Ibadan had a reputation as a playground for poets. Michael Jimoh who spent some time in the ancient city recently finds out it is also a haven for publishers…
It used to be said at one time in the University of Ibadan that if you throw a piece of stone up where people are gathered, it is more than likely to fall on a poet. That might be an exaggeration but it isn’t entirely far-fetched for an institution that bred poets like a prolific author churning out books. No wonder its unique moniker as a playground for poets.
There were the pioneers, the grand uncles of Nigerian literature such as Chinua Achebe, J. P Clark, Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka. So enamoured of the town was JP that he wrote a paean with these memorable lines: “Running splash of rust/ And gold-flung and scattered/ Among seven hills/ like broken china in the sun.”
On his part, Soyinka devoted an entire book of memoirs titled Ibadan: The Penkelemesi Years, an enthralling account of the most remarkable period of his life as a teacher in the campus. There was also the second generation of poets who came after the Clarks and Soyinkas, grounded poets like Odia Ofeimun, Tanure Ojaide, Femi Osofisan and Niyi Osundare. As if lending credence to the fact that nature abhors a vacuum, a phalanx of younger generation of poets soon followed.
These were the third generation of poets who were as enthusiastic about poetry as their senior colleagues. Poets like Harry Garuba led the pack that had people like Chiedu Ezeanah, Nehru Odeh, Sanya Osha, Nduka Otiono, Remi Raji, etc. Unlike the precursor generations, this one had a representation of female poets such as Nike Adesuyi, Toyin Adewale now Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, Omowunmi Segun, Lola Shoneyin- Soyinka. They were also informally called the Thursday Group because of their weekly meeting, reading and discussion of poetry every Thursday.
Just as the university groomed poets, the city itself was a breeding ground for another set of creative people: publishers. More than a dozen publishing companies are known to be doing business or have their headquarters in Ibadan, including an on-line company. Indeed, if you look around the ancient city very carefully, your sight is likely to fall on a publishing company somewhere. Let’s do a random count in alphabetical order: There is Bookkraft, Evans, Heinemann, Khalam, Kraftbook, Longman, Metamorphics, Proficia, Safari, Scribeslane, Spectrum, Sterling- Horden, Writehouse and University Press. These are the known ones.
Three of them share fences on the same road in a swanky part of town. To be sure, there are a dozen minor ones doing brisk business in a city where the tree of free education sprouted many decades ago. It is still growing, so are the publishing companies – big and small. From Bodija to Ojo, Jericho to Ring Road and Magazine Road, there is a publishing company somewhere in any one of these places.
It could be one of the Big Five, a nascent one or a less recognised firm. And then, those who know insist Mokola in Ibadan is the headquarters of printing and publishing in all of Nigeria. There, you are sure to meet generations of printers and their apprentices, complete with plates and inks, working with archaic machines that modern European printers would envy and consider as museum pieces, but which the printers at Mokola have performed wonders with and still do to this day.
Stand in front of First Bank on Magazine Road, for instance, and look opposite you. What do you see? The gleaming and flowerfringed structures of three of the Big Five publishing companies in Ibadan stare back at you. From one end there is Heinemann Educational Books Nigeria. Next to it is Evans Publishers and then University Press Plc, formerly Oxford University Press. Though still very much in business in the city, the last two of the Big Five – Macmillan and Longman now Pearson – are headquartered in Lagos. Move away from Magazine Road and go to Ade Oyo Road, Off Ring Road and the sturdy structure of Longman towers over you. These are the first generation publishing companies that have been in business in Nigeria for years.
Elsewhere around the city are Bookcraft, Kraftbooks, Spectrum, second generation publishing companies equally enjoying the patronage of students, teachers and writers but not as much as the Big Five. Owned and helmed by Bankole Olayemi, the first is in Kongi Layout while the second (Steve Shaba’s) is along Polytechnic Road. Spectrum now owned by Nigerian shareholders is on Ring Road. Of all three, Spectrum has performed better in terms of sales because of the charismatic persona and aggressive marketing skills of one its former boss, Joop Bekhout, who is now the head and owner of the new Safari Books.
