Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Opportunities, challenges of book publishing in Nigeria in an era of e-books

By Anote Ajeluorou

Nigeria has had a fairly robust book publishing history starting from the establishment of University College, Ibadan (UCI) in 1948. With a promising academia and scholarship, which such milestone institution was bound to generate, some of the leading publishers from the United Kingdom such as Longman, Heinemann, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, etc, took steps to be part of the new beginning that UCI represented.
  Ibadan also naturally became the pioneering city of publishing in the country, as these publishers for the city congenial to set up shop. Expectedly, Ibadan lived up to expectations, as the young institution soon began to produce prodigious talent in all spheres of scholarship. From school texts to literary works to leisure reading materials, the arena became vibrant both for the publishers and writers. Publishing became big business, especially as the need to fill the literacy level became high and school enrolment also rose phenomenally.
  The trend was raised a notch higher at independence and beyond with Nigeria poised for the path of greatness it heralded with its abundant resources both human and material. But there was a temporary halt with the outbreak of the fratricidal civil war. When the war ended in 1970, the book industry picked up pace once again. It wasn’t just the old, foreign publishers any more doing business; local publishers saw the need to be part of the ever-expanding book terrain occasioned by rapid expansion of schools, universities and allied institutions. The trend continued till the mid 1980s when the bubble burst with the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) by the Ibrahim Babangida administration in 1986.
  The devastating effect of that economic policy hit all sectors of the economy. But it appeared the book publishing industry and the education sector were worse hit. The foreign publishing houses could not repatriate their invested funds; local purchasing power became drastically low such that purchase of books dropped radically. It gave way to the era of handouts in universities as books became scarce. Also, the three paper mills at Iwopin, Jebba and Oku Iboku gradually grinded to a halt, as paper import became the norm and still remains so till date with its attendant economic haemorhage for the country.
  The foreign publishers soon pulled out of Nigeria thus leaving their local inheritors who were now faced with how to save an endangered business. It wasn’t just books that were hard hit. Education also began to suffer acute neglect from government, as it could find resources to fund it properly. A brief period of mixed military-democratic government saw many states introducing free education in primary and secondary schools. It came with free books being freely distributed to schools for pupils and students. Rather than strengthening the book chain, it further caused chaos in the sector.
  Some of the books did not only fit, they were grossly mismanaged. Some found their ways into the open market and were sold by unscrupulous persons even when ‘Not for Sale’ was clearly marked on them. After this, things went from bad to worse, with education getting smaller and smaller budgetary provisions far less than the 26 per cent stipulated by UNESCO.
  This situation made linguist and African languages expert, Prof. Emmanuel Nnolue Emenanjo to proclaim in a recent lecture, “Nigeria is a chronically bookless country and most Nigerians are neither great lovers, great buyers, avid readers, nor fanatical users of books!”
  He continued, “Nigeria produces less than one percent of her actual book needs, which should now stand at some 199.76 million books per year. This calculation is based on a modest estimate of four – six books per child in primary school, for 20.4 million pupils; eight books per student in the secondary school, for 6.4 million students; and eight books per student for close to one million students in tertiary education…
  “Nigerians have the lowest rate of paper consumption in the world with only 3 kilos of printed materials per person, per year as against South Africa, with 100 kilos, Europeans with 250 kilos, Americans with 270 kilos and Japanese with 300 kilos”.
  This is a grim prospect for the country’s educational and book industry. But government and policy makers don’t seem to have a clue how to stem the tide. Supposed beneficiaries, Nigerian students, are therefore worse hit by such bookless prospect dodging their heels.

SINCE the collapse of Heinemann’s African Writers Series (AWS), which late legendary literary icon, Prof. Chinua Achebe pioneered as editorial adviser, with the publication of his iconic novel, Things Fall Apart in 1958, publishing of literary works in the country and Africa plummeted. This led to the era of self-publishing and the rise of a few small scale publishing houses that specialize in fiction or literary publishing. A few example in Nigeria in recent years include Ibadan-based Kraftbooks Ltd and Bookcraft; Lagos-based Farafina (publisher of Chimamanda Adichie, Sefi Atta and Eghosa Imasuen); Abuja-based Cassava Republic Press (publisher of Lola Shoneyin and Toni Kan); Jalaa Writers Collective (publisher of Akachi Ezeigbo, Jube Dibia), Parresia Publishers (Molara Wood, Abubakar Ibrahim).
  Some of the old publishers, seeing the apparent boom in literary publishing by efforts of self-publishers and smaller ones, have tried to come into the fray, but with a measure of half-heartedness that hasn’t delivered. Macmillan Publishers used to have a literary series called ‘Pacesetters’ back in the 1980s. It died years ago from SAP-induced problems. Its new imprint, ‘Night & Day’ is floundering; its authors are not promoted and so unknown and unread.
  Ibadan-based University Press Plc tried to introduce ‘New Horizon’ but it’s yet another failure, as no meaningful book has come out of that effort. Longman Plc also tried to revive its previously famous ‘Drumbeat’ series that nurtured a generation of young and adult readers in the 1980s and 1990s. But lack of promotion of its new titles made the effort fall flat on its face. Nelson Publishers, one of the old generation publishers, has made a fairly successful effort of literary publishing of late. Dr. Wale Okediran’s Tenants in the House, a work depicting intrigues in the Federal House of Representatives, has been signal a near comeback for the company into fiction terrain. A lull ensued that was only broken last year when it came out with a short story collection titled, Dream Chasers, in its new series.

