An interview with Keith Sambrook by Nourdin Bejjit
By Nourdin Bejjit on January 1, 2017 in Articles
Publishing African Writers Series:
An interview with Keith Sambrook by Nourdin Bejjit
NB: You worked for Nelson Publishers before coming to Heinemann Educational Books. What made you decide to move?
KS: When I joined Nelson publishers in 1954, I worked first of all for Van Milne. I was brought in as an editor in the Overseas Department, which had been Van Milne’s role. He had become Overseas Manager. I, then, spent the next few years in and out of Ghana and Nigeria partly because Nelson had made an arrangement with the University College of the Gold Coast (as it was called then) and University College Ibadan to help set up university presses. Nelson thought I had a suitable experience since I had worked for Manchester University Press for three years. I, therefore, spent quite a bit of time there helping to set up a university press. Alongside that, I looked after Nelson’s educational textbook interests in West Africa. Then, in mid-1959, Van Milne left Nelsons and joined Heinemann. Alan Hill, who was then head of the educational division of Heinemann, persuaded Van Milne to leave Nelsons and join Heinemann which became interested rather late in the day in the African school and college market. I, then, succeeded Van Milne in Nelsons for the next three and half years.
During 1962, Nelsons was sold to Roy Thompson, who had Scottish origins and, I think, it appealed to him to own a Scottish publishing house alongside his ownership of the Scotsman newspaper, which was a very distinguished paper. Once Thompson owned Nelson, they started to think of changing the nature of its publishing, and they approached Van Milne, who was then in Heinemann, to ask him if he would go back and develop, among other things, what we call in the publishing trade, an English language teaching list in which he was interested.
Van was clearly interested in African literature, but his main interest was textbook publishing. He didn’t have time during his three years at Heinemann to develop a strong textbook list. You can’t. Textbook lists take years to develop. So he did other things including the African Writers Series, which was ready-made in a way. He worked on the African Writers Series (AWS) in Heinemann as part of his job and developed it as well as created new textbook sales. He had a very strong political interest in Africa. He had been very much concerned with Kwame Nkrumah and one of the main occupations of his in the last years in Nelson was the publication of Nkrumah’s autobiography, Ghana. Back at Nelson, he devoted himself almost entirely to English language teaching and developed an English language teaching list, and they (Nelson), more or less, did not pursue their African literature interest.
During 1962, I had various discussions with Van and with the Thompson people about what role I could play and whether they wanted to go on publishing in Africa or for Africa. During these discussions, Alan Hill approached me and said: ‘Look, Van Milne wants to go back to do this job in Nelsons, why don’t you come and join us?’ So, we, more or less, exchanged the jobs during the late months of 1962, and I started with Heinemann on the 1st of January, 1963.
NB: In relation to what you’ve just said about text books publishing, I want to know how these British publishers sustained such a business in Africa in the post-independence period…
KS: Well, there wasn’t anybody to replace them locally straightaway, and the books which were still needed in the educational system were published, had been published and were still being published by the British publishing houses. Most of them were soon to establish local companies or branches, either to promote these textbooks or to add new textbooks by local authors or to revise and bring up to date their textbooks to fit curriculum renewal at either primary or secondary levels. Nigeria was independent in 1960, Ghana earlier than that, East African countries in the early years of the sixties and the existing textbooks, still published by the British firms, were selling in very large numbers and still profitable.
By the mid sixties it really was no longer viable to publish for Africa. Local examination boards were no longer organised and masterminded by the examination boards in Britain, in particular the Cambridge University Examination Syndicate. They were taken over by local examination boards: the West Africa Exams Council (WAEC) and the East Africa Exams council (EAEC). Consequently, there was no room for new textbook publishing from the UK publishers in Britain particularly for pre-secondary school courses. This had already happened and would continue only through locally-revised editions.
