In an environment where many publishing companies are closing shops, the University Press Plc, Ibadan, established in 1949, has remained aloat, and recently celebrated its 70th anniversary in Nigeria. Mr. Samuel Kolawale has been the Managing Director of the publishing outfit since 2015. In this chat with Damiete Braide, Kolawole speaks on the challenges facing the Nigerian publishing, the magic wand deployed by the company to remain a brand name in the country, its highest selling titles and his candid words to dispirited Nigerian authors.
70th anniversary of a company is a milestone, can you take us through the growth of the University Press from the beginning?
Many people have worked in the University Press to bring it to where it is today. Some members of staff celebrating today were not more than two years old in the company then. Many people have worked in this company, and that is why it is a very huge thing for us. We invited some ex-staff of the company to celebrate with the company that they helped to build over the years.
The company started in 1949 as the Nigerian branch of Oxford University Press, United Kingdom. It grew over time and, because of the success, we were able to sustain ourselves. But due to the Indigenisation decree by the Obasanjo regime in 1978, it became a Nigerian company with the decree stipulating that foreigners could not own 100% of companies in certain sectors, which publishing was among. UK Press sold lots of its shares to Nigerians and retained a fraction of its shareholding in University Press Plc, so we became quoted on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) under the name, University Press Limited. That is why, today, many people still refer to us as UPL, although, later, we became a Public Liability Company (PLC). We have grown over the years and many things have happened. The company has been transformed from what it used to be in terms of structure, approach and products, and it has grown in leaps and bounds. We have to appreciate all those who have contributed to the success of the company, including those who founded it in the United Kingdom, because the legacy that they left behind is what has kept the company going for a very long time.
Since inception, what has been your highest selling title?
The highest selling title has changed from time to time. Presently, our bestselling title is our English textbook at the secondary school level, New Oxford English Course. In times past, it has been some other books. We don’t have one that is the highest selling book, because it has been a long time, but we have quite a number of books. There was a time it was our Examination Review Series, but it keeps changing over the years.
What are some of the milestones that the company has recorded in the last 70 years?
For example, the first indigenous managing director of the company was Chief Bayo Akinleye, but, before then, the company was managed by Britons. It was a milestone that Nigerians came into the administration of the company, even before the shares were sold to Nigerians. Also, being listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange in 1978 was also a big milestone. Many things have changed over time in the company. We started our office in Lagos and later moved to Oxford House in Dugbe, Ibadan, before we moved to current office in Jericho, Ibadan.
As what point did you join the organisation, and what has the company achieved during your tenure?
I joined the company on January 2, 2001, as the Company Secretary/Legal Adviser. I came into the company not with the aim of staying for so long, though I was born in Lagos and grew up in Lagos. I started my first job in Lagos until the opportunity came for me to work with University Press Plc. I thought that I would work for a few years and later go back to Lagos, as Lagosians feel that they cannot live anywhere outside Lagos. It was a good environment that I met, although with a little bit layback. Coming from Lagos, I was exposed to modern things, but, coming to the company, which, in its structure and facilities, was more or less archaic, it wasn’t easy to adapt, but one good thing that happened was that I brought my experience and exposure as company Secretary and Legal Adviser into play.
I advised the then managing director and the board on some issues which were taken up and replaced. I recall that, when I joined the company, in my office, the intercom (phone) was the manual type. Coming from the background in the banking sector, with the use of a modern intercom, I told them that I could not use this phone, and they said, no, that it was only the management staff that used the modern type. My boss at that time listened to me each time I went to meet him to change one item or the other in the office. He was receptive of my ideas, and gave me the freedom to always walk up to him and request for things, and my request would be granted.
In 2005, I was appointed the Managing Director of the company, and it came as a surprise to me, though many people told me that they thought they knew that I was going to become the MD. One of the managers based in Lagos told me there was a storekeeper who committed fraud and I was there with the police to get him arrested.
The manager took me on a tour and, after the tour, I asked him and some other members of staff some questions despite the fact that I was still the Company Secretary/Legal Adviser, and he told me their challenges. Six months later when I assumed my new position, he told me that he knew that I was going to be made the Managing Director because of the way I got information from the workers due to the fact that I was interested in the activities of other departments by knowing their challenges and proffered solutions. In January 2005, there was a management retreat, and I was among other members to present a paper, and in March, I was appointed the Managing Director and I felt that one of the things that I needed to change was the orientation of the people and it really helped me a lot.
I worked with the people and even went to their offices to meet them when the need arose rather than send for them to come to my office. It has helped me so much to relate with staffers and know what their challenges are. When I came in, there were children books that were not attractive; they were in black and white, but we spearheaded that revolution of coloured books in 2006/2007 when we introduced colour to our books. Other publishing houses said it was not going to work, that who would buy the books; but I am happy that, after four years when they saw the success of the company, most of them followed suit and began to print children’s books in colour. When I took over in March 2005, the turnover of the company increased greatly, because I worked with a good team over time and we have been able to move the company to greater heights.
What important values have sustained the company today?
