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Publishers, booksellers, writers chart pathways for successful book business

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  • November 20, 2023
  • 13 min read
Publishers, booksellers, writers chart pathways for successful book business

‘Books are important social change agents in society since they come from a place of ideas’

By Godwin Okondo

LAGOS Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2023) had its week-long celebration of Nigeria’s rich artistic and cultural heritage last week at Freedom Park, Lagos. Annually, the festival provides a platform for writers, artists, and cultural enthusiasts to come together to share ideas and showcase their works in a convivial atmosphere. The 2023 edition ended on November 19, 2023, and featured panel discussions, book readings, art exhibitions, and various cultural performances including children’s art. The festival had as theme ‘The Reset: History on a Darkling Plain’.

On Day 4, Thursday, November 16, a panel session discussed ways of navigating businesses in the book ecosystem. It was the third segment of CORA-NBRP Publishers-Booksellers-Authors-Readers Forum that had ‘The Nigerian Books Ecosystem: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ as theme. The topic was ‘Winning with Book Publishing and Marketing: An Insider’s Lens (Running successfully. Achieving goals. Rising above limitations. Tapping opportunities and advantages….).’ It focused on educating publishers, authors and booksellers on methods to apply to keep their businesses afloat. Panel members included the CEO of Showers Kiddies Publishers, Mrs. Yomi Ogunlari, co-founder of Roving Heights Bookstore, Mr. Adedotun Eyinade, writer and book promoter, Mrs. Awele Ilesanmi and Abuja-based writer and publisher, Mr. Mike Ekunno, with moderation by the CEO, iRead Mobile Library, Mrs. Funmi Ilori.

Ogunlari shared her how she got into publishing, when she said, “I’ve been into publishing for 17 years, and we publish educational books for nursery and primary schools, and we’re about starting secondary school books. We started out as printers, and we got to a stage where we found out that we weren’t making money.

“At night on my bed, I asked the lord what he wanted me to do and in words loud and clear, he said, ‘ABC, 123 books.’ But I told the lord I was bigger than such books, so why would I be doing it when there are more important things out there to publish? I pushed it aside for a while, but it just kept disturbing me, so I decided to go to the market to find out about those kinds of books. I had no idea about publishing, but I went to the market and bought books, one printed in Nigeria and one printed in India, and I went through them when I got to the office. Then I realized there was nothing to write home about these books, and I believe I could do better. And that was how I started.”

Eyinade also shared his success story in book marketing and sales: “Our mission is to make books accessible to readers in Nigeria, and we do that through our stores in Lagos and Abuja, as well as our website and social media handles. I’ve been in the business for less than ten years, but I think we try to look at the ingredients in the market, the people we met in the business, to learn what has kept them in the business and helped them survive. For us, it’s a starting point to say: that in a country of 200 million people, what would it take you to sell 100,000 books by a particular author, make some money and get money to the authors and every other person in the book value chain?”

Eyinade and his partners found courage from watching those who had been in the book business and launched out. Now that is what they are also doing by encouraging others to get into the book business to experience its thrills and excitement. They believe there’s room for more people to get books to readers across the country.

According to him, “One of the things we are still happy about is the fact that there is still so much potential out there. We are also inspiring other people to come into the book trade. I encourage people who want to start bookstores, and we don’t see them as competitors, because a city of this size (Lagos) should have bookstores in their hundreds, with some of them specializing in a particular area. We started out this business from our dinning, and there were some publishers who gave us books on credit, and we built a relationship and transaction history with them.

Mrs. Yomi Ogunlari (left); Mr. Adedotun Eyinade; session moderator, Mrs. Funmi Ilori; CORA board Chairman, Mr. Kayode Aderinokun and Mr. Mike Ekunno after the session PHOTO BY GODWIN OKONDO

“The first year I went to the London Book Fair, I was sitting across the table from a British woman and I was trying to talk to her to sell books to me on credit, because we had just opened our second bookstore. She said she had sworn not to give Nigerians books on credit anymore, but she gave us on a trial books worth USD$500. Even though the country is hard, people interested in book trade can still identify a particular niche. With a social media handle, you can start and promote your business.”

Ilesanmi, who has been in the publishing business since 2004, also shared her success story in book marketing and sales., when she said, “I’m very passionate about publishing, book marketing and promotion. I’m the president of the Literary Authors Cooperative Multipurpose Society of Nigeria, the first literary cooperative in Nigeria since 2019. I’ve been promoting reading culture since 2004, because I wanted people to have knowledge and become successful. I didn’t even know I would come this far because my first degree was in language as a French major. It’s all about promoting reading culture and creating awareness, and that’s why I got into publishing — to help people get the knowledge to succeed. People are not getting the books they want and I wanted a situation whereby authors can get their books to the hands of the readers directly.

“I’ve been into book marketing at different levels. I found out that it is possible for an author to get paid before a book is published. Authors can get funding for their books even before it is published. A lot of things happen behind the scenes that authors don’t know about. When people say books aren’t selling, I don’t really agree, because it’s always about the strategy you use. If you want people to read more, you have to think outside the box and be creative, and also create a win-win situation.”

Ekunno said he deploys an unusual method to the production and marketing of his recently published short story collection, Soul Lounge, saying, “The book industry is a sellers’ market, so if you’re a prospective author, there are hundreds of you chasing after a publisher and it’s the same story everywhere, but I think it’s worse here. My book just came out, and it’s a collection of short stories. Before I decided to do it my own way, it was there in my laptop folder and I kept sending it to publishers, but it wasn’t picked up. In the first place, the Nigerian publishing field is so tiny, and among that tiny lot, many of them are into textbook publishing. If you are trying to break into the market as a newbie, you would have difficulties.

