Born in Germany, raised in Nigeria and educated in the UK, Gersy Ifeanyi Ejimofo is founder of Digitalback Books, a virtual library platform offering a comprehensive and diverse collection of African stories from around the world. The seed of DBB was planted many years ago when Heinemann announced the discontinuation of the African Writers Series. Recognising that Africans both on the continent and in the Diaspora need to take a more proactive approach to their creative content, Gersy left her career in the city to gain more hands on experience in the publishing industry. She has since worked on many digital projects for global publishers developing and implementing digital strategies internationally. Gersy has a BSc from the University of Birmingham and a Masters from the London School of Economics.
A. Tell our readers five random facts about you.
G.I.E 1) As an African-European, I am saddened by Britain’s decision to leave the EU. I believe we are stronger united and the freedom of movement has greatly enriched my professional life.
2) Before publishing, I worked in the Insurance sector as a consultant implementing information systems across
multinational companies. (Just don’t ask me about premiums and claims systems though. I deleted all that from my hard drive.)
3) I had a side hustle when I was living in Paris years ago. I sold (or rather attempted to sell) African Art!
4) Happiness is Moin-Moin wrapped in banana leaves. It’s all about life’s little pleasures.
5) Apparently, I am the slowest cyclist in the family!
A. What was the motive behind Digitalback Books’ inception?
G.I.E Several factors played a part in the timing, but the seed for DBB was planted back many years ago when I found it impossible to locate some of the titles on Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th century including works from the African Writers Series amongst others. They were either out of print or not readily accessible. This bothered me back then as many of these works are considered classics of African literature. As I embarked on my career in the city, I recognised that technology and smart phone technology in particular could play a central role in improving the discovery, preservation of and access to African literary heritage. After my masters, I took the decision to change careers and join the publishing industry to learn as much as I could about the digital publishing business. In 2013, following some tumultuous times both personally and professionally, I began to seriously consider following my passion full time. Once I took that leap of faith, my ambitions expanded. I wanted as many people as possible to truly discover Africa’s stories and for me that meant curating as wide a collection as possible thus the idea of a virtual library model. Digitalback Books soft-launched in Dec 2014 and today we have access to hundreds of titles from publishers and distributors alike.
A. How has Digitalback Books’ vision grown and adapted over the years?
G.I.E In terms of content curation, the initial focus was on African literature. This is gradually expanding to include African Caribbean titles and will eventually cover African European and African American literature. Outside of the trade titles, we also have scholarly titles and are looking to grow the magazine content as well. Where we are also seeing the best synergy is in our focus on providing the library as a service to institutions (public and
academic libraries, schools, book clubs etc.) rather than directly to individuals.
Our vision is to get the content in as many hands as possible and partnering with institutions is a great way of achieving this. This pivot is leading to a number of very exciting conversations.
A. Digitalback Books recently partnered with the Caine Prize for African Writing and Brent Council. Could you tell us more about that and why this was an important venture for Digitalback Books?
G.I.E Yes, I am thrilled that anyone with a Brent Library card can now sign in and access parts of the Digitalback Books collection. Brent libraries see the DBB collection as an opportunity to diversify their stock as well as improve their digital offering. We agreed on “soft launch” in June with a small number of titles. Fortunately, the timing coincided with the Annual Caine Prize for African Writing 2017 and we had also just concluded an arrangement to release the near full suite of Caine Prize titles on DBB. It therefore made perfect sense to couple the pilot with a Book Reading Event for the Caine Prize titles. It was a great way of introducing some of Africa’s best authors and writing to a dedicated audience. It’s also an interesting instance of a digital platform driving an actual physical interaction between content creators and content consumers. On that note, I must add that we are planning more author readings and have a fantastic line up of writers coming to Willesden and Harlesden Library on the 3rd, 17th and 31st of October for Black History Month including Jacob Ross, Toby Green, Leone Ross, Kiru Taye, Desiree Reynolds and many others! I am really looking forward to this.
A. What are the challenges and lessons learned from setting up your own publishing business focused on African literature?
G.I.E DBB is not a publisher, we get content from publishers and distributors. Typically we acquire the non-exclusive license to distribute already published works in a digital format and what we are really doing is curating this and making it more easily discoverable on our platform. We do offer digital publishing and conversion services as an extra service for small publishers who have not yet converted their content. On the challenges, I would say leaving the financial safety net of a 9-5 corporate role has been and still is daunting. It’s also been a very steep learning curve but I consider myself very fortunate to be doing something I am deeply passionate about. Having a vision and then seeing it manifest itself is an incredible feeling.
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Twitter: https://twitter.com/DigitalbackBks (@DigitalbackBks)