Journalism in the service of society

Bookselling in Nigeria

(A review The Fine Art of Bookselling – Reflections of Nigeria’s Industry Stakeholders, by Michael Oluwadare Oluwatuyi, CSS Bookshops, Lagos, 2023)

A good bookshop is not just about selling books from shelves, but reaching out into the world and making a difference – David Almond


 IN any endeavour you find yourself in, especially if it puts food on your table, you must turn it into an art or a science. Bookselling has to be turned into an art or science to make an impact. Books must be marketed more than the way the condom is. The world has become instant and people’s attention is flitting from one end to the other. If you must catch it in whatever you do; you must either turn it into an art or a science.

Gone are the days when things were done shabbily. Technology and developments have caught up with us and things are no longer the same. A sharp knife has cut through things that kept our attention together and things have fallen apart. The race is now for the smartest not for the swiftest, because you can be swift without being smart.

In The Fine Art of Bookselling: Reflections of Nigeria’s Industry Stakeholders, the author, Oluwatuyi has distilled into moving words the history, challenges, prospects and future of knowledge in our changing world. Show me a society that can grow without books and I would show you one without progress.

In eight readable chapters, the author has done a great service to the knowledge industry from a Nigerian point of view without neglecting the need to look outward and make our society better. From the origin of books in Nigeria which a few might be surprised dated back to “some of the early scripts …associated with the political and spiritual systems in some of our pre-colonial society. In ancient Benin for example, we have the example of the complex documentation form on which the Benin Bronze and wood carving recording systems were based. There is also the Nsibidi writing form of the Ekpe traditional society in the Cross River area. And the Chinua Achebe also alluded to evidence of the Mbari script in the Igbo area” (p2).

This shows clearly that we had our own forms of writing and publishing before the advent of colonial printing technology.

The business of bookselling in what is Nigeria today began in 1869 with the establishment of the Christian Mission Society (CMS) which was later renamed CSS Bookshops. I know many of today don’t know or remember that the acronym CSS stands for Church and Society Supplies (p6).

So, who then is a bookseller? “Ideally a bookseller must have passion for books because passion is one of the driving forces to grow any enterprise. It is needful to state here that a bookseller is not only selling books for the purpose of business but is contributing to the GDP of the country.” P6.

The art of bookselling according to Mr Oluwatuyi, after its initial start has grown to a mighty oak and has spread across the length and breadth of our country. However, in tracing this trajectory, he travelled across the country and spoke with those who should know.

Names such as Zamani Bookshop in Kano, General Book and Stationery Stores in Kano, Katsina, and Funtua by Abraham Ogbodobri, this was as far back as the 1950s. The book goes ahead to chronicle the illustrious contributions of booksellers across the country from Kano, to Jos, Zaria, Funtua and even to the farthest part of the northern stretch of our country. Names such as Kola Bookshop in Zaria, Mustapha D Africa Bookshop in Kaduna and the numerous CSS Bookshops scattered across all the nooks and crannies of our capital cities in the country.

That is not all, reading this book is like having a robust conversation with the history of Nigeria and getting nostalgic about the country we have lost. A country that we can regain if only we have our heads in the right place. The book chronicles the history of the founding of University Bookshops across our nation. This journey started with the University Bookshop (Nig.) Limited (now University of Ibadan Bookshop) in 1956 (p18). With the growth and establishment of more universities in the country, this became a tradition and University Bookshops began to blossom and spring up in every city where a university is established. However, today, some of these university bookshops have become a shadow of themselves because they are either badly managed or starved of books, they are more like stationery shops etc. Anyway, what do you expect from a society that could allow its tertiary sector to be shut for the better part of a year?

The author in finding appropriate answers to who a bookseller is went to the right people; those who have paid their dues and could talk about the subject even while asleep. From the heavyweights in the book sector such as Mr. Lanre Adesuyi of Havillah Merchants Group, Dr Kolade Mosuro of the Booksellers, High Chief Rufus Oji Chiwuba (ROC) Dike, to Mr. Dayo Alabi and a host of others.

According to Mr Adesuyi, “A bookseller must first and foremost be a lover of books and not make profit therein his/her priority. A passion for selling as a basis for the dissemination of knowledge and for the growth of humanity is a major driving force for qualifying as a bookseller. Selling books is not the same thing as selling, say airtime” (p24).

Moneme Wilson of Book Konsult, Owerri sees it as “Anyone who buys and sells books is a bookseller; but from the heart and depth of my being, there are very few booksellers in the country. If the passion is not there for the printed matter; far above the material gains, then you cannot really in some sense qualify to be called a bookseller” (26).

To Mr. Dayo Alabi: “A bookseller in the real sense should be someone who himself has an interest in books, has a passion for the business and has good reason for going into the business…It is in this wise then that I would not regard anyone who sells pirated books as a bookseller because you are just out to make money, and in this case, in an unethical way.” (27).

