Only a few parents take their children and themselves to bookstores to buy books, says Shaba
Could you give us a historical overview of book publishing in Nigeria and what the prospects are at the moment?
Publishing in Nigeria actually predates our independence in 1960. Before independence we had what I can call representative publishing; that is, the publishing companies in Nigeria were representatives and agents. They were marketing solely foreign books for people to read here based on British curricular in particular. But in 1960, there was a transition from representative publishing to a full-blown publishing nation.
So, from a supply and demand market, we now had a kind of indigenous book trade and this was made possible by the Nigeria Export Promotion Decree. What we had then was a kind of educational publishing. We then had the establishment of Longman, which is now LearnAfrica Plc. We had Heinemann Educational Books, which is now Heinemann Educational Books Publishers; we had McMillan, still McMillan. We had Evans, still Evans and we had University Press PLC and, of course, there were some other smaller publishers here and there.
We had author-publisher kind of situation; that is, an author who had a number of books deciding to publish because he was sure there was a market. People who started it were fantastic authors and they decided to publish themselves so that the books would be available for certain subjects.
So, eventually we also had research institute-publishers; all of them came out to service the needs of students at various educational levels. Most of these books were largely for educational purposes at the different tiers of education. And that, in a way, has come to condition the mindset of students and the general public to reading in Nigeria.
So, a bulk of the people read to pass examinations. We also had a kind of recreational reading, which was also there side by side, but it wasn’t as developed then, particularly now.
You had ‘Mills and Boons’ series at a time all over Nigeria. I am trying to link it to what we have now.
Then government now said, ‘okay, we need to develop our own local syllabuses for our educational pursuit in Nigeria, curriculum development, and syllabuses that are not necessarily tied to the British syllabuses. We moved away from Cambridge and we are being administered by the NERDC (Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council) and the Ministry for Education.
These are bodies that are responsible for developing syllabuses so that authors can now write textbooks based on the syllabus. Take, for instance, secondary school level from class one to class five; it was a whole lot. I am not sure it is something we will be able to cover today, but that progression was there and then we now had books to be sold. Students were able to buy books for educational purposes for their advancement.
But when they get to the university level that was a different thing because, depending on your course of study, you could then read the appropriate textbooks. There was a kind of boom in the sense that you had UNESCO, UNICEF, World Bank, all setting standards with backup funding. So, schools opened up here and there and we went through a lot of changes, like five years in the secondary school; then it went to six years, then it came to JSS1 to 3 and SS1 to 3; that’s where we are now.
All along there was a kind of neglect in reading for leisure with the craze to acquire certificate and degrees, which is now uppermost in the minds of many students. Even parents will tell you, ‘look, I am sending you to school to get a degree, to get a diploma, to get a certificate!…’
Could you give a comparison between when Nigerians read side by side for certificate and for leisure and what obtains now with little regard for leisure reading?
It is actually difficult to say, but well, people reading for leisure, who were able to combine it with reading for exams, were more grounded in the use of language. They were more fluent; it reflected in their manner of speaking, their manner of spoken language and written language compared to those who just read for exams these days.
What really happened was the drop in income; then from the 1980s, there was a kind of decline in reading for leisure and there was an increase in reading for exams. So, that’s why it is difficult for anyone to actually say there is a decline in reading.
Reading is a very fluid thing; you can read on the screen; you can read on your phone. You can read newspapers; you can read your textbooks, magazines and all kinds of things so long it is written and it is in printed form.
The age of the cinema, the age of the Internet, when the world became a global village, of course, it had its beautiful influences – some positive some negative but for Nigerians, we do not know how to manage our time. I say this with some reservation.
Many Nigerians don’t know how to manage their time. Somebody has 24 hours; you can find some people spending eight hours watching movies, chatting. They forget that they need to sleep, they need to go to school, and they need to perform other chores.
So, reading suffered, including reading for leisure and reading for exams, even though we now have more schools, more school enrollments, the population of people who are now in school was ten times of what it was previously.
This means that people ordinarily should have more books to read, people should buy more books; there should be more demands for books than previously. But sadly, people don’t have enough money in their pocket, which is a big challenge. We found that the preservation of our currency in a way impacted negatively on the importation of the books that you could read for leisure.
What about the books produced locally here? Is there enough readership for them?
Well, people are still able to read those, but it is not like when you have all the books coming in, Mills and Boons coming in, James Hardly Chase and a whole lot.
Recently, some publishers tried to start bringing in those books again. They tried and some were able to bring in some of these books, but it has now become a kind of elite thing, where only a few can actually go to the bookstore to get books.
Only a few parents, who understand the value of books, will take their children or even themselves and go into a bookstore to get these books. There are so many Nigerians, who in two or three years would not know the road to a bookstore.
Where are the bookstores now compared to what was there before now?