While Bookcraft and Kraftbook boast a clientele of younger and upcoming writers/ authors, Spectrum and Safari have a sheaf of publications by politicians and civil servants. For instance, The Accidental Public Servant by former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Nasir el Rufai, is a title under the Spectrum label so with many of the books written by former president Olusegun Obasanjo. Indeed, the Dutch man publisher who has since naturalised as a Nigerian is chummy with the former military/ civilian ruler. Both are known to share lunches and lengthy conversations. Among the second generation publishing companies in Ibadan is Opon Ifa which publishes plays mainly. It is also owned by playwright Professor Femi Osofisan.
There are also a handful of relatively unknown publishing companies, they are relatively new and owned by hardworking young men and a woman. The first of them is Khalam Editions, Metamorphic Books, Proficia Press, Scribeslane and Writehouse. They are in different parts of the town. Scribeslane can only be accessed on-line. Like the second generation publishers, these ones are owned by individuals. Thus Tade Ipadeola runs Khalam while two young publishers, possibly the youngest in publishing history in Ibadan (Femi Morgan and Servio Gbadamosi) cast their watchful eye over Writehouse. Molara Wood oversees Scribeslane – the only on-line publishing company in Ibadan for now. What is also unique about the last three is they publish books strictly on literature and the arts.
Proficia Books publishes only children’s literature. Sterling- Horden Publishers Ltd is owned and run efficiently by Professor Oshiotse Andrew Okwilagwe, Head of Department, Library, Archival and Information Studies in the University of Ibadan. His company is down the road from the university gate, in Ojo near Keto Petrol Station. So, with this healthy mix of poets and publishers roaming free in the city, it is not a coincidence that on one irritatingly sweltering Thursday afternoon, I find myself sitting with a man who represents both aspects of the city – a poet and publisher. For those who know, Tade is a poet, an NLNG laureate who won the gas company’s first prize two years ago. To those who don’t know, Tade is also a publisher.
The name of his publishing company Khalam is symbolic. The word is a narrow-necked, string musical instrument – a guitar – commonly used in Senegal. The opening verse of his epic poem, The Sahara Testaments, begins with a Senegalese fishmonger, a woman, where Tade began his odyssey across the Sahara for months. Tade’s connection with the West African country obviously didn’t end with The Sahara Testaments. A poet and publisher, he should know a thing or two about publishing in Ibadan, plus he is a true born Ibadan man and has been in the book business for years. We were not disappointed after spending close to an hour or so with the property law graduate for whom writing has become as close a calling as publishing is to him now.
(He was, that very day, to meet a client in Lagos – a former speaker of the House of Representatives – whose autobiography he hopes to publish.) When we first meet at a Mr. Biggs outlet on Mobil Filling Station by Ring Road, Tade came in sweating, in a neat white, shirt sleeve and blue denim. He had on flat-soled suede loafers, ideal for street walking, especially in a period of enduring fuel scarcity that almost grounded transportation in the country for days.
“This place is hot,” Tade said. It was. There had been power outage before he came. There was no sign of the eatery putting on the generator although a female assistant told me someone was working on the generator at that moment. I doubted her. “Let’s find a cooler place,” Tade advised, and we were soon off to another eatery, KFC, up along the same Ring Road KFC was worse. Though there was electricity, the air-conditioners weren’t functioning, not one of them, installed deep into the ceiling of the restaurant. What to do? Endure the heat and begin the interview. Tade’s knowledge of the history of publishing in Ibadan is as profound as he is a poet of merit. For him, publishing in the city is historical. It started with the founding of University College Ibadan.
The free education programme by the Action Group under the leadership of Obafemi Awolowo was another factor. In his words, early publishers followed the scent of educational institutions that were growing at that time. Follow the scent “They (publishers) followed the scent of the university to Ibadan,” Tade said between mouthfuls of chicken and Teem soft drink. He was still perspiring. His knowledge of publishing in his native town was also coming in gushes. He says the first indigenous publisher in Ibadan was Ibadan University Press and then Onibonoje Press. The founder of the second is deceased but now headed and managed by his son. Many schools – primary and secondary – sprang up in the Western Region, Tade averred. Books had to be purchased and somebody had to provide them. Enter the publishers. As schools proliferated, publishers multiplied correspondingly.
