By Uzo Maxim Uzoatu
It is incumbent on me now to write on the once-so-popular Pacesetters Series. Many of us may have scoffed at the Pacesetters initially, but I have to admit here that the series did a world of good to the reading culture in Nigeria. Many secondary school boys and girls swore by the Pacesetters series! Take it from me here that it’s the absence of thrilling literature that has made the young ones to take to mind-bending drugs like Codeine and Tramadol!
Instead of having reefers in their jeans back-pockets back then, the boys had Pacesetters novels tucked into those pockets! The Pacesetters Series was conceived by Macmillan Publishers for young adults and teenage readers.
Agbo Areo who was then an editor with Macmillan Nigeria somewhat convinced his bosses in Britain that there was a vast market for thrillers, romances and adventure stories.
Macmillan UK was an educational publisher with hardly any stomach for publishing novels, but Agbo Areo pressed on with his pet idea. He was then asked to write the model book, and he wrote the 30,000-odd-word novel entitled Director!
It would have been odd to start the series with only one title. The Macmillan editors had to look into their slush file and selected two other titles: The Smugglers by Kalu Okpi and The Undesirable Element by Mohammed Sule.
The manuscript of The Smugglers had too much American slangs that needed to be cut. The Undesirable Element was too long and had to be considerably shortened through drastic editing. The initial 5,000 copies of each of the three titles were published in 1977 and all three sold out in three months at the cost price of One Naira per book!
And thus the bestselling Pacesetters Series was born!
Three other titles were published next, and also sold out quickly. Then came a deluge, and some 130 titles were published by 1984 when the collapse of the Nigerian economy all but killed off the series!
The parent company in the UK could no longer recoup its sales from the Nigerian subsidiary.
The most prolific Pacesetter author, Kalu Okpi, served as a chief scriptwriter of NTA. He was born in 1947 and fought in the Biafra War. Kalu Okpi regarded members of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) as just “university types”. He said of himself: “I guess I was a born writer. “I only went to school to learn where to put the commas.” He died in 1993.
Mohammed Sule, born in Kano in 1957, was reportedly the biggest bestselling author with The Undesirable Element, which he said he wrote while a student of Government College, Kano. The General Sani Abacha regime detained Mohammed Sule for 17 months while he was making a documentary. The author died in his sleep on February 12, 2007, at the young age of 50.
Some notable Nigerian authors who featured in the series include: Buchi Emecheta (Naira Power), Rosina Umelo (Felicia), Chuma Nwokolo (The Extortionist), Helen Ovbiagele (Evbu My Love), Bode Osanyin (Rich Girl, Poor Boy), Valentine Alily (Mark of the Cobra) etc.
The Pacesetters Series was meant for all of Africa but Nigeria was obviously the cash cow.
In the same manner that lovers of James Hadley Chase always have fun regaling themselves with their favourite titles, devotees of the Pacesetters Series equally flaunt their choice Pacesetter books and the authors such as Bloodbath at Lobster Close by Dickson Ighavini, Love On The Rocks by Andrew Sesinyi, Too Cold for Comfort by Jide Oguntoye, The Runaway Bride by Barbara Kimenye etc.
Any Nigerian publisher who starts such a series today in Nigeria will make a mighty killing. I don’t need any payment whatsoever for telling the future – accurately!