We have so many bookshops now, but they are selling largely educational books. But beyond that and on a scale of hierarchy of needs, you first of all want to eat; you want to be alive before you get books. After feeding and being alive, people will want to consider what to wear – clothes; then they want to eat, how to recharge their phones…
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I had to sit down and look at what is ready, agonise about the situation, particularly for me, who is in literary publishing. I am not into educational publishing; that is, publishing for the primary, secondary schools. Fair enough, some of my books are being used as literature books. I have found that over the years, government has tried its best and they are still doing a lot. They are aware of these gaps; we are aware of these challenges of reading.
Government is responding; I am not holding brief for government but from what I can see, government is doing its best. We have a federal government’s policy about having libraries in all the local government areas and I found that government has not met this obligation and in places you have libraries, they are not well stocked; they don’t have books there. You get into some and there are cobwebs all over the place.
Government partnered with the World Bank in time past to make sure that books are available and subsidised for people and then you now find tertiary education trust funds to help people to write, to help people to get books published so that we can actually address the book famine, scarcity and hunger in Nigeria.
And then you also have the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC). The commission is not just interested in books alone for various subjects; it is actually procuring computers, reading materials; some even agreed to build classrooms and even refurbish. I saw all these with my eye; I didn’t want to believe in stories. I saw the government doing all these and I was like, ‘oh, maybe they need to do a lot of publicity!” Recently, I read in the papers that UBEC is regretting that a lot of state governments have not accessed their UBEC funding. That is to tell you that such states need to wake up.
The Federal Government has come up with this kind of initiative to redress the imbalances in the educational sector because UNESCO is crying that the standard, the literacy rate in Nigeria is too low and they are conscious of this. In reading for leisure, for instance, you have to do it consciously by buying books for libraries and resource centres and make sure these books go round all the states. And the books are branded ‘not for sale.’
Yes, government can do more, but let me give them credit for what they have done so far. This is why I have hope for the Nigerian situation that, of course, we are going to get out of the woods; we are going to get out of the dark tunnel. But what we need to do is to get out of the world of the internet, the negative one where people are just browsing and browsing and browsing. The government has provided these books but the students have refused to read them. So, we all have a lot to do.
Parents must contribute; they must ask their children or their wards, ‘what did you read in school?’ Where are your books? If such kids have phones, make sure they don’t take their phones to school. We need to create such awareness so that we can get out of the bind that we find ourselves in.
What is the relationship between publishers and booksellers?
The challenge we have is that we deal with a number of booksellers. We don’t have a challenge with the booksellers not actually returning money but we have a challenge with some of the booksellers returning moneys late. We have some good booksellers, who will remit your money promptly. I don’t mind mentioning their names.
The University of Ibadan will remit your money promptly; University of Calabar will also remit money promptly. They will just ask you for your account number and just pay the money; every month they reconcile account; they check what has been sold and what remains. But there is a big challenge in that area, too. And the challenge has to do with SOS (Sold or Return). You can have books stay in the shelves for so long they gather dust, they gather mud, and at the end of the day they return the books to you and you can’t do anything with them because they have become dusty and worn.
The cost of delivery is another problem of the book chain. The book chain involves the publisher, involves the printer, the reading public, the booksellers and those who move the books. We used to have book -movers in the past, who deliver with vans and get their own percentages, which did not hurt your margin. When we had book-movers, it was a beautiful scenario. You didn’t even have to pass the cost to the buyer and they get to the book store in that location, they drop the book, and that bookstore will attach a billboard that they have the book available. People will just come and buy.
For instance, somebody wants a novel of over 300 pages for maybe N1,000 or N2,000 and maybe the cost of freighting the book is probably N2,000 and you have to send five copies by courier; those are the challenges we are facing.
You have done this business for years now, but some say you do vanity publishing. What is the situation with you?
People don’t understand what vanity publishing really is. Vanity publishing started abroad so many years ago, when people who could not get their opinions heard legally or legitimately looked for some kind of money they take it to a printer. They print and take responsibility. So that culture is still there.
As I speak, it is still there abroad and I am aware of it. What we do at Craft Books is to ensure that we run all three kinds of publishing. I mean, I have taught publishing at some point to university students. We have contract publishing; we express interest in your manuscript; we take it on, publish and pay you royalty.
For contract publishing, publishing is seen as business. I can tell myself that at the end of 2018, I will publish 10 books on contracts. We do an average of 50 books every year; 50 new books and I can take about 10 or 15 as subsidy publishing. You have a book, the book is good enough, and we also are interested in it. So, because we don’t have funds, we say, ‘okay, let’s lead you halfway, then you fund the other halfway; no royalty will be paid on it, with maybe 1000 copies. You take 500; we take 500 because we have funded the book 50/50. And then the last one is ultra finance; absolutely nothing wrong with it.
There are so many authors, who will come to you, “I know because of funds you have challenges publishing and the bank interest is just killing and will run you out of business. We take your book; we do what is called assessment; if the book is not good, whatever money you want to pay us, we will say ‘sorry, we can’t do this book.’ Some will say ‘can’t you help me rewrite it?’ we will say ‘look, you need to be guided; you need a counselor; you need a mentor. Have you written a novel, poems? Can you take it to someone who teaches poetry in the university? Let the person guide you.’