NB: It seems that the established British educational system with English as the medium of instruction provided a ground for the British publishers to flourish in Africa in post World War II, particularly after the fall of the British colonial rule in Africa…
Well, the medium of education in the former British colonies remains to the day predominantly English, in fact increasingly so. There was no diminution of the market for textbook materials in English because the numbers of children in primary and secondary education in the former colonies increased in the post-independence period, and the materials which they needed were the existing publications from the British publishers. For a time after independence, I would say, sales of the existing textbooks or slightly revised versions of them increased substantially. These were gradually replaced by locally-published alternatives revised to meet curriculum renewal. Locally-owned firms could not publish in direct competition with what the British publishers and their branches already had since they did not have the resources either in manpower, print facilities or money. If you look at the development of publishing post-independence in West and East Africa, there are very few locally-owned firms of any size competing with the branches of the British publishers. In Nigeria there was Onibonoje who produced good textbooks, but couldn’t compete with British publishers and their branches in the publication of major courses. For instance, Onibonoje couldn’t really compete with HEB Nigeria in the publication of new school science materials because Heinemann had science publishing staff they could deploy – and they did from London – to help Aig Higo and his staff develop new science courses. There weren’t any major developments in mainstream educational publishing in the immediate post-independence years. In the French colonies, the French publishers had mainstream courses for use in schools, and this persisted after independence because there were no single firms large enough locally to compete. At any rate, they set up subsidiaries of their own although they were controlled much more from Paris than the branches of the British publishers were controlled from the UK. I think we, on the whole, gave more control to our heads of local publishing houses than some of the French publishers did. But the point you made earlier, surely is the main one… English increasingly became – not only remained – the medium of education and the same applied in French colonies.
It seems to me the continuing dominance of the branches of British publishers in the former British colonies through books that they had already published and through new books which they published to fit new syllabuses or new curricula over any local competition was because they had money, experienced staff with publishing skills, a development system, the whole infrastructure of a publishing industry, which is very expensive to set up. In Nigeria, the market for textbook publishing is large enough for a local firm to enter it, but, as I said, the one firm that I know did this with any success was always a kind of ‘third force’. They produced some good stuff, but never any mainstream courses. They published a very good secondary school history course, (but only a two-book course). They couldn’t have competed with us, for example, in developing a full-scale new-science course.
NB: Was publishing the AWS a way for Heinemann to get a share in the African publishing market and compete with other publishers?
KS: Well, the early development of the Series was simply to provide literature in English by African writers which could replace what was being read in schools and introduce new writing by Africans. Heinemann was in the best position to take part in this change simply because they’d published Chinua Achebe. Other publishers weren’t in the position to do it because they hadn’t got anything suitable which they could re-publish. The only other firm which did this was the OUP, because Rex Collings (who was incidentally James Currey’s boss in the OUP for a time) produced the Three Crowns’ version of Soyinka’s plays. Longman had no literature publishing of their own, let alone by Africans which they could turn into textbooks or reading material. Heinemann was in the good position, largely on the basis of the two novels by Achebe … and they had William Conton’s The African but that was it. Their motives were partly, if you like, idealistic, but quite honestly like everything else in publishing, essentially commercial. Here was a market which was untapped. Let’s provide material for it….
NB: Could you then shed some light on the development of the Series?
KS: The first four titles comprised two novels by Achebe, which Heinemann had already published, Things fall Apart (1958) and No Longer at Ease (1960). Three of these four titles were aimed at use in schools. Thus the idea of producing paperback editions of Achebe’s two novels was to make them available for study in schools and colleges in Africa, and specifically, initially, in West Africa. Number two in the Series is a short novel called Burning Grass (1962), by Cyprian Ekwensi aimed at school readers. It’s really aimed at secondary school children. The fourth title is Zambia Shall be Free (1962) and this reflects Van Milne’s own personal political interest in Africa as distinct from his literary interest. He had quite determined and firm views on the political future of Africa, and this book is an account of a movement towards independence in Zambia by Kenneth Kaunda, but largely put together by a Methodist minister in Northern Rhodesia, as it was then called, by Maurice Temple.
Now, they don’t entirely fit – these four titles. They don’t make a series. They’re aimed at school and college readership, and yet Zambia Shall be Free is clearly only or mainly of interest to people of (then)Rhodesia and those interested in African politics. So, when I came therein January 1963, these four titles had been published and Van handed me a manuscript by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Weep not, Child, and a totally unedited manuscript of a novel by T.M. Aluko, called One Man, One Matchet. There were some correspondence with John Reed, who had been in Edinburgh and taught in University College of Rhodesia in Salisbury, about an anthology which he would put together with Clive Wake, who was a South African professor of French and Romance languages, also at the University College of Rhodesia. Weep not, Child (1964) had come to Heinemann through Achebe attending a conference in Makerere and meeting with young student (then James Ngugi), who asked for his views on this novel.
