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Mr. Gbenro Adegbola is the CEO/MD of First Veritas, a digital publishing firm he set up after quitting Evans Publishers Ltd, where he was the Managing Director some years back. Adegbola’s crossover to digital publishing was an expression of a cumulative experience he garnered in a tripartite career, spanning decades –broadcasting, publishing and ICT. From his stint with Spectrum Books, through co-founding his own publishing outfit, Book Craft, and his switch to Evans, which he not only helped in reviving from comatose, but put on an even business keel, Adegbola has always striven to push the frontiers of the industry. A deep passion for ICT and experience on the set of the Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State (BCOS) Television magazine programme, Saturday Special, combined with his knowledge of publishing, provided the fodder for hatching his latest brainchild, which specialises in educational materials packaging. In this interview with Yinka Fabowale, the co-founder of Book Craft, a publishing company that has, on its title and authors lists, great Nigerian statesmen and writers such as the late Chief Bola Ige (The Kaduna Boy); and Prof. Femi Osofisan (A Voyage round J.P. Bekederemo Clarke) among others, comparatively discusses issues in the traditional publishing setting and trends in the new domain. He also shares thoughts on literary matters as well as challenges of intellectual property rights in Nigeria.
Is publishing your interest by natural inclination or did it come by accident?
Well, you know mothers have a way of putting ideas into your head and making you believe that it was your own idea. I’d always thought I’d be an academic, but, then, I had a bad Masters degree and I couldn’t proceed, so my mother, who had done editorial work for a number of publishing houses then spoke with an associate she had worked with and it was from discussing, one thing led to another and that’s how I found myself in publishing.
I thought you took a Masters degree in Communication/Language Arts at the University of Ibadan, with specialisation in book publishing, was that after your mum’s intervention?
That was before, but I didn’t do book publishing in Language Arts, I just did straight Masters in Language Arts. Actually, my thesis was on Journalism, I called it the New Journalism and it was a look at some of the things The Guardian was trying to do at that time. It was a wishy-washy write- up, but somebody said I shouldn’t look at it like that, that the fact that I think it was wishy-washy was a demonstration on how far I have grown since then.
So, what’s been your experience in the industry?
Well, my experience in publishing has been varied, I was lucky to start and I was thrown at a very deep end and asked to float or sink, so I had an opportunity of gaining experience, not just in the technicality, but also in the business and management sides from the beginning really. I started with Spectrum Books; I started as an assistant manager and the desk I was occupying had an overview of the entire company, it was a very useful training. After Spectrum, with a colleague of mine, we set up Book Craft, we were doing very well and we did that for several years before I moved on to other things.
I had very good credit and a few spectacular failures. So, it’s a mixed bag. I got into Evans at a time the company was undergoing serious crisis and it was on the verge of collapsing and, as a matter of fact, there was one creditor who could have taken it over. I got in there and, by combination of good fortune and circumstances and hard work, we turned the company around. We grew financially, which made the company to be more competitive in various sectors in the industry. I’m very proud of my achievement in Evans, looking back.
You were involved in the Opon Imo (Tablet) project of the Osun State government for the Senior Secondary School (SSS) students. How did you come about the idea?
Well, it was a fortuitous connection. I was going through a period when I was beginning to get bored with the print and about that time was when the new government of Ogbeni Aregbesola came on board in Osun State and we went there to do a presentation. We wanted to market ourselves, the company and we talked about the digital stuff and he just said straight away, “that was enough we are going to work together.” And then, he went through what he had in mind, and that was how we got into the Opon Imo. Evans supplied the content and that was it. Unfortunately, it was in the middle of it, that I left Evans.
The reading culture seems to be dying, with the advent of digital age, graphics, audio-visual and other things. What implications do you think this will have, for instance, on the future of hard print and the reward of humanizing experience book readers have that appear to be absent in electronically mediated communication?
First of all, the reading culture is not dying; it’s just changing. We must remember that when the book first came, it was as revolutionary as the digital is now, so humanity would have to deal with the digital the way it dealt with print when print first came. In other words, it will have to negotiate its relationship with it, negotiate in a broader sense and that is already happening. The forms of writing are changing, people are writing specifically for digital now, where very short, micro novels are being written. So, I don’t have problem with digital and I do not believe that print is ever going to die, it won’t ever, because, as you said, there is something about that physical print book in your hands, you know, you can fold it, you lie down and you sit up it, I think man has a very long standing relationship with the print book than for him to jilt it at this point in time
And then people talk about the issue of electronic devices crashing, getting corrupted etc. But you can’t lose a library…
Well, each medium has its own advantages and disadvantages, you can’t lose a library, but a library can get burnt and you can lose your digital device, it can be corrupted, so each one has its own disadvantages and advantages. The great advantage that print has is the familiarity with it, the long standard familiarity, which we like to describe as humanisation, I think that is the greatest advantage that print has.
