Nana Akosua Agyare is on a mission to make reading fashionable. As the head of the Editing Department at Smartline Publishers Limited, she is responsible for moving a book from the manuscript stage to the finished product that readers enjoy. She is also in charge of coming up with creative concepts for children’s books. Ayiba’s Edem Torkornoo spoke with Nana Akosua about her passion for children’s literature, the publishing process, and lessons she has learnt thus far.
Why did you decide to go into publishing?
Well, for various reasons. I’ve always been interested in children and literacy. I’ve also grown up with a publisher father and my mum was a librarian so I’ve always been surrounded by books. I know the benefits of reading and how it can groom creative beings. There’s some wonder when it comes to books and I like children [smiles].
I’ve also known that we don’t have enough written or recorded African stories that can transcend time. Apart from the fact that this was a family business, it was something that I was very interested in.
Another thing, in my second year in college, I got a grant to carry out a project of my choice anywhere in the world. I decided to carry out a literacy project in Aburi (Ghana) with second grade kids who had never owned books of their own, teaching them how to read. Everything became more glaring with this project – the fact that we don’t have access to reading material, the whole chalk and talk nature of our teaching process, and the fact that the kids were hungry for books.
What does the ‘coming up with creative concepts for children’s books’ part of your work involve?
My team and I look to see what might be missing when it comes to children’s literature and figure out a way to develop the missing things. For example, we have a series coming out called the “Building Nationality” series. It’s a set of five children’s books about Ghana’s history but written in a fictionalized manner so its colourful and full of illustration. There’s one based on the flag, the national anthem, the coat of arms, the constitution, and the national pledge. I’ve written the first three books and there are two other people working on the others. I doubt I’ll have my name on the books though. It will just say Smartline.
When you listen to the radio they make fun of people who make mistakes when reciting the pledge or singing the national anthem. You realize that we don’t know our stuff and it’s important that we do. When I went to school, my friends had national pride. And we don’t begin to appreciate these things and how much we have going for us until we go outside Ghana. I think its important for even children who don’t get to leave Ghana to still appreciate where they are from because you might think that everything western is so much better than what we have but we have a lot going for us.
How do you think we can revolutionize the reading culture in Ghana?
I think reading needs to become fashionable and I put it that way because I find that with young people, something needs to look cool before they get into it. We’ve become a mainstream, fad society that just goes ahead and follows even without fully understanding the benefits or disadvantages of what we are following.
I seriously believe that the entire perception of reading has to change and the way to do that is to make it look cool.
How are we going to do that?
I run an organization called Nwoma, which means book in Twi. I just started this last year. One of the things that we’ve started is creating book baskets. These are hampers full of books and they’ve been leveled up to age 16. You have a basket for 0-3 year-olds because it’s important that even though babies can’t read, their parents can read to them and babies can look through the books. Research shows that kids adapt to what they see their parents do. The books are in batches of three years are so you have 3-5, 7-9, up until 16.
What these hampers do is change the perception of books from being just academic elements to gifts, something that can be enjoyed because of the way they’ve been packaged, because they’re being given as a gift and because of the variety of literature in there. Each basket has both African and foreign literature because I strongly believe that we have good, entertaining and engaging stories that we won’t find anywhere else. We are the only people capable of telling our stories best. It’s also very important for us to not alienate the world out there because the entire planet is coming more and more together.
Where can I pick up a basket?
You order them. You say the age and as much as possible; we are trying not to create gendered baskets so they are all by order.
So have you advertised them?
No [laughs]. The slogan that goes with them is “the gift that keeps giving” because the baskets are made by the kids of the New Horizon School. This is Nwoma’s contribution back to the New Horizon School. We buy the baskets back from them. Each basket for the lower aged kids comes with a scroll with tips for parents so they know how to engage their kids and help them nurture a habit of reading.
All the revenue goes towards the Nwoma Literacy Fund. We’re currently in the process of setting up a library in the Aburi area.
Can you tell us more about the work you do with setting up libraries?
With Nwoma, we have something called the “Sponsored School Libraries” where we look for people that are pretty well-to-do to give back to their communities. A lot of the older people went to public schools which were really good when they were growing up. These schools are now in bad shape so we approach them and tell them we have this project, go ahead and sponsor the library and we will set it up. We will purchase the books, stock the library, contract someone for the furniture and set it up. They can bear the sponsor’s name or be dedicated to someone the sponsor chooses.