HOWEVER, while literary writers (authors of fiction – drama, novels, short story, poetry, etc) are having a hard time getting the attention of the big publishers, authors of academic works or school texts have continued to be the brides to be wooed. This is so because with the economic hardship publishers encounter, it has engendered in them instinct for survival. And survival means that they cut down on what they presumably regard as luxury publishing, which literary publishing represents, as there is little patronage on account of poor book promotion and low purchasing power of majority of the populace. Textbook publishing has then become the name of the game, as it guarantees return on investment, as school and students are bound to buy recommended textbooks for class work.
  Only the recommended literary texts continue to thrive in the unfriendly book-publishing environment and the big publishers are doing their best to fill it. From reports of profit profiles, they have been making it big. Indeed, this has given impetus to school text authors in tertiary institutions, and secondary and primary schools, as there are ready buyers and readers for their books. This is where literary text authors have lost out except the few whose texts make it to the syllabuses of examination bodies.
  Authors of school texts or texts recommended by examination bodies have a ready market. Most times, the big publishers actually commission authors to write books specifically tailored-made to such objectives, as they also go the extra miles to woo educational officials to have their books in school syllabuses thus creating unhealthy competition among themselves. The big publishers, represented by Nigerian Publishers Association (NPA), have often accused Nigerian Educational and Research Development Council (NERDC) of double standards as the body also publishes educational materials and thus encroaches on the turf of NPA.
  Clearly, the allure is with educational publishing for which the risk of incurring loses is slim. All a publisher requires is to be smart enough to have his book in a school syllabus or on the recommended list of an examination body like WAEC, NECO or JAMB and he can be rest assured of breaking even and making a profit. So that in spite of the harsh economic environment, University Press Plc , for instance, declared N2 billion as profit before tax in 2013! Other publishers made their own modest profits as well, which came from textbook publishing, easily the cash-cow of the sector at the moment.