In the next year, I went to West and East Africa on behalf of Heinemann towards the end of the autumn 1963, during which something very important happened (Daniel Fagunwa was drowned in Northern Nigeria) and I met Ngugi then for the first time when I was in East Africa. So, I was able to work on his manuscript having met him. But, as you can see, when I inherited the African writers series, there was not a very great deal in the cupboard.
The idea was still to produce material which could be used by African students in school and college. In a way, Weep not, Child and One Man, One Matchet don’t entirely fit into that category, but they do provide fiction which could be used instead of novels which were still largely read in schools in Africa, which were not African. These could be used instead of works by English and American authors. The Book of African Verse is aimed specifically for school use. Around that time, Richard Rive, a Cape Coloured South African novelist and teacher came over to UK and I was introduced to him by mutual friends and he proposed to do a prose anthology for schools. He put together an anthology called Modern African Prose aimed at school use. He also proposed that we publish for use in South Africa a collection of South African short stories, Quartet. Richard Rive was responsible for that and through that anthology, I was introduced to La Guma’s writing which I did not know till then. The opportunity came later to publish a complete work by La Guma when Chinua Achebe proposed A Walk in the Night, which Ulli Beier had published in Mbari and which we published in 1967.
Another important influence in these early days was Paul Edwards, whom I had known in Nelson days. We had done an anthology, West African Narrative, which was not published until after I left Nelson, aimed entirely for school use. At that time, no African writing was prescribed for use by the Examination Boards in either East or West Africa largely because there wasn’t much, but Edwards believed that there was sufficient to put together at least an introductory anthology which might lead on to further prescriptions. Paul, then, left West Africa to join the Department of English at the University of Edinburgh, to look after what they now call literatures in English, other than native British writings. He worked there for several years, and he said to me: ‘You ought to put in this Series a selection from earlier writings by people from Africa, including Equiano.’ He put together a selection from Equiano’s Travels. This was meant to encourage the reading of writings b Africans in place of or alongside literature by British authors. There wasn’t very much literature in English at that point which could be used in schools. This is why Achebe’s novels were taken up by the examination boards and set as school-texts.
There then arose the problem of how to develop the Series. In what direction would it go? At that point, Reed and Wake said: ‘Well, look, there is not very much published by African writers in English, which you can reprint in the Series, but there are some extremely good novels in French’ Together they introduced to the Series works by Mongo Beti and Ferdinand Oyono. We put into the Series Beti’s Mission to Kala (already published in an English translation by Fredrick Muller), and thought to be suitable for school use, and then Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy and The Old Man and the Medal, which Reed and Wake translated themselves.
Another person who was a great help was David Cook who was Professor of English at Makerere. Cook had encouraged Ngugi in early days, and he thought we ought to put together a collection of East African Writing for use by students either in college or the senior forms of secondary schools. So he put together a collection called Origin of East Africa. About this time, Achebe had been working on his next novel. This came to Heinemann and I worked quite a lot with him on Arrow of God. Heinemann put it into hardback (put it out as a trade novel) and HEB put it into paperback in AWS.
Quite a lot of decisions and developments in publishing entirely depend on who you know, and people meeting people. One of the people I had known was Ulli Beier, who ran the Mbari Centre in Western Nigeria, and had already, under the Mbari imprint, published some very important works, including Wole Soyinka’s and Christopher Okigbo’s. He also published some translations from French. Ulli Beier was a very important early publisher of writing in English by African writers, before foreign publishers were interested at all. He was a catalyst at that point in developing writing, and he realised that his organisation could never give these writers international recognition or provide them with international readership. It was through Beier that I met Lenrie Peters, who was a Gambian neuro-surgeon working in London. Beier had put together a small collection of Lenrie’s poems and we published a collection of poems in the Series, later as Satellites, No 37. But he had written, in addition to his poetry, a novel called The Second Round. This was a new work and hadn’t been published. But Peters is essentially a poet not a novelist (he never wrote a second work). At that time, we had some short stories by Ekwensi and throughAchebe, a novel came to the Series by John Munonye, who had been a contemporary of Achebe’s at the University College Ibadan. Achebe, by this time, was general editor to the Series. He was consequently looking around for new writers (Munonye was one). Another writer from Nigeria was Flora Nwapa and we published her first novel, Efuru. The Series could only develop at this point if it took new writings because there were not any existing work which could be re-printed. We had to go to look around for new writers and this novel was available.
