How To Kill The Nigerian Publishing Industry
Jeremy Weate | March 19th, 2014


The general collapse of education in Nigeria is hardly news. However, any attempt to address the issue is of interest to those trying to improve the hapless lot of Nigerian students. There was therefore a purr of approval on Twitter yesterday that this year’s Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) event would focus on “Transforming Education Through Partnerships For Global Competitiveness.” The NESG is Nigeria’s premier think tank on private sector development and is best known for its annual conference in Abuja, which brings industrialists and entrepreneurs together with government figures to discuss Nigerian private sector concerns. At last, people felt there might be a commercial solution to a sector in terminal decline.

It was ironic therefore that yesterday was the day it became widely known that the Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has imposed a 62.5% tariff (a mix of levies, duties and VAT) on imported printed books, where previously there has been none. The tariff was approved in a ministry circular on the 28th February but applies from the 1st January 2014. Needless to say, Nigerian publishers had not been consulted. For six decades, Nigeria has kept to a UNESCO agreement (signed in 1950) “on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials” which in its first Article states that signatory countries will not impose customs duties or other charges on importing books, publications, educational, scientific and cultural materials.” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala therefore has the distinction of being the first Nigerian Finance Minister in over sixty years to break this convention.

An outsider’s devil’s-advocate response to the news might be, “well, this might contravene a UN agreement, but ultimately it’s good news that Nigeria protects a sector that it wants to develop. Nigeria should try to stimulate the production of its own books in country.”

The main problem with this view is that it confuses printing with publishing, a blurred perception common in Nigeria, perhaps due to the collapse of the publishing sector during 1980s structural adjustment. Publishing in Nigeria is nowadays often thought of as a guy with a press and little else besides. However, from a serious Nigerian publisher’s perspective, it’s just not possible to print books locally to a consistent level of quality and at a price that would make the books affordable to Nigerian readers. We experienced this problem directly when we printed locally 10,000 copies each of our first two books at the very beginning of Cassava Republic in 2006. The sample copies supplied by the printer bore no resemblance to the pallets of books eventually delivered. The books were so poorly put together, with thin sludge-grey paper that they were unsellable. We had to throw them away, with no hope of compensation. Our business was nearly killed off before it had begun.

The reality is, Nigerian publishers who wish to sell good quality books at an affordable price are forced to print overseas. There’s nothing particularly innovative or unusual in this: many Western publishers now print in Asia too. Cheap electricity and labour, access to international paper markets as well as technical know-how limit globally competitive print facilities to a small group of countries. Nigeria has no hope of competing with these countries any time soon. A wiser alternative policy decision would be to not even try. Nigerian paper mill and printing companies catering to local (non-book) printing needs can be supported through tax breaks and subsidies to nurture market development, without the need for protectionism. The lesson learnt from other sectors in Nigeria (such as textiles), is surely that tariffs and import bans stimulate piracy, rather than local market development. It is therefore also likely that book pirates may benefit from the punitive tariff. In other words, authors as well as Nigerian publishers will suffer.

The sad unintended-consequence of the UN-defying tariff is that Nigerian schoolchildren will no longer have any access to lovingly created and well-made books from around the world (or those published by Nigerian companies using international printers). Even those who wish to donate books to Nigeria will no longer be able to do so without additional (and prohibitive) costs. When Nigerian children do have access to books – which will be far from always – they will be in black and white, printed on shoddy paper and with a diluted glue binding, on a limited range of subjects. They will grow up not considering books as possessions to be treasured for life. The quality of the books will not be a subliminal inducement to learn to read and love reading, as elsewhere.

For policymakers focused on education, the new tariff is therefore a disaster. On their website, NESG explains the focus of this year’s gathering thus: “At present, our adult literacy rate of 61% as well as the low level of tertiary enrollment portends a threat to the ability of Nigeria to become the 20th largest economy in the world by 2020.”

Despite the good intentions behind the policy, the draconian imposition of a 62.5% tariff on imported books will only limit access to reading materials and can only lower the literacy rate in Nigeria.

The additional consequence of the Minister of Finance’s protectionist policy is that life as a small publisher in Nigeria will from now on be close to impossible. Being forced to use Nigerian printers means that we will not be able to maintain the quality and pricing points of our books. Nigerian readers of all ages will suffer. They will have access to a limited range of books at a higher price. Not for Nigerians anymore the literatures of elsewhere. Not for Nigerians anymore children’s picture books which will stimulate a love of learning. Protectionism for the printing industry will help close the lid on young Nigerian minds. It will effectively kill-off any hope of local knowledge production in Nigeria from now on.