Smartline also does school libraries but these are funded by the schools themselves. We go ahead and present them with the list of books that are best for their kids but of course remembering that all libraries should include African books. We put a lot of premium into making sure a library has African books.
When setting up a library we have to make sure the books fit the demographic, includes fiction and non-fiction and also make sure that the room is inviting. Some school libraries have dark wood furniture and dark walls making the room smaller and uninviting. This goes in line with making reading fashionable. You have to make it look cool or like a playground and the room contributes to that.
What will make you smile as someone in the publishing industry?
Libraries. Just libraries. And seeing kids excited to read. I have kids who walk into our office sometimes wanting books and pressuring their parents. But there are other kids that come in and they are just timid. You give them a book and say this will be great for you and they look through it but are not excited about it. For me, getting every single child to be excited about the prospect of reading and seeing a book or wanting to explore will make me smile.
My vision is to have a library in every single residential community. I don’t think our leaders have placed education on their priority list. Meanwhile it’s at the center of everything – national, socio-cultural, and economic development. Literacy gives people agency to create change within their communities. But you can’t force reading on anybody. It has to be a habit that’s nurtured. There’s something that I read a while ago, “there’s nothing like a kid who doesn’t like to read, there are only kids that haven’t found the right books.” So if you have a library with a central array of books, they’re bound to get something to read.
You are talking about kids, what about adults? How do you get adults to start reading if they don’t read?
It’s definitely difficult to adopt a habit when you’re older but I believe if people are given material that they are interested in, they will read if there’s something in there for them. Every adult has something they are interested in, they will read.
It’s not just about reading. It’s also about writers and having our own people write relatable material. It’s very difficult when it comes to adults because you can only market to the converted.
That’s why with Nwoma we target the kids and building that strong foundation. So that in the next ten years, we know that we’d have built a land of readers, a new crop of intellectuals and creatives who understand where they are from, understand where other people are coming from and are willing to make a change.
How do you think schools, organizations like Smartline, and public sector leaders can effectively work together to create that reading culture?
There are certain models that need to be followed and to a large extent, I think we’re already following these models. But we’re not going about it in the right way. For instance, we have a national book fair but its not organized or publicized properly. How it’s patronized, the content and activities at these book fairs, are also very important. There are these book fairs outside Ghana and there are some here but it’s not working for us. So the question to ask is, what are they doing differently? I mean there are also writing competitions but then what happens after the kids win these competitions? There should be more organization and increased partnerships. If there’s a writing competition, it should be linked to a publishing firm, the kids’ books are launched, they become stars, they go on tours, other young people see that these kids are writing and that they can write, too. So the linkages need to be strengthened when it comes to organization and structure.
There also needs to be more openness in the ministries and a willingness to look at the big picture.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Every single time a book comes from the printers. I see the raw manuscript and those words on a blank sheet and I see the transformation to a book. You should see me when a book comes. I can’t wait to open the boxes just to see what it looks like in print.
Also, happy faces of authors when you edit their work. It’s a pretty fulfilling profession. Your name will never appear on the book but knowing that you’ve gone ahead and impacted not just the work but the person who’s reading. For me it happens every six months when a new book comes out.
What has been frustrating?
When a manuscript gets turned in and you can tell what the individual wants to write about but lacks the way to express it. And it’s not their fault. I get frustrated when I sense someone’s inability to put forward their best work, knowing that it’s not their fault and they do have a story to tell.
Top three lessons you have learnt as a publisher.
Be very organized; give yourself and others realistic deadlines because this is a very trust-centered profession. This also involves being honest when it comes to time and giving feedback. Be professionally nice at all times to every body because it’s a very small world. You will never know who’s going to help you at any time or you might be need.
What has been the trick for giving constructive criticism?
The funny thing is that sometimes people prefer that you tell them lies but people really sense honesty when it’s coming from a good place. Just be honest and as truthful as possible. And always start with the good.
In our profession when we decide to take an author on, the book doesn’t just bear the authors name, it bears an imprint and it’s important that we like what we are putting forward.
Photo credit: aliceforchildren.it