Small-scale publishing: Weathering hard times to supply textbooks
It’S a new academic session, when parents must buy books and other learning materials for their children and wards. It’s also the peak season for small-scale publishers, whose business flourishes greatly and they make good money, selling their books. But aside textbooks, they also engage in the printing of exercise books, notebooks and sundry other customised writing materials for students and offices.
Unfortunately, due to the current economic downturn, these businessmen and women are lamenting and expressing fears that they might not be able to meet demands this time around. This is contrary to what obtained in the past, when the economy was more buoyant and they looked forward to harvesting the proceeds of the season. This, according to most of the publishers, is because of the recession, which has made it pretty difficult for them to source funds from the usual outlets, including cooperative societies and microfinance banks they used to depend on for soft loans and bailouts.
Clement Ishaku of Clems Books explained that this session is quite different from every other one, as the production of some of the materials, which ought to have been rested by now, is still ongoing.
He said: “I normally finish my production latest by the last week of August for onward supply to schools. But can you believe that three weeks into the new session, I have not been able to finish the first batch of production? The situation is tough, especially as microfinance banks and other small-scale moneylenders, have increased their interest rates from 10 to 20 per cent and even 25 per cent in some cases. Aside this, they have also limited the amount they give out.
“To compound the problem, the cost of printing paper and ink has also risen. But not only this, the sellers of these items have restricted credit facilities to certain amount, which is not helping matters at all.”
Corroborating Ishaku’s words, Ali Rahaman said the situation has made some publishers to reduce the quantity of books they usually publish at this period, as well as, increased prices to cover production cost to enable them remain in business. Entertaining the fears that some books might likely not be in the market till middle of the session, he explained that some publishers have resorted to making schools pay for some books in advance. This, he said, helps to provide the much-needed fund for the production of the quality and quantity of the books such schools want.
“It would be extremely difficult to find schools having complete sets of books,” he said. “And I’m afraid this will likely continue till mid-term, as money is needed to publish. Since the only way schools can get money is through fees, any proprietor that wants books should be able to pay in advance.”
But is this not another form of exploitation, because one would have expected that you would have assessed the operational environment, thereby knowing when and what to prepare to enable you prepare for any eventuality?
“No, it’s not,” he replied. “We know all this, but the present market and operational variables have forced cottage producers to seek funds, which was not the case before now. Though I can’t deny that the business is lucrative, but we need funds to produce and make profit. As part of measures to meet demands, some publishers have resorted to publishing only the essential textbooks, with the hope of maybe producing the others by mid-term. Schools know this and they have also learned to adjust to the delay.”
On how they have been staying afloat, in spite of the hard times, Goddy Ibeh, said: “I had to sell some of my cars and mortgaged my landed property. I did this to raise funds to produce, since it was through the business I was able to acquire all the properties in the first place. And whenever the economy improves, I will replace all what I have sold. The economy has really nosedived, interest rates have gone up and even the town unions and cooperatives we used to run to, are all complaining. So, there is no other option than selling some things to remain in business. We can’t just go to bed because the economy is sick. If we do so, by the time it recovers, we will have to struggle afresh to recover lost grounds. Since we don’t want such experience, we have to adopt unique strategies to survive.
“So, I had to cut down production from 35,000 to 10, 000 copies of the different 15 books I usually supply. I also have to slightly increase the price to offset shortages and prepare ahead of next term, as well as, cushion the effects of the current challenges.”
How are schools reacting to all this? Victoria Adewande, a sales lady with the Sharks Publishers, said most schools are not taking it lightly with small-scale publishers, as they are even threatening to change textbooks or patronise other publishers. However, the few among them that understand the situation do pay in advance, although it might not be that much.
“The schools keep calling for their order and we keep explaining the situations. Now, many of them are made to pay each time we supply. We have also resorted to cutting supplies by half. For instance, if a school requests for 20 copies or more of a particular book, we supply half, and then collect the money for the production of the remaining half. Through this we have been able to meet up with some of our demands, as well as, get new orders.
Admitting that this is not the best marketing strategy, especially in a market, where the small-scale publishers have to struggle for space with the big ones, who could withstand the pressure, as they also enjoy different facilities from allied companies, she explained that no business strategy is ever static.
According to her, market methods change with prevailing situations. So, all stakeholders have to bear and understand that it is the situation that calls for all these measures. People just have to survive one way or the other.
She said: “Our relationship with school owners is symbiotic. We need and benefit from one another. Most importantly, we sell at publisher’ price to them, while they sell at their own prices to the parents. Sometimes, they sell at 300 per cent the prices we sell to them. They make more profit from each copy than we do because they control the pupils and as such, sell at their own price. They would be short-changing themselves, if they enjoy all this and still refuse to help the publishers. They are like partners and running to them for bailout is not out of place, because, as the end users, they understand our business better than other lending houses.”
Interestingly, while others are groaning and lamenting the situation, to Iyke Ebiri of Ebiri Books, this is the period to showcase one’s ingenuity and creativity, by combining business with tact. To him, it is an unhealthy development that is not good for business.
Querying the wisdom behind such idea, he said: “If school owners don’t provide money, would the publishers not produce or pay their workers?” So, how has he been able to weather the storm?
“I have cut off all credit facilities to customers. Now, I operate mainly on a cash-and-carry basis. The former practice of allowing agents or schools to take books away without deposit is gone. In addition, I ensure that the books are more colourful with more assignments for the pupils to do at home and in class. So, there is an added attraction.
“Teachers see this as a good method to aid their teaching, as it would help keep the children busy in the class and also engage them at home. With this, our books are always sold off.”
Saying new entrants should never feel discouraged, he urged them to be more creative and look for new ways of expressing better and clearer all subjects that pupils and teachers find difficult to understand, as well as, give some discounts to schools.