As a player in the digital publishing industry, what’s the acceptability rate of digital products, especially educational materials?
I always believe that, the digital was at a threshold of making real impact, especially in developing, or less developed societies, in the sense that the same content, the same material, same access to knowledge can be broadcast and the child in the village can have access to the same content that the child in the city has. Unfortunately, there has been a number of hindrances, part of which is the universal availability or lack of internet connection, that has been a serious problem, in terms of acceptability and mass involvement, but the potentials are still there. I used to say a few years back –that was four years ago –that of the biggest projects in the education will be wide area kind of network of digital content, but that is not happening yet, but sooner or later it’s going to happen. As I say, it’s the only way a wide demography of students can have access to high quality content unmodulated by the kind of teacher they have and the quality they have in the city. The same content can be used in various parts of the country and that is the greatest potential I think it has.
But, you see, each challenge always gives back a solution. Let’s take social media distraction, it creates a solution in the sense that it now designed learning content in a format which resembles what is distracting them, so when a challenge comes up like that, a solution comes up to take advantage of it. Power is a problem, years ago I used to have a driver, who I can never get hold of when needed, if I called him, his phone was switched off, until the day I told him that the next time I called you and your phone was switched off, just take it that you’ve lost your job. Lo and behold! I could get him!! So, I called him and asked what changed? And he said there was no NEPA (regular power supply) in his neighbourhood. But then, he found where to charge the phone battery for fifty naira, you know, that was a brilliant solution to a challenge. So, I think all these challenges, we will find way round them.
How close are owners of intellectual property to real satisfaction, in terms of royalties and protection by legislation and enforcement of these legislations in Nigeria?
In Nigeria, protection of intellectual property is a serious problem. To use a contemporary example, a few weeks back, Segun Adeniyi released his new book and within 24hours, illegal copies were circulating online, so, it is a serious problem, it is the single, most important problem that holds Nollywood back, for example. Remember the experience of Baba Sala in those days, how it nearly crippled him, so protection of the intellectual property in Nigeria has a long way to go and I think we will be better served to start from public education. It was very interesting over the last few weeks seeing people on Tweeter saying, “Yes, I got an illegal download of Segun Adeniyi’s book, it was sent to me free of charge, but I will still buy the print copy.” So, public education needs to be high, then of course, the statutory regulators needs to be empowered, government has its handicap and shortcomings and they have not been able to fund the regulatory body sufficiently well. Finally, the laws need to be reviewed, because some of the laws are old and if you struggle and litigate and get conviction, at the end of the day, you find out that the culprit gets away with it, or sometimes a slap on the wrist. So, the law needs to be checked so that people really know that it’s a serious offence, a serious criminal offence, you know, once the penalties are stiffer. But technology has a role to play, of course, technology is not foolproof itself, but technology has a role to play, like, take for example, Nollywood seems to have found a way out in terms of online release of some of their works, but like I said, it’s not entirely foolproof. But, I think it’s a journey of evaluation and protection of intellectual property, so it’s work in progress, but those three elements are important- public education, enablement of the copyright commission and revision of legislation of protecting copyright.
One wonders why the needful can’t get done, given that it could discourage creativity, when people can’t get any reward from their creative enterprise.
Absolutely, it has serious implication on creativity, the incentive to create, to embark on new creations is just lost and it can be so depressing. Going back to the Baba Sala example, Baba Sala virtually put his entire life on the line and all his savings, he threw it into a project which was meant to be a box office hit and before he knew it, he lost all! He was so devastated, it can be very demoralising, very discouraging and it causes serious danger to the creative industry.
Can you attempt a comparative assessment of the stature and quality of contemporary and older generations of African writers and their works?
First of all, I think that there are many more practitioners of the art now more than in the generation of the Wole Soyinkas and Chinua Achebes and there are many more writers who are practising, who are publishing. Where the challenge seems to be is in the publishing outlets. There is no sufficient outlets to give them ventilation and there are few companies that are concentrating exclusively on creative writing and are doing very well. There are a lot more writers receiving attention these days than there were in the 60s. In the 60s, you could name the writers on the fingers of your palm, but today, you can’t.
Yes, young writers such as Chimamanda Adichie…
Well, I am not sure if she would like that term, young, at the age she was, people like the Soyinkas were ruling the world and at the age she is now, she certainly is not young any longer.
What’s your overview of her writing and what it has done for Nigeria?
I think she is doing wonderfully well, my interaction with her has been more on the media, in her interviews and interventions in current issues, than with her works really. In fact, we won’t be able to talk much about her works, but I think that she is a major cultural ambassador and I think she is doing wonderfully well for the image of Nigeria on the international scene.