Publishers of specialized books on literature and arts like him do not make much money, Tade claimed, but mainstream publishers make bricks of cash. As for problems facing the industry in Ibadan, he said they lack distribution channels. “In America and Europe, publishers avail themselves of distributors who are independent of the publishing companies. Once the books are published, distributors distribute and sell the books. It is not the duty of the publishing companies to distribute what they have published.
But that is not so here.” Once in the past, publishers in Ibadan had their own distribution departments but could barely cope with the overwhelming financial burden. The poet/ publisher admitted that another problem publishers in Ibadan have to contend with is lack of infrastructure. For instance, they operate mostly without electricity and so have to rely on diesel.
“It is not cost-effective for publishers in Ibadan. They prefer printing abroad where printing is cheaper than in Nigeria. But then, they have to pay 65 percent tariff for shipping the books into the country.” The tariff in question was imposed by the then Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala, to discourage, as much as possible, capital flight. It didn’t go down well with some of the publishers because they were doing just that. Some of them naturally took umbrage. The tariff stands till today.
Though Tade does not specify which authors have sold more and when, he does however know the Big Five average about N3 billion annually. How did he come about this? As minister, Okonjo-Iweala issued a directive wherein ministries and parastals were compelled to make public their major expenses.
It was one such publication that Tade saw and read how much was paid to some of the Big Five publishers in Ibadan. Tade concludes that just as “Lagos is the hub of music publishing in Nigeria Ibadan is the hub of book publishing.” Even with his wealth of knowledge of publishing and publishing companies in Ibadan, Tade told me there is somebody, an authority on publishing, who is also a lecturer at UI – Professor Oshiotse Adrew Okwilagwe – I must see. We found Okwilagwe in his office in the Publishing and Copyright Unit of the Department of Library, Archival and Information Studies in the Faculty of Education, a three-floored, creamcoloured building with a red roof. The name plate on his door indicated a doctor and not professor.
But after an engaging two or so hours, Okwilagwe’s knowledge turned out to be more than professorial. If any person can be referred to as a publisher’s publisher, Okwilagwe is that man. He is 64 but has the chromosomes of a much younger man judging from his physique. His face is unlined and hassle-free. He is wearing a green brocade buba and sokoto with a matching greener cap. You might never guess his age but for a balding pate when he took of his cap in the course of the interview. He looks every inch the intellectual academic he is, a studious visage with a keen nose on which fancy framed spectacles rested. Okwilagwe isn’t only a don in publishing he is also passionate about what he calls bibliotherapy – “the use of books for human development in all facets by developing its value system.” With books, “we can make angels of men and beasts of men.”
To that end, he reels of, extempore, countries where books have advanced the societies – America, China, Libya and Russia. He mentions Mao Zedong’s Red Book and Muammar Ghaddafi’s Green Book. I reply that Mao’s book about China’s Cultural Revolution from the late forties was a disaster – it isolated China from the rest of the world – and Ghaddafi’s Green Book was just platitudes. “Yes, that is true, but at least there should be a book – good or bad – to guide a country.”
In his view, there is just such a book by a Nigerian and about Nigeria that can be used to galvanize the populace to action. That book is Tony Momoh’s Letters To My Countrymen, a ten-chaptered slim volume written over a period of 10 months when Momoh was Minister of Information in the eighties under the regime of Ibrahim Gbadamosi Babangide. The importance of the letters is the “clarion call on all Nigerians whoever they are, may be and whatever they may be to stand up and be alive to their individual and collective responsibilities in determining and ensuring the good fortunes and future of Nigeria.” Of particular interest to the publishing professor is Momoh’s reference to a certain Mohammed who was an agent of change in one of the letters.
