Soyinka And Our Publishing Company

Soyinka And Our Publishing Company

Thursday, July 17, 2014 1:23 am

Bankole Olayebi, the Chief Executive Officer, Bookcraft, speaks with GBENRO ADESINA about Professor Wole Soyinka and his books

As Professor Wole Soyinka’s publisher, how are you going to celebrate him as he turns 80?

For us, Soyinka certainly deserves to be celebrated everyday, for his immense contributions to, and impact on, the cultural, socio-political life in Nigeria, Africa, and the world at large. We certainly feel fortunate to have him on our list, and that he has been part of our life as a company, for over a decade now. When he turned 70, we published in his honour, a photo-biography, WS: A LIFE IN FULL; and to our enormous pleasure and satisfaction, the book was very well received by people of all age groups across the world. This year, as he turns 80, we decided we would celebrate him in a different way. We have acquired from the original publishers, the rights to four of his well known books – Ake, Ibadan, Isara and The Man Died; which we will publish as a boxed set; and at an event in his honour on 25 July in Ibadan, this set of books will be formally unveiled.

How would you describe Soyinka as a Nigerian and as an African?

Bankole Olayebi

Bankole Olayebi

Wole Soyinka is, obviously, a remarkable individual. In my opinion, even if he had been born in a different culture or society, he would have excelled. His talents, his gifts, are of course, obvious. Fortunately, he discovered these gifts early in life, and so he was able to chart his course pretty early. For me, beyond his creative output, his life as a novelist, essayist, as a dramatist, is the fact that he is a man of strong convictions and principles. Once he believes in something, he sticks to it no matter the cost. He is a role model in many ways. I had the good fortune to study under him at the University of Ife. Over the last decade or so, since I became his publisher, I have had the opportunity to interact more frequently with him, whether over a meal or, usually, a glass of wine. Needless to say, these periods are always stimulating and rewarding.

Over the years, Soyinka’s critics have often suggested that his writing is difficult, and that he seems to be deliberately writing for a small, and perhaps exclusive, audience. What’s your reaction to this?

This has been repeated so often, it’s become somewhat trite. For instance, only yesterday, somebody was saying the very same thing, about Soyinka being difficult. And then according to him, he picked up his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, and he encountered a different Soyinka!

Of course, every Soyinka book is different; some are certainly more accessible than others. I believe the subject matter determines the style. When you say Soyinka is too difficult, what do you say about some of his most popular works, certainly among secondary school students all over, such as The Lion and the Jewel, and the Jero plays, for example? Or his book, Ake: The Years of Childhood, is this also difficult? Or even Ibadan, and Isara. I think people sometimes just refuse to make any effort.

Of all your lecturers at Ife, what attracted him to you?

Of course, by the time I got to Ife, I already knew of Soyinka. He was already something of a public figure, because of the role he had played in our recent political history. I was looking to take some elective courses. And I found myself, along with some of my classmates, gravitating towards him. As his was a small department at the time, it was inevitable I supposed that we would soon be taking some courses with Soyinka. But in time, what I had planned to be an elective course, soon became my major! And I ended up graduating with a combined honours degree in Drama and Literature. I am certainly happy for the opportunity to become associated with Soyinka. I have learnt a lot from him, first as my teacher, and since, as his publisher.

How best do you think that Soyinka can be immortalised?

I think he has already been immortalised by the immense body of works he has produced. His books will be read and studied, long after he is gone; just in the same way that people are still reading Shakespeare today, even though he’s been gone for over 300 years. You can build a monument in someone’s honour, or name roads, institutions after them, but I think it is the ideas they represent which truly immortalises them.

How well have Soyinka’s books which you have published done?

His memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn, has done quite well; helped in no small measure, by the amount of publicity we gave the book when it was first published in 2006. Even after all these years, there is still quite a lot of interest in the book. When you read the book, you will see why. The response to the series, Interventions, has also been very good. The responses have been very good.

Despite the efforts of writers, and other artistes, since the early days of Independence in Africa, to take a stand against social ills, not much has changed. In fact, some things have become worse, why?

I suppose we could discuss this interminably, and we probably would not come up with any easy answers. But the question I often ask myself, since this conversation is really about Soyinka, is why it is that at 80, he still continues to be so engaged, taking up the cudgel on behalf of the downtrodden, and speaking out consistently, and forthrightly, on the issues that continue to affect all of us? Perhaps if more people were ready to make a commitment, we would probably begin to have a different country.

Unfortunately, it does not seem there are many people prepared to stick their necks; it is easier to ‘go with the flow’. But one thing is clear: until there are enough people willing to take a stand, based on principles, rather than ethnic, religious or peculiarly considerations, a different country is not going to emerge.

What are the challenges you face in publishing Soyinka’s books?

