Okapi Books is a new independent press, based in Sheffield. Okapi’s first book, The Storm – a collection of short stories by Somerset Maugham award-winner Akeem Balogun – was published in October 2020. Here, The Short Story speaks to one of Okapi’s founders, Brett Hackett.
The Short Story: What was the spark that brought the press into being?
Okapi Books: We wanted to show people that reading literature is cool as there are too many people who don’t engage with it or see it as a viable form of entertainment. Mix literature with technology and other creative forms more, not to sound cliché, but to move with the times a little. Give it the same innovative approach that many smaller music labels have with music, and for the form to not be held back by diehards who simply love dead trees with ink. Appeal to readers who are new to our work and show infrequent readers that reading fiction is as an entertaining as watching a film, playing a videogame or listening to an album. That’s the spark.
TSS: What is the story behind the name?
Okapi: Okapis are elegant creatures native to African rainforests. And you can’t pinpoint where they’re from by the sound of the name alone.
TSS: Your motto, according to Sheffield Telegraph, is ‘reaching new readers in creative ways’. Can you explain what you have in mind to reach this goal?
Okapi: I might have already said some of this in my previous answer, but [in the case of Akeem Balogun’s 2020 collection The Storm] it’s doing things like creating animation for one of the stories, and having an artist like Rider Shafique, who has a large underground following, narrating the audiobook. A further example that expresses what we mean when we say reaching new readers is an idea I had for one of Akeem’s stories, ‘Nothing too Serious,’ that mimics the writing of a text conversation between two mates, talking about woman trouble. I’d like to make that an interactive story that could occur on your screen, a juicy look into a private digital life. The incredible power that story-telling has is there in that story, a new form, and nobody I’ve seen except us is interested in literature like that, because our industry and other publishers often have their noses pressed into the past and/or they’re not attempting to encourage adults who don’t read. I think it’s important for fiction — in order for it to be continually be considered as a worthwhile, entertaining expression amongst those who don’t read often — to dabble creatively, whether it’s creativity in the story itself, the physical book or the presentation and design of the stories. All of the latter we believe will attract those infrequent readers and make them view reading the same way they perceive watching Netflix or listening to music. I want to stress that we’re not talking about regular readers, but those who are almost averse to it.
Okapi has just started, but the opportunities with technology are something we want to explore following The Storm. I believe the only reason there are negative downsides to technology use now is because we haven’t been informed or taught enough regarding its use, and that has made too many people easy targets for misinformation. Too many apps are attention leeches with no substance and are just shilling advertising for useless products. I believe that’s going to change as people become more aware, and technology will shift, and Okapi wants be right there when it does, doing what we’ve always done — creating all kinds of fiction that appeals to all kinds of readers, whether they read often or not.
TSS: The press released its first book, The Storm, by Akeem Balogun in October 2020. What can you tell us about this short story collection?
Okapi: The Storm is something to take notice of. It’s about how a single event sends ripples across the lives of different people of all backgrounds across an endless period of time, how a single event affects them, changes them. Akeem was writing The Storm for a little while, before 2020, so it makes the stories even more juicy given how scarily relevant they are, like he saw today coming.
TSS: What excited you about short stories more generally?
Okapi: Comparing them to movies, let’s say Pulp Fiction, which is a series of short stories told in a couple hours on screen, what’s always great about them to me is that they’re cool – you’re going with the flow, just trusting people you know nothing about and seeing where they take you. Pulp Fiction‘s characters, for example, have recognisable histories from their presentation alone, and we see just the surface of their lives and how it’s been affected by an event that is only brief. Short stories have a cool power to me: we’re right there in a moment, unsure as to whether to trust or distrust these characters. The excitement of a short story is like that. It’s a chance encounter with someone you just met, not knowing anything about them, but also knowing there’s probably so much to know that you might not ever get to see except for the brief moments that are the story. They can show us something in only a few pages that some novels can’t do in 20 chapters. That’s awesome and exciting.
TSS: What are the main challenges you face as a small press and what have been the most rewarding experiences so far?
Okapi: Actually it’s been liberating being a small press. There’s no pressure from anyone except ourselves to make something happen that we think is worthwhile. The challenge has been learning about publishing independently. It’s been extremely difficult, especially as we’re trying to do things a bit differently, but having Akeem [Balogun], Nathan Stacey and Jade Yiu working together to clock it all has made it easier.
TSS: Lastly, what advice would you give to writers looking to send you work?
Okapi: Don’t be afraid of the present, embrace it, embrace it when it changes, and tell us something about it that we weren’t expecting. And on a more concrete note, look out for our future guidelines as we may be changing how we accept work, but follow us on our socials to learn how!