About this time, we were looking for somebody to look after our office in West Africa, and develop both the educational list and educational sales. We didn’t really advertise the job, because it was difficult to know where to advertise it. We rather depended on personal recommendations of people who might be able to do the job. Achebe came up with one or two people, but a strong recommendation came from Derry Jeffares, who was then professor of English at the University of Leeds. I knew Derry very well and valued his judgement. He told me: ‘One of the very best people we ever had doing the Leeds MA is a man called Aig Higo, who’s now back to Nigeria and he’s teaching there.’ So, I approached Aig Higo and he was interested in joining the firm. To cut a long story short, we appointed him. Aig is a poet as well as a teacher, and a contemporary of Achebe and Munonye and other writers at the University College Ibadan. Then, there was East Africa to develop alongside West Africa. We approached someone I had known in Nelson days called Bob Markham, when he was a bookseller. By 1963 he was managing the Makerere bookshop and I suggested to Bob that he join Heinemann and go back to Nairobi where he had spent most of his working life. He was very happy to go back, because he had a house there and from there he developed the East African office.
My job became increasingly administrative liaising with these offices and also looking after Heinemann internationally except in those markets which Alan Hill still liked to look after himself: Australia and New Zealand. Again, I must stress that at this stage, the Series was nobody’s main job. It was not my main job and it wasn’t Higo’s, but it was something we were all interested in developing. It became somebody’s main job later when James Currey came into the firm.
NB: What was Currey’s contribution?
KS: Well, up to the point when Currey took the Series over, we were really very much concerned with providing reading materials for school and colleges and largely depended on re-prints. There were really few new writers in the Series up to that point. Apart from Elechi Amadi, John Munonye, Flora Nwapa, Lenrie Peters, the rest are largely re-prints or translations from French texts. Then, Currey couldn’t continue to do this because there were no writers to re-print. He had to look for new writing. James had a wide choice of readers (and I read quite a lot). There was John Wylie, Richard Lister and others. These were called ‘publishers readers’ who commented on material. Achebe tried to read everything, but once the Nigerian war was underway in 1967, it was increasingly difficult to let him read anything new because he was frequently in the United States or unavailable in Biafra.
Currey was able to select from an increasing number of manuscripts. We rejected quite a lot. There was a fairly steady flow of material coming in, and then even if they weren’t submitted by the authors themselves, they were submitted by people who knew the authors. You didn’t have to go out and look for the manuscripts exactly except for titles James thought ought to go into the Series because they were only available in expensive editions from other publishers or out-of-print. He wanted to put them into the Series and make them available once again or make them available at a cheaper price.
NB: What made the AWS a successful series more than any other rival?
KS: Successful series gather their own momentum. Once the AWS existed and had a large number of titles, then the existing titles created a market for new titles because people were looking for the latest title in the Series. Titles weren’t all equally successful by any means and they weren’t all aimed at the same readership: some clearly political; others were literary; some had a smaller intended readership, and some were intended as textbooks and aimed at a textbook market. So there was a considerable mix and again as James developed the Series, in the late 1960s onwards, the authorship came from parts of Africa from which we hadn’t had inclusions in the Series previously. There were some writers from the Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia etc. Southern and Central African writers began to offer their work. Again, we had a quite a bit of re-printing from works that had been already published by other publishers, either locally and not had international exposure or by British and American publishers who let them go out of print or had never published editions cheap enough to sell in Africa…
NB: How would you assess the role of Achebe as General Editor to the Series?
KS: We tried to let him read everything that was proposed to go into the Series and there is a good deal of correspondence with him about whether we should include A, B, and so on… and he introduced new Nigerian writers early on. But then he was very busy and the Nigerian civil war intervened and made communications difficult so that, after a time, he was happy to be a consultant rather than the originating editor. But I would say we always all had in mind with regard to a new work: ‘What would Chinua say about this?’
