* Publishers, libraries, bookclubs need synergy
* Writers are at the mercy of publishers
By Godwin Okondo
NIGERIA’S book environment though promising has remained at the realm of ‘potential’, which hasn’t quite been realised in spite of efforts by stakeholders to drive it. These possibilities and inherent opportunities were explored at the ‘Publishers’ Forum’ session held on Day 4, November 18, 2021 at the Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2021) that ended Novemver 21. Publishers, booksellers, writers and readers alike offered possible ways out of the book crisis that consists mainly of high cost of books, economically disadvantaged readers and poor distribution of books to intended readers. The stakeholders offered a plethora of options for efffective book distribution that ranged from collaboration to accessing government’s facilities and other novel ideas. The Publishers’ Forum’ was a collaboration between CORA and Quramo Publishing.
Poet and literary activist, Iquo DianaAbasi, said, ”I don’t think it’s possible to write enough for what our people want to read, because the taste of readers vary. I think Nigerian writers are trying their best; we have diverse stories out there. I think the main problem is that people don’t have access to these books. We have several publishers coming into the business, with several publishers trying to make improvements on what they have published through publicity. How do they do this? Before ‘Efo Riro’ (a collection of short stories), I published a collection of poems; I paid and got a publisher who found an editor and all others, and when the book was nominated for The Nigeria Prize for Literature, people still couldn’t find the book to read. The book had a lot of publicity and was reviewed in many papers, but many people couldn’t get the book. It’s not like we don’t have booksellers, but how do you get the books across to them? I have decided that I will find a publisher who has a lot of network, because that does a lot of magic. The publisher could be in another town, organize a reading and publicize the book so people can buy from bookstores even when I’m not there. I also don’t have to worry about how to send the books. The publisher can always use other marketing channels for distribution. I wish some people would actually volunteer to take up the business of getting books to buyers.
”I hope we get to a time when we have a good distribution network. But in the meantime, I want to encourage all publishers, libraries, bookclubs to do some kind of synergy, because I really do believe in strength in numbers, and I know there is distrust because there are different businesses and interests, but when you have that kind of synergy, it is possible to do advocacy. If it gets to the point where that kind of advocacy is done, I’d like to encourage collaboration with NIPOST. I’m saying this because I’ve purchased books from the North years ago through the same means. If we have that kind of advocacy and press on the government, though they haven’t been reliable all these years, we need to hold them accountable. Maybe we can have something that will impress it on NIPOST, maybe to get cheaper prices on book distribution, while we try to grow our own distribution methods as private businesses.”
Founder of Purple Shelves publishing house, Amara Chimeka, said book clubs, libraries and bookstores play a great role in getting books to intended readers. She also stressed the importance of public philanthropy in the form of book donation, which she said could help stave off the book famine in the land. With most Nigerians falling into desperate poverty, the only way open to most school children to get books to read will be through book donation. The ‘One Thousand Books’ campaign initiative she spearheaded did much wonders recently to bridge the book gap for some school children, she said.
”I am going to give examples of the things that I have done as a publisher. In 2020, it was The Sun’s Year of Indigenous Languages. I published in English and Igbo, and we needed to drive sales for our Igbo titles. So, we launched the Read-A-Book campaign in July 2020. For a month, we had people read a portion of a book in Igbo, and then post it online using a hashtag. It was slow in the first two weeks, but it picked up when teh actress Stella Damascus read from one of our books, and BBC Igbo carried it, and it became a thing. Apart from the books that we had published, demand for Igbo books rose in that period. So, I called the publishers and asked them to send me some copies of the books in case people demanded for them. This is one thing we can do.
”I’m January this year, I collaborated with one of my authors to place books in the hands of 1,000 children in rural communities. It was a Twitter campaign, and we had people donating, and in 52 days, we had reached over 1,000 children. We sent books to rural communities in Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi, Bayelsa, and also Taraba States. What I’m saying is that we cannot always wait for the government. There is a lot that we can do from our own space. You cannot talk about books without acknowledging that there is such thing as poverty. There are people who can read but can’t afford books, and there are people who can afford books, but do not have the time to read.
”So, what I’ve always done from the start is ask people to buy copies of books, and then we take the books on book drives and distribute to people; they’ve been paid for. That was the idea we had for the ‘One Thousand Readers’ campaign. Book clubs are very important. I run two book clubs for two schools currently. In the last academic session, I collaborated with a group in a bank to run a book club. We can’t talk about distribution without mentioning book clubs. I think they are important. When we distribute books to bookstores also, we check on them from time to time to know which book is doing well and ask if we can hold a reading with the author at the bookstore to drive sales. We all need to work together. Everybody is important in the book chain.”
According to Ademola Adefolami, ”Realistically, writers are at the mercy of publishers, in the sense that you’re under a contract and you have a certain number of books to sell to get certain royalties, and you don’t really have that flexibility to donate books. So, the conversation is still between book publishers and libraries. I’ve worked mostly in book publishing, and I’ve had to market and sell books, and even the publishing houses are struggling to sell copies of books. And if we want to dig deeper into that, we are going to have to pull up some things – talk about the illiteracy rate and what we are doing to bridge the gap between literate people and those who don’t have education, especially in the North, where it’s harder.
”Publishers also have to spend on marketing, and there is really little or no gaps at all to have allowances to donate books to libraries, schools or bookclubs. The least publishers can do is subsidize because they also have overhead and they are not going to run at a loss. I think that’s where the government needs to come in because as much as private individuals are doing what they can, it’s not enough. This is where the government should step in to work with the publishers and subsidize prices for books, so it makes it easier to donate. This is a country that is literally struggling with literacy, especially education in English Language, and it’s tough for writers and publishers, and sometimes writers have to take minimum royalties the publishers offer because they just want to move ahead with the book and get the money. So, it’s a multidimensional problem.
Adefolami also raised the translation question and how publishers in Nigeria have failed to develop that market where translation into indigenous languages could be a boon waiting to be explored. According to him, ”Publishers also need to find ways to make translation of books into indigenous languages; that’s a lucrative sub-sector that hasn’t been explored, and we also need to bridge the publishing gaps by working with academics. It makes sense to spread beyond the demographics already covered by education. We need to dig deeper.”
In his goodwill message, Mr. Kolade Mosuro of Booksellers Ltd, Ibadan, commended the organizers of the forum for ”their dedication and determination to answer to some of the problems affecting our industry. I must commend Jahman (Anikulapo) an his team for their doggedness and the achievement they’ve made in bringing books to the attention of the readers and promoting reading over the years. Readers and writers abound in Nigeria, and year after year, we continue to see more crop of writers who would share their talents by entertaining, informing and inspiring us. Equally, publishers continue to emerge to challenge the status quo through competitions that can only bring the best in our industry. This forum is held to discuss how we can get books to end users, and get more books constantly and frequently to them. That is our challenge. With the array of talents assembled in this forum, I’m sure the problem will be tackled and we will be better off than we were before coming here.”