Ekunno got the right hang of the self-publishing model, and circumvented the situation where printers masquerade as publishers, when they make no input to a book except print it. What is worse, most self-styled printer-publishers don’t have their own printing press, but contract it out to printers. They don’t also make input to the editorial content; they print whatever you give them, errors and all. But Ekunno outsmarted this awkward arrangement and he’s the wiser for it.

“What happened was that when I decided to do what is called ‘cash and carry’ publishing, I gave it to a major publisher in the north, but their name is not in the book. The name on the book is my publishing outfit, so I’m the author and the publisher. Publishing is a legal arrangement, but printing is a physical thing, so don’t get deceived that you can’t be a publisher because you don’t have a printing press. I approached the publisher; we discussed about ‘cash and carry’ publishing format, so he gave me his quotation. I told him that I was editing my work myself and he would only print, so he couldn’t be my publisher. So, the contract was adjusted in that fashion. What he did was for me to benefit from the quality printing and binding he already has, and I paid him, and also for the delivery to Abuja. The editing is mine, and I own up if there is any error. Since the name of his firm is not on the book, he has no legal ties to the book.

“The big headache was marketing. I’m not fazed, because I’m not looking to make millions from my work, and I’ve devised a marketing plan whereby I start with the boot of my car, and I attended a neighborhood fair. I’m using my modest means to market the book, and I’ve been able to get a little following the literary circle. When I’m done with that, I would face the bookshops.”

Ogunlari also spoke about marketing her books and how she has been able to manage her business, saying, “We all have to dabble into looking for funds. We didn’t have the funds, but somehow we got through it, and that’s why we only started with four titles. We only did 500 copies of these titles, and by the time we came out with them, we had problems — our system had crashed and we didn’t come out at the right time, but we still decided to sell the 500 copies and we were able to sell everything. We just used the little funds we had to go back to press and made another 500, and that was how we started.

“We don’t need all the money in the world to stay in business. What we need is to be an excellent provider, and put in your best. Don’t go for the money — money will come when you put in your best. Today, we do over 100 titles and print 20,000 copies each. Even for us, we felt we should be printing more than 20,000 copies, but we thought about how we source funds for the titles. We got to that stage where we couldn’t print the books here in Nigeria because there was no press that could take that volume, so we had to source from abroad, but we didn’t have the money for that, and we got a bank to put in some funds plus the little funds we had to be able to pay for one container on lien. Over the years, we’ve not paid a dollar on these containers that come in. We need to be Nigerians that can be trusted. They tell me I’m one of the few publishers they do such transactions with. If I didn’t have this, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing. We have to be trustworthy.”

Eyinade shared some of the challenges he faced in the bookselling trade thus: “It’s hard to find the right kind of people to help manage your business. You get books on credit from publishers in the UK or US, and at a point, you realize you’ve made a loss when your invoice is due. You also have to contend with readers who are very price-sensitive. You also ask yourself if you need to reach out to a new set of customers or discuss with corporates to buy more copies, as well as managing relationships with publishers.

“Some self-published authors also ask us to market their books for them, but the challenge is that some of them don’t put in efforts to promote their books, or the willingness to market the books. What we end up doing is provide warehouse incentives for self-published authors. There are tough times, but tough times don’t last forever. We are also in a very important industry, and books are important, as well as the social change we want in our society, and they need to come from the place of ideas. And when I think about what we do gives the motivation to keep going.”

Technology plays an important role in the book ecosystem, according to Ilesanmi, who said, “My first book was published in 2004, and the second was in 2015. No matter what, if you don’t have money to publish, the important thing is to believe in yourself and know that you have quality content, and anyone who reads your work will appreciate your efforts. You also need to collaborate with people to get your books out there. Most authors in Nigeria would say they can’t print, and that’s because they’re not looking at teamwork. Authors can do crowdfunding and get in touch with people who share the same passion. In the author’s cooperative, we don’t worry about how to print or publish our books because we have authors that support one another to print and promote their works, as well as in-house printers. We go beyond printing the work; we also run free book launch consultation with most of our members. We are past the age where we just sit down because we don’t have money to print. We can always make use of crowdfunding.

“Coming to technology, we have social media where authors can promote themselves, their books and their branding with just a little amount of money. I tell authors to decide if they’re writing for pleasure or for business from day one. When that is decided, you now find the technology to bring in. The world is on our fingertips and it’s all about using technology to create awareness about our books. You have to believe in yourself, because if you don’t blow your trumpet, nobody will do it for you. Enjoy the process and take everyday as a blessing.

“Take the technology you have and start promoting your books. I’ve gone through a lot of things and I cried when my books were not selling, and through this process, I discovered what works. Be ready to do the work, because you have testimony that comes from these challenges. Authors should also be with people that bring them positive energy.”

Ekunno also said technology is a big deal in the book business as in anything else, saying, “Technology is big, and it plays a big role in what we are doing. Social media gives prospective buyers a sense of familiarity with books. That’s one of the things that water the grounds before a purchase. Secondly, when you’re in social media, you’re bringing out the unique selling point of the work, why you should have an advantage over a book in that genre. There are hundreds of collections of short stories out there, and what makes your work unique is that you must have a quality product that you believe in.

“Many authors look at making big money with their books. I didn’t do any launch for this book. I can’t be chasing people who make promises. I’m contented with whatever I get, and then I will go to the bookshops, and there would be a margin because their commission would be there. If you want to make all the money at a go, you may face disappointments. From the get-go, I set my targets moderately and I haven’t been disappointed.”

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