[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (May 2006), pp. 55-58]
My entry into book publishing, which occurred exactly 20 years ago this year, happened almost by accident; even though having developed a natural affinity with books quite early on in life, it was perhaps somewhat inevitable that I would one day be drawn into a career in the world of books.
Before I got into book publishing I had worked for five years as a television producer with Nigeria’s state-owned television network. While the first three years of that experience were marked by the sort of creative freedom which enabled me to produce — even if I say so myself — some of the most interesting and original programmes on TV at the time, the next two, by contrast, were virtually unproductive and terribly frustrating. The immediate reason for this was not unconnected with the changed political situation in the country at this time (the early eighties); as the political atmosphere became increasingly charged, the authorities grew less accommodating of TV fare which did not appear to serve an overtly, narrow, political propaganda purpose. While a few of my colleagues chafed under this new régime, many others chose to flow with the tide. As I grew more and more restless, it was obvious to me that I could not adapt to this new state of affairs. Although the options immediately available were quite limited, I knew it was only a matter of time before I moved on to something that would allow me the sort of creative freedom I had become accustomed to.
One of my last and most memorable assignments as a television producer was a documentary on the Ife International Book Fair in 1984. It was here I had the encounter which was to dramatically alter the course of my future. I met Joop Berkhout, an enterprising and gregarious Dutchman who at the time was a veteran of more than 20 years in the book business in Africa. It was through Berkhout that I subsequently got my formal induction into book publishing. From my very first contact, publishing books seemed like a natural extension of what I had done as a television producer; and I took to it like a duck to water. Fortunately for me, because there was some recognition of the potential value of my previous experience, even though it did not seem at once relevant to the book business, I was allowed a certain degree of creative latitude. A whole new world was immediately opened up before me!
Spectrum Books, where, as it were, I cut my publishing teeth, was at the time at the cutting edge of publishing in Nigeria. It was young, and its style was dynamic and aggressive, as against the somewhat staid and lumbering approach of the older, more traditional publishing houses. Its books were different, and refreshingly so. But more importantly, whereas most publishers were almost exclusively providing books for the admittedly large school population, Spectrum Books was making a determined foray into the publication of non-school books, or what’s regarded elsewhere as ‘trade books’. At the time, there was very little publishing of books that were not on school curricula. Most publishers considered this area too uncertain and risk-laden. Why leave something that was a guaranteed income earner for what was still uncharted territory? The result has been that most people have no contact with books after, or outside of school, thus perpetuating the myth, over the years, that Nigerians do not read!
At Spectrum I virtually had to hit the ground running, as I got into the publishing process without any formal period of internship. Thrown in at the deep end, I was forced to learn very quickly. However, my initial unfamiliarity with the more technical aspects of my new profession was more than adequately compensated for by the collegial and convivial atmosphere of the work environment. It was, arguably, one of the most stimulating places to work in the publishing industry in Nigeria at the time. For the first time Nigerians were being made aware of books beyond their use as educational tools; books were being discussed in places other than the classroom. Book publishing had suddenly become fashionable.
My experience at Spectrum had helped open my eyes to the possibilities which existed in book publishing in Nigeria. Three years later, after a brief, but intense tutelage, I felt I was more than well prepared to launch out on my own. And so I decided to set up my own publishing company to, as it were, extend those possibilities which I had glimpsed at Spectrum; to push the boundaries a little further.
The choice of name for the new company, BOOKCRAFT, was deliberate — to convey our desire and determination to pay careful and thoughtful attention to the finer points of book publication, from design and layout to the highest production quality possible. Sixteen years later, we have arrived at a point where our books have become synonymous in the eyes of the public with attractive and reader-friendly design. All our books — from handy, pocket-sized titles (African Proverbs; Salutations to the Gut; Golden Quotes), to lavishly-produced, large-format, coffee-table books (The Photography of Sunmi Smart-Cole; WS: A Life in Full); from the light hearted to the serious — are carefully put together to achieve this attractive, ‘reader-friendly’ end-product, with a high quality of finish.