NB: He might also have used Heinemann or his position either as an editor or consultant to promote West African Literature, not necessarily in negative way…
KS: Yes, the fact that he had been published did encourage other West African writers to approach Heinemann and he encouraged them to do that, but, of course, we weren’t exclusive publishers of West African writing. We never published Soyinka and I don’t think we originated anything by Ekwensi, who was published by other firms. Nwankwo was published by Deutsch and we did the paperbacks in the AWS. We published Amadi, Munonye and Nwapa originally. We didn’t publish Okara originally though I wish we had. We never published J.P. Clark’s poetry or his plays. So there was a lot going on apart from Heinemann. The Series had to be published in paperback format at as low a price as possible to make it available to the widest possible readership and new writing and new writers don’t necessarily want that. They want to be launched rather conspicuously on the international scene in hardback… and, to be fair, we always did try and put new writers into hardback as well as into the Series in paperback. They didn’t all sell a great number of copies in hardback, but they were available internationally and had a better chance of early reviews.
NB: Diana Athill, who published a number of Caribbean writers, admitted in her memoir, Stet, that ‘For a time during the fifties and early sixties it was probably easier for a black writer to get his book accepted by a London publisher, and kindly reviewed thereafter, than it was for a young white person.’ Could this be applicable to African writers?
KS: In a way she is possibly right, but about Caribbean writers. There was a fairly well established tradition by the late 1950s and early 1960s dating back even before the Second World War. And I would have said that British publishers were already fairly knowledgeable about Caribbean and West Indian writing and were selective. They weren’t publishing anything which they didn’t think would make its mark in literary terms or in terms of sales. It is quite difficult to single out any West Indian writing of that period which doesn’t justify its own publication. I am not sure she is right about Africa. In any case, if you look at the years she is talking about, British publishers had not published very much African writing. French publishers had published more….
NB: So, what particular readership of the AWS was targeted since its launch?
KS: The intended market was not a general market, but the educational market in schools and colleges. If there were to be a spill-over sale to the general public, that would be a bonus. But the Series was not intended for – was not marketed for – a general readership. It was marketed as an educational Series, and the hardback editions of the new writers were really not aimed at much more than library sales. It was not expected there would be a large sale of the hardback editions of new writers in Africa; prices were against this for one thing and the reading public in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and so on for new writers was really quite small and the hardback editions could only be afforded by, let us say, middle-class professional people. They could not be bought by the general reading public, which, for the most part, was not accustomed to reading literature in English. Later on – into the late 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s – because the market for local general publishing was increasing it was possible to produce titles which would attract a local general readership. But up to, say the late ‘60s, there was not a large general reading public in West and East Africa with the means and resources (library facilities, for example) to read new work in hardback editions. One has to question for whom African writers were writing. Were they writing for the local market or were they writing for people outside Africa? It is a question Achebe was always asking himself and trying to answer. He is one of the most honest people I know… and he has never been able to answer this question completely to his own satisfaction. T.M Aluko was writing in the 1950s and 1960s about faults in the social and political systems of independent Nigeria, wherever he saw things were wrong and was writing for both an educated Nigerian readership and a foreign readership. Ngugi later on felt that writing in English was not reaching the readership he really wanted to reach in Kenya. So he wrote the later novels in Gikuyu, because he wanted to address that readership… I can’t think of any other writers in West and East Africa who have done this except, of course, authors such as D.O. Fagunwa and Shaaban Robert who wrote only in Yoruba and Swahili respectively.
NB: Looking back through the years, how would you summarise the story of the AWS?
KS: Well, because it was available throughout Africa and the readership in Africa from the 1960s onwards increased, the number of people who wanted to read works by African writers in English also increased. There was a consistent market in the countries where English was either the first or second language, and the Series flourished on the expectation of local readership of new works. Then, from a date which is difficult to pin-point, this readership was not available for imported books any longer because there was less money in Africa. Those titles which are available, say in Nigeria now, are almost all re-printed by HEB Nigeria and I think the same, more or less, applies in East Africa. Imported books from Britain, where the AWS were originally manufactured and distributed were less available as money ran out in a number of the former British colonies and the price of a single book in Nigeria began to be the same as, say a senior lecturer’s weekly salary. The only way of making them available at prices people could afford was to do local re-prints.
