By Anote Ajeluorou
WHILE the love for books and the passion to reading them to acquire knowledge for innovation and development in Nigeria are said to be on decline, certain anomalies in the book chain have also been ascribed to it. One obvious dysfunction is in the supply line. Although writers are still writing books while publishers are also struggling to publish even under harsh economic environment, getting books to those who need them remains problematic. This has created a window for a third, uninvited, criminal party - the pirate, to eat where he didn’t sow and starve writers and publishers of vital funds needed to grow the business.
The need to strengthen the supply link from publishers to book consumers formed a major talking point at this year’s Publishers’ Forum held last Thursday at Goethe Institut, City Hall, Onikan, Lagos. It served as a prelude to the yearly Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) which ran from November 14 to 16, 2014. The festival, the 16th in the series, is the brainchild of Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), and had Freedom and the Word as theme dedicated to celebrate Nobel laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka who clocked 80 last July 13.
As statement from the organisers said, “As one of the pre-festival events, ‘Publishers’ Forum’ was conceived in 2010 to provide a space for publishers in Nigeria to gain critical insight into their current operations within the context of the challenges facing their industry, brainstorm on their findings and identify key steps that can be taken as individual businesses or as a collective, to improve their bottom line. At CORA, one of our goals is to build capacity and knowledge in the Nigerian creative industry space. By helping to build publishers’ skills, we hope to support the development of the nation’s publishing industry.
“In line with this year's theme, the day provided principals of publishing houses with the tools and skills to grow their businesses, maximize sales opportunities and identify strategies that are practical, implementable and financially viable”.
Among the various sessions held, perhaps, the one that was most animated was Publishers and Booksellers: Strengthening Links in the Supply Chain. It had, among publishers, the boss of Cassava Republic Press, Dr. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf; authors and publishers, Modupe Oduyoye, Femi Morgan of WhiteHouse Collective, and Ayo Arigbabu; writers, Chike Ofili, and Aladesuyi Lawrence. A senior official of Booksellers Association of Nigeria, Dr. Popoola Aladesuyi, represented his association. Also officials from Guaranty Bank, who came to promote the bank’s GTB SME MarketHub for online marketing of products, and other online platforms for e-book sales were present to lend effect to the critical nature of books.
Of course, booksellers, who ordinarily make up a strong link in the book chain, are often blamed for some of the financial woes publishers and writers face, with their weak operational system. It was, therefore, an opportunity for them to air some of the challenges they face and how much help they need from publishers and other stakeholders alike to perform better and improve on their work of taking books to consumers.
Popoola Aladesuyi, who was mostly under fire from the audience, responded well to issues raised against his association. But first, he confessed that his association’s capacity to deliver needed to be raised through training and funding. He said whereas books ought to be consumed daily, there was a small window of opportunity for book sales in the country, which was usually during school resumption season, after which books become luxury items. He related how much risk booksellers take in stocking school texts that may be revised without notice and changes made in recommended books that usually leave the bookseller in a quandary, as he now has stock he doesn’t know how to dispose.
According to him, “Books are seasonal in Nigeria because we live in a society where reading comes second only after food. Yes, although it’s an aberration, books are seasonal.”
Aladesuyi also raised the issue of mutual suspicion among writers, publishers, printers and booksellers, which often crippled business relationships, with one feeling that he or she was being short-changed.
Although it was easier to market educational books, he stated that non-educational books present their own peculiar challenges for which they needed help. He advised the serialization of such books and their promotion on radio and sundry platforms to help expose them to the public.
FOR Ofili, who is a writer, operators in the entire book chain were too traditional and lacked innovation for their own good. Hence, he said, nothing seems to work for them, as they fail to venture into new terrains to do book business. According to Ofili, “We have become too traditional and laid-back in the book chain. We’re so traditional in our thinking. We need to take a cue from Nollywood; it became the third largest in a span of just 20 years. It’s breaking barriers”.
Ofili confessed to the shame and humiliation he felt when Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) officials in Lagos left book hawkers alone while raiding roadside traders for violating the law. He said the officials did not look the way of those hawking books whereas others were being chased away. He said it meant that the officials didn’t see the value in books the way they saw other sellers.
He argued, “Those in the book business want things the easy way. Motivational booksellers are more innovative, adventurous; they cram themselves in small cubicles everywhere. It’s a tough task, but I think we can reinvent the wheel if we want to.”
Aladesuyi Lawrence, a former staff of Litramed Publications Ltd, advised booksellers to be ready to take certain amount of risks by warehousing or stocking books from publishers and discount the idea that books are seasonal, but to see them as products for all times. He also tasked booksellers to train their staff and relate well with all publishers and not be selective or discriminatory. More important, he advised booksellers to learn how to display books in shelves in an attractive manner to entice consumers and for them not to leave their shelves dusty and untidy, as was often the case with many of them.
ALSO, one major grouse of publishers against booksellers is that they often sabotaged the entire business when they deliberately fail to pay for books supplied them, and so cripple publishers and create bad blood between publishers and authors. Bakare-Yusuf urged booksellers to be faithful to payment agreements. Book piracy is another volatile crime publishers put to booksellers, and Bakare-Yusuf didn’t spare Aladesuyi and his association, and asked them to be committed enough to stop piracy.
“Booksellers should pay publishers”, she said. “After sales, we don’t want to go bankrupt. And for booksellers to stop pirating books. You need to impose sanctions on your members who default.”
Cassava Republic Press boss also tasked booksellers to innovate their business for better performance. She asked them to take up the many sales platforms like Conga, Bayam, GTB MarketingHub for SMEs currently on offer to maximize sales. Finally, she stressed, just like other members of the forum agreed, that there should be regular sessions for everyone in the book chain to meet and interact. “We must continue to have this kind of conversation among ourselves”, she concluded.
In his response, Popoola Aladesuyi charged publishers to help his association on capacity building. He said unlike publishing where there are various levels of professionals manning various aspects of the business from editor to illustrators to proofreaders and others, booksellers hardly have such proficient staff to facilitate sales. Most booksellers, including himself, he noted, didn’t require any form of training to enter into business. And so, it was hard for his members to be abreast of most of the innovations taking place in the book business.
“Unlike publishing where there are trained professionals in various sectors, no training takes place amongst booksellers”, he stated. “Let publishers organize capacity training for booksellers to get the business done properly. Let there be a coalition, a positive relationship between publishers and booksellers”.
Aladesuyi disclosed that his association was mulling the publication of a directory of his members and an online platform, which he said would be launched sometime in March next year. He also asked publishers to increase discount offered his members so they could be better motivated. On the discount score, Bakare-Yusuf said it was not in the cards, as it would mean raising the cover price of books, a situation she said would further drive away the few consumers of books and dwindle scarce patronage.