The Nigeria International Book Fair (NIBF) sees publishers, booksellers, writers, schoolchildren and booklovers gather for a week of events and exchange. By the Sunday night before the fair kicked off, the Multipurpose Hall at the University of Lagos, where the 2017 edition of NIBF was held, had been cubicled off into about 40 bookselling stalls and two function rooms. Function Rooms A and B were the venues for the international conference, the workshop on publishing standards in Nigeria, the booksellers’ seminar, the librarians’ workshop, and the Authors’ Groove, among other events.
The canopy-leather labels on the stalls proclaimed the names of booksellers and notable publishing houses in Nigeria, Ghana and India: ReproIndia, Evans Brothers, Macmillan, Cassava Republic, Bookcraft, Roving Heights, Patabah Books. Everyone was set for the fair to begin.
A Triad of Blame
The fair proper opened on the Tuesday morning with an international conference. The theme was “Book Chain, Government Policies and the Promotion of Reading Culture in Africa.” Now, one would have hoped that for an event in its teens (the fair is16 years old this year), one that beats its chest for being the largest and most consistent book fair in Africa (after the Cairo International Book Fair), its theme would have been something less hackneyed than ‘the dying reading culture in Nigeria’.
Throughout the week of the fair, in the question and answer sessions that conclude the events, the microphone would be passed around as freely as the blame among the triad made up of writers, publishers and booksellers all lamenting that, in any given year, a Nigerian publisher who sells a 1 000 copies of a title views that as cause for celebration. Publishers and writers take it for granted that books are produced with school audiences in mind. Without the schools, they would be operating at much bigger losses than they currently are.
Publishers and writers take it for granted that books are produced with school audiences in mind
While writer Chike Ofili complained about publishers backstabbing authors by withholding royalties, the national head of sales at Cambridge University Press Nigeria, Obafemi Olumuyiwa, accused booksellers of being complicit in aiding pirates who operate as a dangerous cabal. Booksellers who are supposed to buy copies of books in sizeable quantities to sell to schools will buy only a few copies and then collude with pirates to reprint more copies of same book, which they then sell themselves. Because these pirated copies are printed in pretty much the same places where local publishers have their books printed—Malaysia, Singapore, India, Dubai—they are indistinguishable from the originals.
Foreign printers are saboteurs too, Olumuyiwa says. Because they are making extra, undeserved profit, they do not bother to check that those who approach them with a request to reproduce copies of a title have the legal rights to those books As a result, many Nigerian publishers have decided to cut booksellers out of the book chain, preferring instead to have their educational reps double as sales reps who deal directly with schools.
The True Importance of Schools
Although the reading culture in Africa was to be explored at the International Conference, the fair’s keynote speaker and former registrar of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), the Nigerian body in charge of university entrance examinations, Professor Dibu Ojerinde, chose to limit his talk to the reading culture in Nigeria alone.
Ojerinde was the JAMB boss who introduced the policy of testing candidates applying to Nigerian universities on a compulsory literary text. For the 2013/2014 examinations, candidates were tested on Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Potter’s Wheel and Jerry Agada’s The Successor. The books were to be used for testing for three years but had to be changed in 2015 after problems arose because of poor communication about the texts and piracy.
A fresh book, the work of a young writer, was slapped onto candidates’ reading tables: A.H. Mohammed’s Last Days at Forcados High. Naturally, Cassava Republic, the publisher of this book, was anxious about piracy, and so, following negotiations with JAMB, copies of the novella were deposited at JAMB state offices, where candidates would receive them alongside their registration materials. This year, the exam body has assigned a new text: Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s debut novel, In Dependence, also published by Cassava Republic. Today, there seems to be at least 10 copies of the book on every Nigerian street.
The problems in the Nigerian publishing infrastructure are more than just the printing of books
Even at the fair, it was demonstrated that the school system was the spine that held up Nigerian publishing. When I spoke to Eyinade Tomiwa, the sales rep at Cassava Republic’s stall, about their sales records, he told me that their “literary titles” such as Measuring Time by Helon Habila, Longthroat Memoirs by Yemisi Aribisala and The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma have sold best. Habila’s novel was published 10 years ago; it is unusual that it would still be a bestseller. However, Tomiwa explained that the novel was an assigned text for some students in the University of Lagos.
The Case of Comic Books
Outside the function rooms, booksellers manned their stalls, making eye contact with visitors who were browsing the aisles and scanning the white, fluorescent-lit shelves, picking up books and putting them down again, or paying for them. In a stall on the third aisle, a man, wearing glasses, stands with his hands in his pocket. The books on his shelves are slim in size. Some are neatly spread out on the blue cloth-clad table in front of him. This is Peter Amadi of Shadow Black, the only comic book publisher at the fair.
I pull up a chair to chat with him. In Nigeria, the writers and publishers of comics are a very small community, fuelled mainly by their passion for producing literature in that genre. But distribution problems have driven many of them to reach their audiences online, at no profit to themselves, because the books are given away for free through Internet links.
It has been 11 years since Amadi began publishing comics in Nigeria. He prints in Nigeria, he tells me, and does the work of distribution himself by going to as many stores as he can reach in Lagos to deliver copies of the comics, hoping that they will sell. Sales have been okay, he says. Children have been the most enthusiastic buyers of his comics, with Sheba’s Song being one of his biggest-selling titles. While store owners are not always willing to buy the comics off him at the point of distribution, they are often kind enough to give them display space where people can see the comics and buy them. The stores then make their returns when Amadi calls back.
The foreign printers, too, are saboteurs
The Government’s Role
Like all situations of structural failure in Nigeria, there is a frantic call at the fair for the government to step in as saviour and rescue the book industry from further degradation. A Bill to support publishers, writers and artists, titled the National Endowment for Arts and Literature Bill, and sponsored by the chairman of this year’s fair, writer and activist Senator Shehu Sani, has been under consideration in the National Assembly since October 2015. However, beyond date-absent assurances from the senator, it is not certain when the Bill will come up for public hearing.
The problems in the Nigerian publishing infrastructure involve more than just the printing of books. Also requiring attention is the building of the editorial capacity that will manage the careers of creative talents, and the stunted growth of libraries.
Until Next Year
On the last day of the book fair, there were no events in the function rooms. Visitors strolled in and friends sat around the stalls to chat. A few booksellers I spoke to told me that despite the fair’s official closing time of 5pm, as on the previous days, they have been packing up since 1pm.
It is only 10am, but already some of the stalls are sealing their books in boxes and hefting them to waiting vans outside the Multipurpose Hall. After all, there are not enough book buyers to keep them on display any longer. And so another NIBF comes to a close…