Now, another Mohammed (Muhammadu Buhari also an agent of change – witness his party’s mantra) has just been sworn-in as president of Nigeria. Momoh’s letters written decades ago could not have been more prescient. And it is for this reason that Okwilagwe says Nigerians should show immense gratitude to Momoh. But Momoh himself has denied any claim to being a prophet in response to Okwilagwe. “I do not lay claim to my prophetic power,” Momoh wrote, “having no pretensions to parapsychological studies. But I believe that the morning can still show the day and that what we have bargained for today is what we would achieve tomorrow.”
There are books everywhere in the professor’s office, on his table, on a shelf to his right. Wellbound projects by his students are stacked nearby. Hanging behind him are framed photographs of past colleagues who headed the school library, starting with the very first, Professor John Harris who was librarian from 1959 – 60 and then 1964/ 65. John Dean came after him and was the school librarian in 1965/ 66 and then 1969/ 70. The only other expat to work as a librarian in the institution was Miss Monica Greaves from 1978 to 79. Since then, all other heads of the library or department have been Nigerians and all of them professors.
There was Professor W. O Aiyekpeki who served for two years from 1988. There was also Professor P. O Fayose from 2001 – 04. Professors Gabriel D. Alegbeleye, Briggs N. Nzota, Olabimpe Aboyade and F. Adetoun Ogunsheye have functioned in similar capacities. On another wall just above an LG air-conditioner are two photographs, also, of Professors I. M Mabawonku (2004 – 2007) and M. I Atinmo (August 2007.) Though never head of the library or the department at any time, two portraits of famous scholars and authors who have contributed their own quota to publishing stare down at visitors. One of them is a smiling Osundare and the other is a squinting Soyinka. Some of Okwilagwe’s fellow lecturers drop by to say hello, and students, too. One of them, a female, curtsies as she reminds the teacher that some of them are already gathered in a room somewhere waiting for him. Ok, he tells her. “I’ll join you soon.”
Like Tade, Okwilagwe believes the proliferation of publishing companies is not unconnected with the free education programme in the Western Region. He is unsparing in his use of superlatives for the man who started it all – Awolowo. Congratulations to Awo “Congratulations to Awo,” Okwilagwe almost shouted, on the city’s early and current romance with publishing. Awo, he told me, “was more than a genius by building the necessary institutions that supports intellectual pursuit. He not only built the necessary institutions but made sure they were occupied” because, according to him, “if a building is not occupied, it deteriorates.”
Because of Awo’s singular act “of providing education for the masses, he opened a permanent avenue for the consumption of books and information resources needed to actualize his dream of an educated class for the nation.” By way of analogy, he maintained that products are produced for consumers. Therefore, “the book publishing industry had a ready-made market thanks to Awo. This is why the first and oldest publishing houses found their location in Ibadan.”
Okwilagwe is no doubt an Awoist, not in the political ideological sense but in a grander, educational aspect. For him, all the credit goes to Awo for the plethora of publishing houses in Ibadan today. It is hard to disagree with him. Consider, for once, where many of the publishing houses in Ibadan would have been today without the free education programme championed by the late political sage in all of the Western Region. Besides, Ibadan was capital at that time.
Contrarily, think of the number of publishing companies that were fully in business then and now in other regions without free education. Okwilagwe began his teaching career as a graduate assistant in Ibadan in 1980, the same university he graduated from the year before. Four years later, he moved to University of Stirling, Stirling in Scotland where he was taught publishing by the very first man, according to him, who began a course in publishing in the world, Professor John Backhouse Horden. Indeed, it is in honour of the inestimable professor and the town he named his publishing company, Stirling-Horden.
Though not a household name yet as Evans or Heinemann, Stirling- Horden has an impressive collection of titles to its credit, about 150 professors and as many doctors. Okwilagwe, also, is the first and only lecturer in a Nigerian university who teaches publishing, in fact the man who started a course in publishing. Some of his students now work in the big and small publishing firms. Wale Olaniawo, MD of Evans, for instance, was his student, so with Moyo Ipadeola, Tade’s wife, whom he also supervised. It says much for a city with a well-fostered reputation for publishing that it has the only institution where publishing is studied as a course up to Masters degree.