Publishing is a business like every other business; in the sense that you invest time, money and other resources, and you expect to turn in a profit. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t. Every book is different of course, even when they are by the same author. Generally, the publishing business in Nigeria faces the same challenges that most other businesses face – an enabling, business-friendly environment, the provision of infrastructure which is taken for granted elsewhere. But to speak specifically to the problems we face as book publishers, trade publishers, as different from publishers of school books, our companies are relatively small in size.

As most business people will tell you, it’s all about ‘economies of scale’. People often say, ‘Nigerians do not read’; but I disagree. I think Nigerians want to read, but perhaps the problem is that they cannot find the books in the right places, and at affordable prices. But to go back to the point I made earlier, about economies of scale, the limited resources of publishers like us, means we are unable to print say, 10,000 or 20,000 – rather than the 2,000 or 3,000 copies on the average – of a title, which would bring down the cost price; and thereby, enable us to sell the book at a considerably lower price.

But having said that, even if we could produce that many copies of a book, where would they be sold? Which brings me to the next challenge we face: the paucity of decent retail outlets, allied with difficulties of distribution. For instance, can you imagine that a city the size of Ibadan has only one proper bookshop? Even in Lagos, how many proper bookshops exist, compared with say, a city like Johannesburg?

In the West, the distribution and marketing of books is usually separate and distinct from the actual publishing, and this is handled by specialised companies – they ensure the books are delivered to the outlets, monitor sales, remit any income into the publisher’s account, etc. We also have the challenge of finding skilled, and well qualified publishing professionals – editors, book designers, people who understand the book business. The other problem we face in the publishing industry, is the inconsistency, and flip flops, in government policy. And this sometimes makes it difficult to plan.

Only recently, the government suddenly decided to introduce a 50 per cent duty on books! And this threatened to put quite a number of publishers out of business. Fortunately, as a result of the concerted efforts of many people in the industry, government was forced to back down, and the decision was rescinded.

The ostensible reason behind the initial decision was to support the local printing industry, to compel more publishers to print locally. But this was like putting the cart before the horse! As anyone familiar with the industry knows, local printers also face enormous challenges in our business environment. Every printer in this country requires two, or even three generators, and they have to sink their own boreholes. In addition, all their ‘raw materials’ – paper, ink, plates, films, as well as the machines themselves – are imported.

And this is why the cost of doing business here is so high; and why most local printers cannot compete in price, not to speak of quality, with foreign printers. It did not seem to occur to the authorities that perhaps, a better way to start is to reduce the duty on all these ‘raw materials.

How have you been able to manage piracy?

It is quite a challenge, and I am afraid it is getting worse. Of course, it is a form of robbery, and I wish the authorities would respond to it as such. The Nigeria Copyright Commission is doing its best, but a lot still needs to be done, to put in place a regime, to protect genuine publishers. Maybe their resources are limited. But certainly, something needs to be done, quickly.

What are the effects of the availability of e-books on your sales?

The effect has been relatively minimal, because unlike in the West, internet access is still quite limited here. Only the other day, I read that in the US, the percentage of e-books to print books sold last year is about 40 per cent! Over here, it is still insignificant; although it is only a matter of time before we begin to experience the effect. It is bound to happen as more and more people have access to internet. For many publishers however, it is seen as an opportunity, rather than a challenge. Which is why we are beginning to develop our own e-book list as well.

How many books of Soyinka have you published?

More than a dozen titles, including the Interventions series. We have also recently published his latest play, Alapata Apata. But it is not selling as well as some of the other titles, perhaps because it is a play

Are you saying that drama books don’t do well?

Drama books naturally do well if they are adopted in schools as set texts. Otherwise, not many people go out of their way to buy a play text. Of course, plays are meant to be performed; that is really when they come alive. So, there is perhaps a limit to how many copies of a drama text you can expect to sell. But the response to Alapata Apata has not been bad. People are curious to know what is inside because it is Soyinka’s latest work. It is a hilarious play and deals with the current political development in the country. But I don’t expect to sell large number because of the format, because of the genre. Biography, fiction, prose in general, tend to do better in the market.

Apart from Soyinka, which other writers have you published?

We have published books by Femi Osofisan, Mathew Kukah, Tunji Olaopa, Kole Omotoso as well as the first novel by his daughter, Yewande. Last year, we published an excellent, and to mind, important book – even if I do say so myself; a book titled Emerging Africa, by Kingsley Moghalu, a governor of the Central Bank. About two weeks ago, we published a festschrift, in honour of one of the most important African historians, J.F. Ade Ajayi. Later this year, we are publishing a major book by an African president. And we are quite looking forward to that! We have also published a number of younger writers, who are not so presently well known; and we would like to publish more young writers.

Join The Conversation

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.