Some people have come back to say, ‘0h, thank you; we’ve been guided appropriately.’ In all of these, whether contract, subsidy or ultra finance, we read and make sure that they are publishable otherwise we will not publish. Some people will say ‘some books are weak, this is not a very good book,’ but when you are talking about talent, some people are very gifted; some are just gifted and others are just there.
So, whatever you bring out is a reflection of your quality, of how sound you are, how good and gifted you are. We also have a philosophy: one of our missions is to encourage people to write to bring out the gift in them. So, we guide them; we are not looking for the very best but when we get the very best we will publish, too.
And some of your best writers have actually won prizes, too. Your books have dominated The Nigerian Prize for Literature, with Ikeogu Oke being the latest to win it with Heresiad. You must be very proud, aren’t you?
Yes, we have won four out of that prize. In some of them, we have had to tell the authors that ‘look, you have a good book; this can win this prize because I have a knack for identifying a good book. Association for Nigerian Authors, we have won more prizes for our authors than any other publishing house year in year out.
So, when people call to say they have this book, I tell them, ‘no, that’s not how it’s done. Please, can we see your manuscript? Then I begin to read and just say, ‘sorry, you have just written book nobody helped you to proofread or even guide you.’ There are times I have had to go to universities, when lecturers invite me to say, ‘Come and talk to our students on publishing, literature; guide them on how to write, what to look out for, the use of language; the things you are going to bring in a work; whether you are going to start your novel from the end and you now go to the beginning and go to the middle; whether you are going to have a work within the work (a flashback), mix up of tenses, writing present tense within a page… a whole lot of things.’
So, we are not printers; we are publishers even though we could take things and print. So, we are doing a lot of work silently. We are just like backstage workers; nobody recognises what we are doing. We even have some books that win awards; some even say that it is because of what the author has done, that because the author funded it and that is why he won the award. But no; it is the ingenuity, the craft, the creativity that we bring to bear in the publication; the way we do our layout; the way we write the blurb; the way we design the cover; our interaction and interrogating certain issues with the author before we come up with the finished work. But people don’t realise these things.
There are people who want to put some money down to publish; there is nothing wrong with it. It’s done all over the world; it is not limited to Nigeria. Somebody said some organisations would not publish certain works because they think that they are libelous or they are very explosive. Such writers will say I wish somebody would say publish for me. Somebody will have to speak out…
We may excuse you, Cassava Republic Press, Farafina, Parresia, who publish fiction, but textbook publishers like University Press Plc, Macmillan, LearnAfrica, and Heinemann allegedly sold books to government worth N12 billion in 2013/2014. Why can’t they establish a book prize for different categories of writer?
I think this should start from the Nigerian Publishers Association (NPA), or if we have various book publishing associations; it doesn’t have to be NPA. You will have the NPA and then we should also have Creative Publishers Association (CPA)… I agree with you; a thing like that should come up. I am doing a lot to actually promote my authors and at times what I get for it is that somebody says, ‘Ah, I saw your books in Calabar, Owere, in Uyo.’
I must salute the bodies that are giving prizes – The Nigerian Prize for Literature, sponsored by Nigerian Liquified Natural Gas company; 9mobile (formerly Etisalat) Prize for Literature is also doing something similar now.
A few years now, we have Ake Books and Arts Festival, which is a yearly thing drawing participants from all over the world to converge on Abeokuta. We also have Lagos Books and Arts Festival (LABAF), with Tony Akinosho and Jahman Anikulapo doing a very beautiful thing.
This kind of thing is what we actually need. I know we will get there eventually. The last program LABAF I attended at Lagos City Hall I saw the quality of debate and interactions, where people were trashing out issues concerning reading books and also issues affecting people who publish books online and all of that. So there is hope.
You also mentioned something, which is what we have to think about: Creative Publishers Association! Is this not something those of
you in creative publishing can work out so as to effectively make your books available to the public through synergy?
You are bringing up a lot of stuff in my head. Wow! Once an association is created like that we would now have to identify states, all the major places… If there is a way we can come together to identify big bookshops and say, ‘look, we have books we are publishing every month; we network amongst ourselves and say, ‘look, we have so, so books, let’s hire this truck to move them and they will be dropped in the various bookshops in all the states at once. We will be bringing books to the doorsteps, closer to the end-users; that would actually be beautiful but who is going to bell the cat? Somebody has to make the move…
The other thing is you don’t do enough advertisement. You don’t do enough publicity for new books. What’s the challenge? Or do you think you are doing enough already?
The culture is slightly different. Way back, we used to ask for the blurb; that is, the write-up about the book; come out with beautiful posters and short clips here and there on TV, newspapers, and there were book reviews. People just begin to move to the bookstore to buy them. But I have started something similar this year.
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