Tolulope Popoola is a creative writer, author, publishing consultant and writing coach. She is the founder of Accomplish Press, a publishing and consulting company in the UK, which helps Black British and African/diaspora authors and writers publish their work.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, sometime during the 1980s. I grew up in a household where reading and academic pursuits were positively encouraged so I’ve always been surrounded by books. I used to read a lot, and I would write my own versions of stories that I’d read, or I would make up my own. As I grew older and became a teenager, I kept diaries and journals, and writing was my therapy whenever I was upset. English and Literature were my best subjects in school, but somehow I ended up doing financial subjects during my A’Levels. I moved over to the UK in 2000 for my university education, I have a BA in Accounting and Business Economics, and a Masters in Finance and Investment.
Why and how did you move from Business and Accounting to writing?
Like I mentioned before, I studied Accounting and Business Economics for my first degree, then took a year out to gain some work experience before going back to university to study for a Masters’ degree in Finance and Investment. When I graduated, I started working in an Accounting role while studying for the CIMA professional exams. I was halfway into the professional exams when I realised that I was in the wrong profession and I needed to make a career change.
It was towards the end of 2006 that I started getting frustrated with my career path up until then every morning was a struggle to motivate myself to get up and get to work. I wasn’t fulfilled in my job, even though it paid well and the company was a great place to work. I knew I had creative talents that I wasn’t putting to good use and, the more I thought about it, the more I was filled with horror at the idea of working in accounting for the next forty years of my life.
Then, one afternoon, I met a lady who was an accountant and working on a major finance project for her company. Even though it was a Saturday, and we were visiting, she was glued to her laptop, working on some financial data. When I asked her about it, she started telling me about her job, talking about the project she was working on, describing every single detail. She sounded so excited, passionate and enthusiastic. She said, ‘I love accounting, I love finance and I love working on exciting projects.’ In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Wow! She actually loves her job!’
It was eye-opening, because I hadn’t imagined that there were people who absolutely loved what they did for a living. After that meeting, it became clear to me that I didn’t have that same passion for accounting. It was just a profession I trained for and a job to keep some money coming in – nothing more. And, if I was to leave the job, I wouldn’t miss it one bit. So, I started to ask myself: what job could I do that would make me passionate and excited about getting up in the morning?
Around that time, I discovered blogging and started writing short fiction as an experiment. The more I wrote, the more I enjoyed doing it. It became clear, before long, that writing was what I was meant to do with my life, not accounting. I took a writing class, and started writing a novel. Soon, I decided to take the plunge and quit my job.
What influences you as a writer?
I read a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction, and I also read literary blogs for short stories, poems and flash fiction. I also have many people I look up to for inspiration. I follow their works and I’m inspired by their achievements. People like Abidemi Sanusi, Joanna Penn, Chimamanda Adichie, Sefi Atta, Chika Unigwe, etc.
Why did you start Accomplish Press?
Becoming a publisher was always something I wanted to achieve when I decided to leave Accounting. When I was researching into the writing and publishing industry, I found a lot of things wrong with the traditional publishing industry, things that were so obviously inefficient. I wanted to do something different. Secondly, from my experience, I knew there were not many mainstream publishers willing to take a chance on new writers like me. I had met a few publishers who found my work interesting, but they always said that it wasn’t commercially viable because it was regarded as ‘ethnic fiction’. But, I believe that I have to tell my stories and there are readers who want to read about people like them in books. So, I decided to take the chance and become a publisher myself. That way, I can reach my audience directly, as well as creating an avenue for other writers like me to get their work published.
What challenges, if any, did you face during its inception and how did you overcome them?
Like every other start-up business, Accomplish Press has had its share of ups and downs, and a mixture of challenges and successes. In the beginning, I committed all my time, efforts and money to getting the company started, and publishing my first book. And publishing being what it is, it took a long time for me to start making any money back. I have spent many sleepless nights working, researching, learning, and trying new things. But the rewards have been worth it.
Why does publishing of the work of ethnic monitories still remain a challenge and what more needs to be done?
One of the problems African writers in the UK face, is the categorisation of African literature as if it was one generic genre, and there was only one type of African writer. I’ve heard some awful and hilarious stories from many black authors who approach mainstream publishers, only to be told things like “we already have one black author on our books” or “we recently published one book about India, we can’t publish another book about Africa just yet” or “Is your work similar to so and so famous black author”.
We’re also facing the problem that Chimamanda Adichie called “the single story” – that publishers only want to receive and publish stories of Africa that depict war, poverty, dysfunctional families, rape, AIDS, and so on.
The gatekeepers in the industry need to start welcoming and appreciating different kinds of stories. We also need to find ways to continue to push our authentic voices out, and not be deterred by the obstacles.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I enjoy working from the comfort of my home. I enjoy doing a job that I love. I enjoy helping other writers to achieve their own writing and publishing dreams. I enjoy the freedom and flexibility to set my own working hours. And I have received awards and recognition from many organisations. In my first year as a publisher, I was named runner up in the New Venture Award category by Women in Publishing (UK). More recently, I was given a special award at the Nigerian Writers Awards, for my contribution to the writing and publishing industry. So, I’m grateful to be doing what I do.
What inspires you and keeps you motivated?
I want to die knowing that I used all the gifts, talents and resources that God deposited in me to make a difference and touch people’s lives. I don’t want to have any regrets and I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want to look back and think “if only I’d been brave enough to try…”.
What advice would you give a young aspiring African writer in diaspora trying to publish their work?
First, write the best book that you can write. Make sure your story is as interesting as you can make it, make sure the plot is intriguing, and you have believable characters. Read it over and over again until you have absorbed every sentence, and it is as good as you can make it. Then give it to beta readers for a manuscript critique. Then, you need to give it to a professional editor. Many first-time writers make the mistake of thinking that they don’t need an editor but we all do. Once your manuscript has been professionally edited, you will notice the difference in quality.
Once your manuscript is ready, you need to decide if you want to try to get published traditionally, or you want to self-publish. If you want to be considered for literary prizes, then you are probably better off trying to submit your work to a traditional publisher, usually through an agent. For that, you need a lot of patience, perseverance and luck. If you want to give self-publishing a try, then you need to educate yourself thoroughly on how the process works, so that you avoid making expensive mistakes.
How do you think Nigerians abroad can positively promote the country globally?
I think the majority of Nigerians abroad are hardworking, high achievers who are contributing a lot to a positive image of the country. The problem is the few bad eggs get a lot more press. We should continue to promote the people who embody the values of hard work, integrity, passion, innovation and dedication. Let the world know that Nigerians are as capable of doing awesome things as anyone else, if they are given the right opportunities.
Do you think it’s important for young Nigerians to be more connected and why?
Yes I think it is important. We have a shared history, we share roots, and we have a shared interest, whether we like it or not. If one Nigerian succeeds, it opens the door for more of us to succeed in any field of endeavour. If we can connect with each other, promote each other, encourage each other, we do these things for our own benefit. We all need mentors and role models to guide us and show us what’s possible.
How do you think a community like NNC can be a part of creating such connections?
Continue to showcase and highlight people who are making a positive difference in their industry. Let young people know that there are positive role models who are achieving great things and it is possible for them too, if they believe in themselves and go for it.
What’s next for you and Accomplish Press?
I’m actually branching into Relationship and Life coaching in the next few months, I hope to get fully certified in the coming year. I also want to start a sort of mentoring programme for young ladies aged between 16 and 24, who have talent and dreams, but need guidance to channel their passions in the right direction and avoid making costly mistakes. With Accomplish Press, I will continue writing and publishing the stories that appeal to me, and teaching other aspiring authors to do the same.