So that market has gradually whittled away and, as I said, one has to look and see at what point publishers began to publish about Africa rather than for Africa, and it is interesting to know – and I don’t know – to what extent Ben Okri, for example, is available in Nigeria and how many copies he sells there? His publishers don’t have a ready-made series in which they can market him. So they have got to market each title individually. Unless they give local reprint rights, each new work has to be imported and the price even of the UK paperback is very high by comparison with local earnings. I don’t know much about this and I would be very interested to know to what extent African writers who don’t have the advantage of a moderately priced paperback series (which the AWS was) sell in Africa and what sales they have now and will they continue to have, to whom they are being sold and who reads them? I don’t know. If the Series had been going when Okri was writing, we would have approached his publishers and said: ‘Can we put this book into the Series?’ They might have said: ‘OK’, but then they would probably have tried to sell to Penguin as well. Even so, we would’ve probably managed to get his novels into the Series and had quite a large local sale. I would be very interested to know the African writers who are in major Penguin series nowadays, Achebe, Ngugi, Nuruddin Farah, Tayeb Salih, what are their sales in Africa?
If you go to a bookshop and look at the Penguin shelves – I have done this several times – you may find Achebe, but very rarely see the others. When the series was successful, whilst there were people very interested in developing it and professionally genuinely interested in marketing it internationally. It was truly successful. However, the market in Africa decreased, the economic decline of the former British colonies, particularly the availability of foreign exchange affected it badly.
Heinemann could never have continued to go on developing the AWS unless it had been commercially viable and made profit reasonably quickly. You can’t go on investing in a series which has over 300titles unless it is providing a return on investment. Otherwise, you get rid of it fast. And that’s what happened, of course. Heinemann was sold in 1983 as one firm. It was re-sold in 1985It was resold again in 1987 as more or less one firm and from then split up into pieces.. It does not exist as an entity anymore. Subsequent owners have decided that there isn’t really a market for the AWS as a series. Maybe a market exists for individual titles, but it doesn’t fit into any of the pieces into which Heinemann has been broken down.
And with the decline of the African market as importers of British books, clearly you can’t maintain a series of 300 titles and hope for a good continuing sales in markets where there is less money. As the textbook market has gone and been replaced by local publishing, there is nothing permanent to back it up. I think the AWS served its purpose, although what purpose exactly it served, I am not entirely sure, even now. It provided a body of reading material both for and about Africa which like in all well-managed series you could go there and hope to find something relevant to what you wanted either to study in Africa or study about Africa.
NB: Do you have any suggestions or questions that you want researchers to look at and explore?
KS: I think one question which always intrigues me is: what would have happened to creative writing in English in Anglophone Africa if the AWS had not existed? Would writers who appeared in the Series for the first time have found other publishers or because it is no longer there, have writers in English in Africa felt that they don’t have the same chance of being read and marketed internationally as they did when it (AWS) existed? I don’t know the answers, but they are relevant questions and I think the AWS did encourage people to write in the belief they could be published and read. Because it is no longer there, do some writers feel there is no point in going on writing and try to get published because there is nobody internationally interested in what they are doing? And also, as there are levels of writing, can it be said that there are writers in the Series who would not have been published internationally if the Series had not existed because they wouldn’t have been taken up by commercial trade publishers? Soyinka never wanted to be in the Series. He didn’t want to be an ‘African writer’ and have that label hung around his neck. He might have said: ‘I am a writer, but not an African writer.’ Of course he is right in my view, and I would like to know to what extent being labelled an African writer has affected Achebe or Ngugi or other writers.
Then another good relevant question is: where are the African writers now? Certainly during the days of the AWS at its best, a good number of writers were living and writing in Africa. I am not up to date, I must confess, but I don’t know many writers who are working and writing in Africa now. Okri is clearly not, who else? Farah goes on writing and he moves all over the place… But when it was at its best, there were writers in Africa who would submit their work to HEB for the Series and I don’t know exactly what is happening now. Are there writers submitting their work regularly to other publishers? If they are writing in Africa, I am sure they are all looking for an international market. So, they will be going to the big commercial general publishers with the hope of getting published and I should’ve thought , unlike Athill’s remark, that it is not easy to get published now as an African writer – as distinct, perhaps, as a writer ‘of African descent’.
NB: Mr Sambrook, thank you very for sparing me all this time to talk about the African Writers Series…