WITH the explosion of the internet in recent years, and it’s phenomenal impact on virtually all facets of life, the book has found a comfortable place in it. The advent of the internet has made some pessimists to proclaim or prophesy the death of the ‘traditional paperback book’! Writers of all shades have lashed onto the borderless category or community that the internet represents to sell their ideas and ideologues. The book publishing, which is usually regarded as a conservative sector, did not escape being sucked into the pervasive web, with the e-book or e-learning being the vogue.
  All sorts of devices keep being introduced into the market, and Nigerians have been embracing them as they come. Such devices as Kindle, e-reader, iPads, iPones, e-tablet are already defining the e-book revolution. But what is the fate of publishers in this e-book rat race? How are publishers coping? How involved are they in getting on the web? How would that impact on traditional book publishing? How ready are Nigerian publishers in embracing the new online bug for books?
  Kenyan writer and former director of Chinua Achebe Centre at Brown University, Rhodes Island, U.S., Mr. Binyavanga Wainaina, has also declared death for the paper book, saying, “The book is dead as it is today! So, why not put content on screens for our pupils – mobile phones, laptops, etc. This is the African hurricane, which is Africa fully transformed or slide. We are no longer in a place of choice. We need not fear change”.
  Only last year, Osun State Government introduced a tablet, Opon Imo, to its secondary schools as alternative platforms for books. It was provided by one of the big publishers, Evans Publishers Ltd, as further evidence that some of the local publishers are abreast of developments at the larger world stage. Most of the school texts and recommended texts are uploaded onto the tablets for the students’ use. According to the state’s Deputy Governor, Mrs. Grace Tomori, the tablets “are installed with softwares of lesson notes and textbooks on 17 subjects offered by students of secondary schools as well as past questions and answers on the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE), National Examination Council Examination (NECO) and the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), which will help facilitate students’ preparedness for these examinations.
  “The launch and distribution of the computer tablets, which also contain other extra-curricular subjects including Sexuality Education, Entrepreneurship, Civic and Computer Education, Yoruba History and Traditional Religion to secondary school students across the various public secondary schools in the state is a further attestation to the resolute pursuit of innovation in the state’s education sector”.
  Implicit in this e-learning tool are serious implications for traditional, paper publishing in the country. Issues that immediately arise include the future of traditional paper books, piracy, legal and administrative framework for this new platform to benefit everyone concerned including publishers, authors and many others.
  The Executive Secretary of Nigerian Publishers Association (NPA), Mr. Kunle Sogbehin, stated that the fact of e-books already taking roots in Nigeria is not to be contested, but advised local publishers to embrace it for their own good, as it signified the future of publishing.
  According to him, “The trend throughout the world now is that content delivery will no longer be in the form of using paper, as it were. But electronic delivery of books is now something that publishers cannot run away from any more. What we’re doing now is to make sure that publishers know their role basically, as content providers. Now, whether you like it or not, publishers must still provide content that will be loaded into those devices. What publishers are doing is to actually position themselves so as to provide the right content”.
  In other words, publishers will need their authors to write books, which would then be uploaded onto these e-books before they can be delivered to end-users – readers. By so doing, publishers make themselves indispensable to the learning process.
  He further stated, “For instance, the Osun State’s Opon Imo e-book tablet for its senior secondary school students is the brainchild of a major publisher in Nigeria, Evans Publishers Ltd. But the problem is that for now we don’t have enough infrastructure in Nigeria to support it otherwise it will even be convenient for publishers to deliver content in electronic format. The short-term defect is that people may think it will replace the book in paper form. But we’re going to have a mixed ecosystem of paper books and digital books side by side for a long time.
  “The only important thing is for publishers to be well positioned to churn out good content. If you don’t have content, it will be hard to fit into the digital system. But a lot of our publishers are positioning themselves to partner with IT companies, which don’t have content, which publishers have. So, that is what we have; this applies all over the world – IT companies partnering with those who have content to deliver such content to consumers”.
  Unlike Wainaina, Sogbehin has ambivalent view of the situation. He firmly believes in the continued existence of traditional paperback books while keeping a close eye on the new development e-books represent and argues that both formats can and will co-exist to give options to book lovers of all categories.
  According to him, “But for a long time, we’re going to have a mixed ecosystem in the book industry. For instance, only short excerpts of novels and such materials will fit the electronic gadgets, and not the full length. If the e-books can work in the long run, it will actually provide people that can generate content a lot of alternative platforms to deliver materials and it will enable content providers to send their content anywhere in the world without the barriers traditional books pose – long travel and haulage and all its encumbrances in our bad roads and warehousing that are expensive.
  “However, for a long time the digital or e-books are not going to displace the traditional, conventional paper books. Like I said, what we will have is a mixed ecosystem of both books existing side by side for a long time.
  “Like I said, many publishers are actually working to get onto the digital platforms like the Ipon Imo tablet in Osun State, which was provided by a major publisher, Evans Publishers”.
  Although the MD of University Press Plc, Mr. Samuel Kolawole, raised issues of infrastructural problems, piracy associated with e-books, availability of electricity to charge the devices, he said e-books were desirable and that Nigerian publishers were positioning themselves for the challenge ahead. He assured that Nigerian publishers were not far behind in embracing the digital revolution hitting the book industry in spite of the teething problems that may be associated with it. Kolawole, however, said challenges like copyright issues needed to be resolved before such platform could become operational and take firm root.
  A senior official of Longman Ltd, a Lagos-based leading publishing firm, who chose to remain anonymous, said although the advent of e-books was a positive development and not a big deal or threat to publishers, raised the issue of proper evaluation and constant review of the operational framework so that publishers would not be short-changed in the process.
  He noted while e-book publishing had picked up elsewhere, it was just starting in Nigeria, and so care was needed to midwife it. He also raised the issue of infrastructure like epileptic power supply as possible impediment to the platform. Cost of purchasing and maintaining such electronic device, he further argued, might pose a challenge given Nigeria’s poor maintenance culture”.
  On the example of Osun State’s launch of Opon Imo for its secondary schools, he expressed reservations on how far it could go, saying, “How far do they want to go? When will they start with the primary schools, for instance? It’s a positive development but can government afford to buy such device for all? Won’t the cost be higher than traditional books? From publishing perspective, it’s not a big deal; we provide the content, the purveyor of knowledge. They should be able to migrate to these platforms.
  “Digital platforms will reduce a lot of production costs – no leasing of warehouses or going abroad to produce books, as is the case currently. However, publishers have to have agreement with government on proper pricing. For instance, if a publisher sells to Osun State and next year, the state hands them over to the next set of students and so on down the road, how will it benefit publishers? So, there should be a licensing arrangement for its continuity; they have to look at issues of digital rights management so it is not circulated round other would-be users and not be paid for.
  “So, it’s not a negative development, but let’s ensure we have a system in place to work out all the details regarding its usage so everyone benefits”.
  No doubt, the book industry has come a long way. Still stretching ahead of it is the e-book revolution that is just unfolding. Whatever the challenges, it appears both authors, publishers and book lovers are upbeat that the book will continue to deliver knowledge, which ultimately is wealth for all, especially in a knowledge economy world that the internet foreshadows!

1 comment:

  1. We need also to encourage the culture of reading by our people, young and old. Presently, those who read only read for certificates or for solace from their adversities. Lets grow the reading habit then books will sell and publishing will thrive. Every community should be encouraged to have a library, no matter how small. Publishing in indigenous languages should also be promoted. Lets tell our people that reading promotes civility and civilization. Ajayi Tony.