The reaction on the twittersphere was general dismay – as if Nigeria doesn’t have enough bad news just now. Teju Cole’s response to the announcement was simply, “It’s insane.” Ebi Atawodi, organizer of Africa’s first literary prize for debut fiction, commented that, “this duty may unfortunately do the same to the publishing industry as loading an already struggling mule with more luggage would. It will only make the journey we have embarked upon longer.” But let’s leave the last word to our fellow Nigerian publisher. Eghosa Imasuen, Chief Operating Officer of Kachifo, expresses well the effect the Finance Minister’s decision will have on the Nigerian publishing industry:

So now, the company I run, with a shipment in port, and several more coming in, has just incurred a 300% increase in clearing costs. This will translate to a doubling of the price of these books in the market. The printers in Nigeria cannot match the efficiency or quality or cost of the printers in India, Turkey, Dubai and China. Even European publishers print in these countries. In a situation where you cannot impose a levy on its competitors, then you award subsidies and grants to local printers, you remove all duties on paper, on printing material, you pull in technical know-how. And you wait, and hope that the industry picks up.

What you do not do is – in a single line of bureaucratese – throw out sixty years of precedence by instituting a 62.5%  tariff on books. It is mind-bogglingly inconceivable that anyone would do that. You do not kill your publishing industry to save your printing industry.

Zanele Muholi's new work mourns and celebrates South African queer lives
#WhiteHistoryMonth: Sherlock Holmes, a racist?
The following two tabs change content below.

Jeremy Weate

Jeremy Weate is on Twitter: @jeremyweate.

10 thoughts on “How To Kill The Nigerian Publishing Industry

  1. It is very uncharitable to labelled the finance minister as not been concerned about the plight of the publishing and creative industry. This woman has done a lot for that industry. Recently she was given an award of excellence at the British Council for her effort to help the creative industry.

  2. This woman is dumber than a brick.

    Her attitude of deservingness during the World Bank job opening shows her stupid assumptions that because she is black, she ought to get a position she does not deserve.

    She was with obasanjo. And now Jonathan. Thievery all along.

    She ought to be in jail.

    This note is written by a Nigerian.

  3. Please how do we organise against this action? This idea must not see the light of day. We must kill it at birth. We must not stop at social media level…

    • Shut up there!How is this a bad development, sir? O, im so frustrated by the players of the non-existent Nigerian book industry. How can we keep importing cultural materials and be happy we are doing business. Now, i am a book importer too, so i am also at fault. Let us be nationalistic in our thinking and stop desiring easy advantage in every thing. If Nigeria must be great, we need to start doing the right things now. Nigerian printing companies are begening to get it right, let us give them a chance. Let us stop worshipping the international community for once and lets build our own culture to enviable heights.

      • “…build our culture to enviable heights’” with foreign technology! The logic of globalisation compels publishers to engage printing service anywhere its cheapest. Let’s be clear the imposition of this crazy tariff will not benefit the Nigerian printer one little bit! Neither will it make education any more affordable.

      • My dear Susan, you are in no position to be talking about the ‘non-existent Nigerian Book Industry’ when it is quite clear that you cannot spell nor use punctuation properly. The irony of your entire comment is quite amusing, to say the least. Books, imported or not, are clearly meant for enlightenment and education, both of which I daresay you might want to make liberal use of.

  4. @Johnson/Susan – Do you realise that this policy does not just affect Publishers? It affects legitimate bookstores/booksellers as well. With this appalling 50% import tariff from 0%, cost of importing books are going to skyrocket and it would be unviable to sell books without increasing prices. This in an industry that is struggling already with Pirates selling pirated books cheaper. Yet this government will have us believe they are bringing back the book!

  5. Copy of posting in Facebook “Publishing in Africa” group 20/03/14

    If this report is accurate, and I have no reason to believe it isn’t, I find it really quite mind-boggling. As I understand it, the 62.5% tariff is apparently made up of import duty of 20%, a “Surcharge” of 7%, Comprehensive Import Supervision Scheme (CISS) 0.5%, a “Levy” of 30%, plus VAT of 5%. My comments are these:

    1. As Jeremy Weate rightly points out, there has always been a blurred perception in Nigerian government circles between the printing industries on the one hand, and the publishing sector on the other. These draconian new tariffs on imported printed books seem to be designed to protect the local printing industries. There is nothing wrong with that in principle, and if it is a policy designed to stimulate increased book production in the country. However, and quite ironically, the new tariffs are likely to have a devastatingly negative effect on the indigenous publishing industries.

