Otunba Olayinka Lawal-Solarin is indeed a total book personality. From 1969 when he set up Literamed Publications Limited, he has not rested. It’s been year after year of pouring himself into the cause of Nigerian national book development, a task that has seen him serving at different times as Chairman of the Nigerian Publishers Association, the National Anti-Piracy Committee and the Nigeria Book Fair Trust. Richard Mammah caught up with him at his Oregun Office recently to discuss books. Excerpts:
Looking at the Nigerian economy today, the nation and the book industry; going forward, what are we to expect?
What we are to expect? I have analysed the budget. There is some N771 million for Universal Basic Education, UBE. This is the first time for a long time I have seen the budget split properly. And 30% or so of the amount is presumably for books. I can assure you that this government is going to make sure it gets to books. And state government are also making provisions for books. And education is on the concurrent list. I’m also sure that this government is going to make sure that before the end of their tenure; there would be greater devolution of powers to states. It’s almost nearly happening; states are now talking about investments and everybody is talking about their allocation.
I think the future of publishing would be good but the only problem is that we really don’t have publishers in the real sense of the word at the moment. There are publishers who just go for the school books and come up with substandard books with a view to making money and they therefore end up ruining the book industry; it cannot work like that. We must have a publishing industry that is sustainable, a publishing industry that encompasses all of the knowledge industry. Cassava Republic for example have left Nigeria and gone back to the UK because the publishing industry itself is not developed. There is no distribution; where is the bookshop? Where is the plan for the development of books from the pre-primary level to the tertiary level? There is no development.
For whatever it is worth, here at Literamed, we are doing that and we are trying to get new ways of distribution; where people can get hold of the book; where parents can buy books for their kids.
When you go to UK, there are sections for children books where mothers go to buy books; people therefore patronise the bookshops but here there are almost no bookshops. Our booksellers sell books during the season and sugar off season.
But then it’s a gradual thing, I happened to have a meeting with the Vice President not very long ago, he’s talking about electronic books but I also read today that the gross output value of the publishing industry in England has gone to 4.4 billion pounds and an increase of about 70%. Never mind how we go about it, both the physical book and the electronic book, they go side by side. You still have to learn how to write, how to read newspapers. There’s a national book policy; and it talks about education, books by Nigerians, printed in Nigeria, distributed in Nigeria and that would help the development of the book industry. The government has to go to that. All the businessmen can find the money to invest in publishing if it’s a viable publishing industry but for Longman, their shares have just dropped because of the economic situation but if there’s a viable economic industry and we have a flexible exchange rate, we are going to have a viable book industry but definitely we have not started.
It seems that we do have the real crisis with bookshops in the country today?
There are problems. We have to talk about the development of the bookshops themselves. Don’t forget that before CMS went down, everybody bought their books from the CMS bookshops. When I was going to school, there was a CMS bookshop in Shagamu, one in Akure. I don’t know about the east but there must have been bookshops everywhere. After independence, the system went wrong. Then CMS packed up and the indigenous booksellers started to come in but the indigenous booksellers were only selling books during the school season. The publishers also tend to compete with booksellers in the field and now the schools also open bookstores! It can’t happen. There is no room for the development of the bookseller. That’s why I keep saying that we have to go back to the National Book Policy because it is very clear on the development of books, the development of printing and distribution.
Is it not too late?
It’s not too late. Nothing is too late; all we have got to do is to ensure that we follow it. The political will is there, education is on the concurrent list, I was so surprised the other day when one Governor said he doesn’t want to do anything with the local government. Get your money and develop your local government. It was coming from the North, I was surprised, there’s a revolution coming up in Nigeria.
Is the revolution going to touch the reader?
It’s going to touch the reader if there is first of all the National Book Policy that develops the reader in the first instance. And the distribution where the readers can get the book and the publishers who are not going to publish books for making money alone. BookCraft in Ibadan that publishes Soyinka’s books comes to mind here and I love their books. They are not into educational books alone, they are coming up with books all the time but unfortunately the distribution network is not there. Listen,at Literamed here, I have two hundred titles of story books and one hundred and fifty titles of comics and my story books are competing with school books.
That means we have to deal with issues of awareness and distribution?
My website I did it in such a way that you can look at our website pages, one after the other. Very soon you would be able to read our books on the website. You have to use all means and you have to continually invest. Don’t buy a Jeep just because you are selling and making money this year. It took me 50 years to get here. Go and read my book, The Courage to Succeed. It’s been investment after investment. We must build capacity and invest.
What about the issue of skill sets in the industry. For example you are talking from 50 years of experience and you have seen different dimensions in the industry, what about the younger ones coming into the industry?
You have to be patient, that’s the whole idea. You must set a goal. I came back to Nigeria when I was 31. Two years afterward I started my business and five years afterwards I was starting a printing press. You may need to borrow money for building capacity. And maybe the political will is coming but anybody that wants to do well in this business must realize that it’s not a pure water industry.
What about the challenge we have with a lot of printing of Nigerian books today from presses in India and other parts of Asia?
The Nigerian Book Policy said we should print most of our books here. One of the reasons I don’t always exhibit books at some bookfairs is that some of these Chinese and Indians come there, take my books, copy to their publishers and pirate them. They take my books and print in India. It is because of our policy. Listen, when India became independent, they said to all publishers that if you can’t print your book in India get out. There is not even Oxford University Press in India; all the books you have there are printed in India. And a lot of those books in our markets that are pirated are coming from India. We need the political will. We have a problem and nobody is doing anything about it. When Ghana started their book fair, I said to them if you don’t do a book fair every year it would die. They took my advice. In Nigeria, the first year we did our book week, I said let’s have a children’s section. We got to Queens College and did it there while the other programmes were going on at the University conference centre. When these kids saw these books, they just descended on them!. When Prof Ike came the thing was taking roots. I don’t know what he thought, and maybe he thought I was going to take over. I said to him, you stand in front and we would come behind you. But then I saw the thing deteriorating. One day, Prof Ike took over and said he only wants presidents of associations, so I left and told him to invite the current president. We were having a meeting at CSS bookshop when Dayo Alabi, the then President of the Booksellers Association suddenly had to leave CSS Bookshop. Alabi was then in charge of the book fair and the first book fair was then in Abuja. Alabi could not find the money and so he called me, I said what about the publishers? I gave him five hundred thousand naira and said ‘go and talk to the publishers.’ And you know what happened? Money came from Longman and everybody and we had the book fair. For that book fair, Wole Soyinka came. When they were having a meeting, they mentioned my name to give me credit for what I did. Like everything else, my vision is bigger than my person. The next one we had at Eko Hotel it was a disaster and they said what can we do about this, where can we find a location? I was invited by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos for an event at the Conference Center. When I got there and I saw it, I knew we were home. I was even printing a lot of the programme brochures for the fairs at almost no fee.