The value of integrity is important to all stakeholders. Some of the authors and stakeholders have said that University Press does not cut corners. The foundation that was laid for us by the founding fathers (Britons) was based on integrity. We pay royalties based on what we sold. We challenge our authors to visit the company at any time to ask for their royalties, and they get the statement printed out for them. As an author, if you can’t walk into the office of your publisher to request for your statement of royalty, then something must be wrong. When books are sold, the software automatically deducts their royalties and puts the money into their accounts, which and has made our authors to trust us. It has worked for us and a lot of our authors are happy with us. As a particular month during the year, their royalty statements are sent to them, and they are happy because they know that we don’t cut corners.
Some years ago, when we changed our software to a new one, the provider asked us, “What do you want us to do concerning your royalties and other things?” We asked them what they meant by that, and they told us they could programme the software so that it would charge royalties, and when it got to a particular level, it would stop charging, even when the publishing firm was selling. We told them that we didn’t want that kind of thing and, whatever was sold, let the royalty be deducted –that is what we are proud of. Sometimes, it is painful when I am in gathering of writers and authors, and they classify all publishers as not measuring up to the standard. There are still many good publishers, and University Press Plc pays their royalties as at when due.
In the last 27 years, we have not failed to pay dividends to our shareholders consistently over the years. Some of them have compared our prices with other blue chip companies, and they tell us that the royalties that we pay is even more than what these other companies pay. We consider the interest of all stakeholders in what we do, and that has kept us going over the years, because we should be fair to all. Even our customers and suppliers, we consider them to be very important. We have so many suppliers in the industry, and they have told us that they prefer to work with UP Plc, because they will get their money. We are fair to all stakeholders and, even our staff, we carry them along; and when you carry your staff along, they will work with you to achieve success.
Book chain is a challenging business all over the world, how are you able to overcome these challenges?
The challenges are there, and it will always be there. We have been able to find ways to see ourselves doing it. Book business is challenging, especially in a country where the reading culture is very low. I would not say Nigerians do not read, but they read for certification or for purposes of passing examinations. As the regional conference of international publishers in Nairobi recently, i stated that, if you tell a Nigerian, “I am going to give you this certificate if you read 100 books in one week, test him of her, and they would prove to you that the books were read just to get the certificate,” and that’s the end of reading for them.
Reading culture means reading comes to you naturally. It is something that you do leisurely to enrich your knowledge. That is the culture that we don’t have in Nigeria, and it is affecting the publishing industry. Publishers depend on government or schools to survive, and that is the challenge that most of the literary writers have with publishers, because, if the market is not there, it is not a charity. Even when you find a good manuscript and if it is published and people would not buy, what do you do? When the accusations are levelled against publishers, I tell people that it is unfair, because there are shareholders who have invested in the industry.
For example, we are a public liability company, and we are quoted on Nigerian Stock Exchange. We have shareholders who are expecting dividends at the end of the year. We cannot tell them that this manuscript is nice and it is a literary work, though we know that people would not buy it, we just have to produce it. It doesn’t work that way. It takes the effort of all stakeholders to ensure that when people are reading, and there is a demand. If there is a market for it, you are inspired to go the extra mile to print the work for people to buy and read. Most often, the purchases that we have are purchases of textbooks, and that is why one of the challenges that we have in the industry. The book chain that we have is muddled up in Nigeria, and it is so in other African countries.
Piracy is another major problem in the country. We need the government to have the political backing to Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC), just like when the late Dora Akunyuli, Director General of National Agency for Food and Drugs Control (NAFDAC), was doing greatly in the drugs industry. It was so, because she had the government’s support. Woe betide any company or market that NAFDAC would visit and the officials would be attacked! The government would come heavily on such people, but it not the same with NCC. We have situations where NCC officials would go on a raid and they would be chased out of that market. If government comes out to say it is serious about the issue of piracy, then we can make a headway and progress in the book industry. The book chain has been muddled up that it has made it easy schools to take advantage of publishers. Now, schools buy books directly from publishers. They charge their students more than the published prices. They don’t give parents the price of each book, rather they charge a particular amount to pay. Many of the schools who are not professionals would go for the cheapest books, because they are looking at the margin. Some of the schools, after collecting your books, they won’t pay you, and, if you complain, they go to the next publisher that is available. They use the publishers’ money to do many things like building structures. They collect books from a publisher in September and, when you go to collect your money, they will tell you to come during the second term to collect your money after school fees have been paid. All these have happened, because the book chain has been muddled up. If books are sold directly to wholesalers or bookstores and parents have to go and buy from there, we won’t be in this situation.
What’s your message to dispirited Nigerian authors?
They should continue to be with us, and, when they have good manuscript, we should be their first point of call if they want good service. We will ensure that they get due reward for their efforts. Most of our authors can testify that it is not just getting their royalties but we also take care of them and value them. That is why we organise the annual Authors Forum where we bring them together and honour them. We pride ourselves as been prolific in production and publishing of books in Nigeria. We encourage authors who have been working with us, we don’t need to say so much to them, they know what we can do and who we are. To aspiring authors who believe they have something to offer, they welcome to join us and we are ready to work with them.