At the beginning however, it was just a dream. The announcement heralding the birth of the new company sounded quite ambitious: ‘BOOKCRAFT will publish, package, and distribute books on art, history, culture, literature, business, health, and current affairs in Africa, and in so doing, provide a healthy list of “home grown” titles available and accessible to the non-school, discerning reader; and ultimately, to help develop the growth of a genuine readership outside the school market.’
What we had not prepared for when we were starting out was the sudden and dramatic change in the economic environment, which overnight rendered our plans and projections completely unworkable, following a devaluation of over 200% of the national currency! It was to prove a most inauspicious time to be starting any business, least of all a publishing company.
Things were to become even more desperate in the succeeding years, as the company tottered between survival and liquidation. Resources, which were limited to begin with, became virtually non-existent. And in an environment where book publishers are not usually able to access any sort of funds — private venture capital, bank loans, etc. — we were forced to rely on our own extremely meagre resources. We almost didn’t make it!
In the last ten years however, the company has managed to stabilize, and has been consolidating and expanding its presence in the market for non-school books, and has developed a wide and varied list, essentially, but not exclusively, for the non-school buyer.
In 2003 for instance, we published the Wole Soyinka photo-biography, WS: A Life in Full. It was our own way of paying tribute to this icon of African and world literature. It was a decidedly bold and ‘unorthodox’ approach, at least for book publishers here. We knew that it had to be lavish, thorough and very well presented; in other words, we could not afford to cut corners with a book like this. The reaction to the book within and outside Nigeria has more than justified our efforts. With this title, we succeeded in pushing the boundaries that much farther. And needless to say, it has already inspired a few other similar ideas and will almost certainly spawn a few others. Not all our books have had such a ‘happy ending’ though.
Indeed, several difficulties and challenges still face the book publisher in Nigeria, especially of non-school books. The biggest of these is perhaps the limited financial resources available to most publishers, even the older and better-established ones. As a result the list of titles published annually in Nigeria is quite small for a country of this size. As for book promotion and marketing, very few publishers are able to deploy any resources for this important part of book publishing. Another problem for book publishers is the paucity of decent outlets, especially for non-school books. Closely related to all these is the absence of reliable statistics to assist planning. Over the years, because educational standards have unfortunately been dropping, the quality of competence in virtually all professions in Nigeria today has also not been as high as it used to be, say, two decades ago.
As a result, the level of professional knowledge, experience and expertise in the book industry for example, has not grown to cope with the enormous potential which exists, or with the challenges ahead. The truth is that many books published in Nigeria are still unable to travel well outside the country; and this is not just because of the poor production quality. They are often poorly put together. The reader, it appears, is not taken into account. Perhaps this is so because the preponderance of books published is still largely targeted at the school audience, which is seen as a ‘captive’ market. After all, once the book has been adopted by the relevant ministry or department as fit for the reading list, the individual reader does not matter so much.
Nevertheless, the future for book publishing in Nigeria, in my opinion, remains very bright, as many more well-trained individuals, with various backgrounds, come into the book business. There is now a compelling challenge to meet the growing demands of a potential readership, in the next decade, of over fifty million, outside the school market, for a whole variety of books, ranging from fiction titles, to self-improvement, professional and general interest books. Although there are still enormous technical challenges, the technology is now available to surmount many of these challenges. There just needs to be an improvement in the level of professional knowledge to take advantage of technology.
In the coming years, we plan not only to extend our range and list of titles even further, but we also plan to aggressively market and promote all our titles, in a way that makes books part and parcel of life for many more people, on a regular basis.
Bankole Olayebi is Publisher of BOOKCRAFT, 29 Moremi Road, New Bodija, GPO Box 16279, Ibadan, Nigeria. BOOKCRAFT books are distributed overseas by the African Books Collective Ltd., The Jam Factory, 27 Park End St, Oxford OX1 1HU.