After speaking with the gurus and the oracles of the book trade in the country, and consulting other sources to situate his stance, Oluwatuyi gives us his own definition. He writes, “There are things that booksellers do which guide practitioners in a professional way. At the core of it, the bookseller is someone whose service is engaged to supply books or other information materials for a particular purpose. In essence, the bookseller may necessarily not be operating a retail outlet or may not even be selling online but just has contacts who require being serviced; who require books. So, the bookseller keeps in touch with them, and at a point, these contacts bring their book needs to the bookseller.” (p29).

In The Fine Art of Bookselling: Reflections of Nigeria’s Industry Stakeholders, the author has done a great job. He has written what could be a brilliant Ph. D thesis on bookselling. Reading through this book, one could see clearly that one was communing with an expert who has paid his dues and understands the turf well.

It lists out in a very simple way the intractable problems that have dogged and continue to hold down this important sector of the knowledge chain. How do we address the malaise and retrace our steps to the right tracks? In his multipronged approach to solving the hydra-headed problems confronting this important sector, he calls out everyone involved in the chain to close ranks and work together. The Booksellers Association of Nigeria (BAN), Nigeria Publishers Association (NPA), the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and other stakeholders.

In calling on all stakeholders to come together, the author did not however fail to point out where policymakers have made the business environment inclement.  For instance, during the Second Republic, the decision of the government of the day in the Southwestern part of the country to run a free education policy, a good policy on the one hand, dealt a fatal blow to the bookselling sector. This was because rather than deal with booksellers, the government dealt directly with publishers through the direct supply of books to schools. The downward turn in the nation’s economy also made things tougher because as books became expensive due to the rising cost of importation of materials, pirates took over and began to shortchange publishers, booksellers, writers and all those involved in the book production and sale chains.

From reading this book, I have come to the realization that bookshops around here may not have been closing shops due to lack of the much talked about lack of reading culture, but because governments have also helped to blur the line of demarcation between a publisher and a bookseller. According to Oluwatuyi, “In Nigeria presently, contracts with the government in relation to the supply of books are routinely taken up by publishers; whereas, in the normal fare of book chain activities, the supply of books is not meant to be undertaken by publishers. After you have published as a publisher, you are expected to stay back and let booksellers come and buy from you and supply to both bulk buyers and single retail end users alike.” (p119).

He did not stop there, he put the blame squarely at the feet of the publishers saying, “But because the publishers are relatively bigger holdings and have access to government, they go over to get the contracts to supply books themselves. As a consequence, many booksellers, starved of business from these other centres have similarly suffered encroachment, are closing shop and laying off staff while the scourge of unemployment within the sub-sector continues to rise.” (p120).

Of course, no discussion on bookselling must end without devoting a substantial part to piracy. The issue of book piracy is perhaps the most severe threat confronting the book eco sector today. The author discussed at length how the Booksellers Association of Nigeria (BAN) has put the issue on the front burner and working with the Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC). This must be faced and a lasting solution found to it if the sector is going to be saved from the charlatans.

One of the ways recommended by author is: “Specifically, by insisting that end users and other non-recognised but assumed booksellers should no longer be permitted to buy books directly from publishers. To sell books to end users and bulk buyers like government agencies in the country going forward, you should be a bookseller who is duly affiliated with the Booksellers Association of Nigeria (BAN). (p130).

I agree with the writer that our government policies from the local, state and the federal levels do not favour the book industry at all and this has to change. But where do we start to press the key for this change?

The author has laid out the path for us if only we have the will to go along with him. In chapter seven, he called for deliberate action. And what is this? The training of those engaged in the trade. The time is past when people with general training are recruited, to face the changing times of bookselling. He advocates for a chattered institute to be approved for booksellers so as to make this easier to have courses taught in in our higher institutions. Other courses in the book trade are already being taught. Courses such as printing and publishing are already being taught at tertiary institutions. The award of degrees in Publishing was recently ratified by the National Universities Commission (NUC) during the unbundling of Mass Communication courses. Bookselling might join if the necessary steps are taken.

But before we jump on this train, we should ask: what future is there for booksellers with the advent of e-books? The author quoted someone who should know. Mrs. Oluronke Orimalade, a former President of the Pan African Booksellers Association (PABA) “I do not see a complete elimination of the physical book because in Africa, for instance, the infrastructure to go full throttle on the digital trail is somehow still lacking and there seems not to be any silver lining yet in the horizon.” (p163).

I agree completely with her logic. When the television came, it was thought to be the end of radio. Has that happened? No. The digital book cannot be the end of real books. How will homes look complete if there are no bookshelves to welcome you with the beautiful display of spines of well-bound books and volumes of encyclopedias?

Mr.  Oluwatuyi has in this book demonstrated incisively that his sojourn in this eco territory of books in the last three or so decades has not been a waste. The book is a rich sociological and anthropological study of the book world. He has done a good job and this has been justified by its packaging, printing and delivery. I can boldly say that gone are the days when books printed in Nigeria were poorly put together and printed. We don’t need to run to India, Dubai or any of those places to print any longer. What we need to do is to put our paper mill industries back on track.



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