    2. Publishers anywhere are entitled to decide where they want to print their books, at the most advantageous prices, the best possible terms, and with high quality printing and binding quality assured. Although there have been very significant advances in printing technology over the last decade or more, unfortunately it is an unpalatable but inescapable fact that books produced by some Nigerian printers are frequently still of sub-standard quality. Thus many Nigerian publishers who seek to produce books of high quality – and with a good prospect of potential export sales as well – have no alternative but to print in Eastern Europe, India or the Far East, as indeed do a very large number of publishers in the countries of the West.

    3. While a good number of scholarly titles now come from Nigerian publishers, there are still very few that publish scientific, medical and technical books. Most of these will continue to have to be imported, as will be a wide range of other academic books and reference works. Similarly many university-level textbooks prescribed by lecturers at Nigerian universities will still have to come from abroad for the most part, and will therefore attract the same import tariff, likely to increase retail prices of the books by at least 50%. How can students possibly afford to pay for textbooks at such prices? Moreover, high prices are likely to lead to even more blatant book piracy and illegal photocopying of copyright protected books in Nigeria. Additionally it will have a hugely adverse effect on acquisitions and collection development budgets at Nigerian university libraries, and libraries at other institutions of higher learning.

    4. What about book imports from other African countries? From Ghana for example, which has a flourishing indigenous book industry. They will be subject to the same import tariffs, which will make the books hugely expensive, and will just about kill off any sales prospects in Nigeria. And we can say good-bye to any kind of intra-African book trade.

    5. Then there are the books by many distinguished Nigerian writers and academics published in the diaspora and elsewhere abroad, a number of them available as Nigerian co-editions or reprints, but the majority of them will still have to be imported and will only be available to Nigerian readers from a number of local bookshops, or ordered via Amazon. They, too, will subject to the same import duty and taxes, and the ensuing astronomical retail prices will put them beyond the pocket of most Nigerian readers.

    6. The imposition of these tariffs on book imports is in contravention of UNESCO’S “free flow of books” policy and its “Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials, with Annexes A to E and Protocol annexed 1950”, also called the Florence agreement, of 17 June 1950, under which “contracting States undertake not to apply customs duties or other charges on, or in connection with, the importation (i) printed books, newspapers and periodicals. (ii) educational, scientific and cultural materials” nor impose “internal taxes or any other internal charges of any kind”, although it has to be added that it is unfortunately a fact that several African countries currently charge VAT on books. Nigeria is a signatory to this treaty and submitted a “notification of succession” to UNESCO on 26 June 1961, meaning, in the context of a multilateral treaty, a notification made by a successor State expressing its consent to be considered as bound by the treaty.

    7. How is this excessive tariff on reading materials going to impact on Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s commendable ‘Bring Back the Book’ initiative? Launched in December 2010, and “established with a view to develop a book reading culture in Nigeria especially amongst the youths who have lost value for reading either for educational purposes or entertainment.” How are those readers going to access reading material, from Nigeria and from around the world, at affordable prices?

    • Nice and a well in-depth comment, presumably from researcher and Librarian, Although this will increase the price of imported books, has anything been put in place to preventing local publisher from setting their prices at par with the affected imported books? Don’t be suprise that these imported books may survive, as they are making abnormal profit before or resort to online sales, which is free from all tax. Moreso, Piracy has just started, coz now they can make huge profit.

  6. This is just one side of the story . A good story must have a balance and as a printer and a Shomolu one for that matter I will attempt to balance the story. What if we have a scenario where the headlines reads FG has given incentives to foreign publishes to come and start publishing in Nigeria!. After all need need to develop our educational we open our country to all form of foreign title printed abroad . What will the cry from the publisher be? Free market enterprise? Or unesco agreement?
    If that is not palatable why go abroad to print books at the expense of the local industry?
    The consequence of that action if you are not aware is gross unemployment Insecurity etc.
    Loss of job and means of livelihood.
    Don’t we have a book policy in Nigeria? Go and read that policy and local content in it both authorship and printing . How do we achieve the objective of it if we continue to print outside Nigeria?

Leave a Reply