No other university in Nigeria enjoys this status as of today. Outside Okwilagwe’s office but within the same premises, young students – men and women – amble to the Large Lecture Theatre, a warehouse-like structure smack in the middle of the faculty building. A woman in an off-white nun’s dress, complete with a wimple, strolls to the theatre.
Another woman, a Muslim, covered in black from head to toe, isn’t far behind. Some of the students frown into their phones as they walk towards the lecture room. Some others carry backpacks or sling them across their shoulders, presumably with textbooks published by one or two publishing companies in town, a service they rendered to some of their parents long before the youngsters were born, a service they will still render to generations coming after. The GM Publications of one of the Big Five received The Union one afternoon in his office. The first time I met Gbenga Akanbi was two years ago.
He was a top management staff of Heinemann Educational Books Nigeria plc at the time. He still is. I had been in the city on the same beat but the story was never used because the literary journal it was meant for did not live long enough in newsstands. The air-conditioned reception of Heinemann Educational Books Nigeria was no different from that day two years ago, the same shelf with books, the flat screen in the middle of the shelf, the partly rugged floor and then the same receptionist who attended to me last time did this time. I soon met Akanbi in his spacious office a floor above the reception with clinically-clean, tiled floor. Just as I sat, a call came through which he picked after raising a finger for excuse.
“Hello, he began, “yes, an editor is working on your manuscript. It will soon be delivered.” From his conversation, it is clear that Heinemann is in good business. Out in the company premises are rows of smart Toyota cars and other brands of squeaky-clean vehicles, the same as the other two of the Big Five – Evans and University Press. Tade put their annual earnings at N3 billion. Someone else declared that one of them had a contract of N48 million recently.
The well-appointed offices of the publishing companies and their corporate ambience not unlike new generation banks indicate that their turnover is truly more than seven-figure sums. The GM took me to Samuel Aliyu, Director of Sales and Marketing, after disclosing my mission. Aliyu occupies a room in the ground floor, he welcomed me and asked where I come from because of my name, oxymoronic as it is. He is a pleasant man, friendly and offered to help as much as he could. He confirmed what Tade and Okwilagwe told me earlier about the history of publishing in Ibadan.
The first publishing houses followed the scent of University College because “they preferred to pitch their tents near the University College Ibadan to aid their publications and marketing of their products. Gradually other publishers followed suit.” For that early lead, Heinemann today, he said, “enjoys a large market due to its long time standing in the business (well-known with its products) enjoys more government patronage because it has enough capital and products to satisfy the requirements of government order/supply, and also has an upper hand in marketing and distribution of its products within and outside the country.”
There is also a professional staff to realize the company’s vision. For him, piracy is the number one challenge facing the industry. Next is, like Tade opined, “lack of electricity and then high cost of sales, poor economic power of readers and poor reading habit.” We asked if there is a local solution to Nigerian printers who take their jobs to Asian countries for printing. Yes, there is, Aliyu allowed. “The solution is that if the local printers can offer the same price and credit facilities being offered by the Asian printers, there will be no need for publishers to print abroad. By so doing, there would be work for the printers whereby employment opportunities would be available for the youth.” Unresponsive MDs It is possible that some of the other senior execs The Union met and spoke with would have said just about the same thing as Aliyu of Heinemann. For reasons best known to them, they chose not to speak with us.
One of them pointedly told the newspaper there was no way he would grant an interview on the same day we called. Fine! “Write to us formally,” he said, turning from side to side in his swivel leather chair, “to ask for an interview.” I wondered what his reaction would have been if a crew from BBC or CNN, complete with camera men or women, had made the same request that same day. Even so, I mailed the letter as requested. I also called him the following day to remind him I sent the mail.
He told me he was in Lagos and not in Ibadan that day. There has not been a word from him since then, up till now as we go to press. The other one was equally unresponsive with the newspaper. After speaking with the receptionist and informing her of my mission, she linked me through intercom to the secretary/ private assistant of the person in charge. The person I should meet, the secretary told me, was at that very moment in a meeting. So, she would be with me in person at the reception to hear me out.
