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A Magazine for Sheffield

Okapi Books

A new South Yorkshire imprint want to open up literature for everyone using audio, art and digital experiences.

Akeem Balogun by Brett Hackett Corby 2019 WG

Okapi Books founders Brett Hackett and Akeem Balogun.

Okapi Books is a new Sheffield-based publisher with an innovative approach - combining the written word with technology, dub and the visual arts, the imprint aim to reach curious minds who didn't previously consider themselves readers.

Their debut release is The Storm, an immersive collection of short stories by Now Then contributor Akeem Balogun which explore how extraordinary people deal with extreme crises. I spoke to Akeem and co-founder Brett Hackett to find out why Okapi is doing things differently.

What's the philosophy behind Okapi Books?

Brett Hackett: The philosophy behind Okapi Books from the beginning, which is also something we focused on at the Hallam Enterprise Award (where we won our first grant), has been about engaging infrequent readers. To put it simply: make reading - fiction in particular - cool amongst those who aren’t interested in it.

I believe we need to embrace technology as a part of this. We have the most powerful tool in the world in our pockets at all times, and we're reading constantly without knowing it. My dream is to have more infrequent readers opening books and enjoying reading everywhere, easily and less sloppily than it’s ever been done, and I want Okapi to be the forerunner of this.

Our technology has been designed to 'hack' our attention we've been told, but if we’re informed, our technology is the most empowering thing we've been given, so why not hack people’s attention with good writing? With real stories that were written only to resonate with readers. The modern world is an infinite cultural landscape, and we're just at the beginning.

Akeem Balogun: The philosophy, to repeat what Brett said above, is to reach new readers; readers new to the press, readers new to our writers and most importantly to reach those who hardly read at all. We want to use creative approaches to reach them, hopefully with technology as the press grows but also with physical aesthetic, such as with the design of the books, the way the stories are told as well as with the growing mediums of absorbing fiction, such as with audiobooks, ebooks and film.

Tell us a bit about your first book, The Storm, and how it came together.

BH: The Storm is mostly Akeem, ask him. But I’ll say a little more later on.

AB: The collection is something I began in a loose manner around 2015, although one of the stories in it started life in 2011. It became The Storm once I’d figured out what to do with the stories that make the book now, after Ray Robinson pointed out to me that the storm is something that runs throughout the book. The rest is history.

11 Cold Expressions

'Cold Expressions', a sketch by Arantza Pardo for Okapi Books.

I worked with Ray, Jonathan McAloon and The Literary Consultancy on the book to bring it into the shape I wanted. It being the first release on Okapi Books is a result of the conversations I’ve had with Brett since 2011, which is trying to get people like us, the people we know, who often don’t read, excited about our work.

We used to look at other presses and books and talk about what we would differently – what we would do if we were producing a book. Brett experimented with this by self-publishing his book New Paradise, and he did some things that fascinated me, but his book was an early project and a big undertaking.

When I’d finished The Storm, I sent it to a handful of small publishers, but during that time – as we begun to learn more about the industry – we thought we could imitate the success of smaller presses but do the things we’ve always wanted to do with a book, and it made sense to do this with the work of someone we know, my own, so that we could have as much room as possible for error and to also do things with the book that we doubted other presses would allow us to do.

Akeem Balogun The Storm original Arantza Pardo Nathan Ryder HBPP

The Storm by Akeem Balogun is out now.

You're collaborating with poet Rider Shafique on the release.

BH: It was in line with the vision; creating engaging literature, making reading exciting for those who don’t. And Rider Shafique was just as excited about it as we are.

AB: I’m a big fan of Rider and his music. You listen to a song like 'Grey Skies' or his poem 'Word Sound Power' and you get a kind of depth with his lyrics, voice and poetry that you don’t get from other artists. Rider narrating my book would be the kind of thing that would draw me to a story immediately, so I know it’ll do the same for others.

What's Arantza Pardo's contribution to the book?

BH: We liked the idea of each book framing the work of a different artist, and the connection was something Akeem made. It’s something we'll do with all the books we produce.

AB: She painted the cover for the book and produced several sketches to complement the stories in the collection. It was a wonderful experience working with her as she had never done work for a book before, and I had never approached an artist before, so it was beneficial to work with someone who was new to the process too.

I spent some time trying to find work that reflected the stories, and as it’s a collection there isn’t one solid image that reflects the entire work the same way that you might find in a novel (hence why the covers for collections are often abstract) but Pardo’s work did that, and at the time she was an artist local to the city of the author, Sheffield, so it fitted in well with Okapi’s approach.

What future plans have you got for Okapi Books?

BH: Future plans for Okapi are continuing to engage with and explore the cool that literature has in bounds. We take for granted how powerful good literature is and how inspiring and progressive it is, and it's time to remind ourselves of that and push the truth that literature is as enjoyable a form of entertainment as film and music, not just for avid readers, but for everyone.

Instead of loading a video site or social media account when on the bus or train, we want people to point at their screens or book in hand and say to each other, 'Have you read this? It’s sick.'

by Sam Gregory (he/him)
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