. “And digital reading, admittedly already a phenomenon in countries with developed book industries, is still elitist around here. And with millions of potential romance readers out there, Ankara Press will barely scratch the surface, in terms of penetration, with digital books.”
Her reservations were corroborated by Elusoji:
“Ankara Press’ is a fantastic project, but its fortunes will not lie with digital, at least until a large percentage of Nigerians start shopping online. And there will still be the problem of getting enough people to read books through screens.”
Then he tried to play safe, saying that “The imprint may as well become very popular among young and old readers, gain traction and alter a very pivotal narrative of social discourse.”
Neither the publisher nor the critic is willing to predict with any certainty the future of Ankara Press, perhaps because it is too early to say. A third opinion might be useful: “Nigeria has jumped the desktop era to mobile. It is only the cost of data and slow connection that is holding it back, he said, but ultimately, people who are focused on mobile are going to win,” said Media Consultant, Dan Mason, said recently at the #AirtelChangeYourStory journalism training in Abuja.
Meanwhile, Asani Gowon tackles the assumption that romance stories have been displaced. “There will always be a place for love stories because we like relationships, we’re looking for happy endings…” she said in an interview with Nigerians Talk.
It is only the beginning for Ankara Press. I am rooting for it in any form, digital or print.