She came. Pen and paper in hand, she took my questions meant for her boss. We also exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. I duly sent the mail the following day and called to alert her. Her phone rang but she never received the call. After sometime, I called again. I couldn’t connect. There has been no word from her, too. Surfing the website of one of the companies showed they are doing well as a first generation publishing company in Ibadan, with a history dating back to preindependence Nigeria. Evans, for instance, started as a company in London, owned by two brothers, Robert and Edward Evans, in 1903 with a focus on journals. They included book publishing decades later. They also looked beyond England for ready markets.
The university town of Ibadan beckoned but not before sending a consultant in the person of Dr. L. C. Larcombe, “to come out to Nigeria and research the book needs of the then British colony.” But this was done after World War 11 during the time of an Evans scion, Noel Evans, who looked beyond British shores for a viable book business. The consultant himself later wrote an Arithmetic textbook, Larcombe’s Progressive Arithmetic (Lower, Middle and Upper Standard).
It was a soar-away success with primary and secondary school students. Buoyed by the success of the mathematics textbook and other publications in Nigeria, notably Civics for Self Government by J. R. Bunting, Evans considered appointing “a resident representative in Nigeria to promote the interest of the company.
The first Resident Representative appointed was Ove Stentort and he made the university town of Ibadan his base, one of the primary reasons why Ibadan remains the publishing capital of Nigeria.” From that early beginning, Evans’ place today as one of the Big Five is well earned. Moreover, the company long ago acquired another household name firm in Nigeria, Nelson Publishers. University Press plc has about the same history as Evans, tracing its origin to Oxford University in London. University College, Ibadan was a major reason for the London arm of the firm setting up shop in Ibadan.
In fact, some of the early titles by Nigerian writers were published under OUP label. But they are also, like the rest of the big time publishers, more into primary, secondary and tertiary book publishing. As for some of the publishing houses stonewalling, Okwigwale isn’t surprised because he long ago summed it up in an essay titled “Book Importation Tariff: Death of the Book Industry?” He blamed some of them for being directly responsible for the imposition of the tariff.
“They, in various ways, constitute the problems of the industry by their professional and business attitude and actions.” Worse still, publishers in Ibadan thrive in solitude. “This is an industry that provides no data, statistics or information of any description or kind. No information about the well-being or otherwise of the industry. It is an industry that does not celebrate itself as it ought to, and it thrives in solitude.” Bigger and more profitable than Nollywood Book publishing has been thriving long before Nollywood made a big bang in Nigeria in the mid-nineties. But beyond the occasional book fairs not many Nigerians know that some of these publishing companies exist.
They don’t even know where they are located let alone where they are concentrated, minus professionals and students who seek their services. Ask a granny in a rustic town, for instance, who Sam Efe Loco is and she might, first of all, laugh and then reply correctly that he is that funny, multilingual comic actor. Ask any youngster in any city in Nigeria who Evans Brothers is and he might scratch his head in wonder and then ask you: “Aren’t they Nollywood actors?” That is the solitude that gives Okwigwale considerable concern. For an industry worth trillions and trillions of naira, certainly more than what Nollywood is worth, it deserves more exposure.
“Nigerians may not believe that the book industry is worth over four times in terms of investment and profit value higher than the Nollywood film industry,” Okwigwale has written. “The investment and profit in Nollywood trail far behind the investment and profit in the publishing sector. Trillions of naira has been spent by the federal, state and local governments.” Only professionals like him and those in the book business harbour such optimism about publishing in Ibadan. He is even more sanguine about the future of publishing in the city just as Tade is and Aliyu, too. They all agree there will be more publishing houses, more educated people running it and more professional, especially now there is a course about the profession in UI. So, you could say that while a stone is not likely to land on a poet in the campus today, it is possible that in the coming years, if you throw one up anywhere in the city it is more than likely to fall on a publishing company.