Silverbird Takes 40%! How? – By Alba K Sumprim

On January 6, 2012, I delivered books to the Silverbird bookshop and was casually informed by the shop manager that the bookshop would now be taking 40% commission on books sold. I found this news disturbing. In 2009, when Silverbird agreed to stock my books, we sighed a contractual memorandum of understanding where one of the points of agreement was to ‘offer inventory to Silverbird at a commission of 30% as agreed by both parties.’ Granted, I didn’t have a choice in the ‘30%’ figure, but I wanted my books in their shop and I agreed to it, though the highest commission being taken in Accra at the time was 25%.

I still have that contract, and though I’m not a lawyer, I do believe Silverbird is breaching our signed contractual agreement by unilaterally imposing a percentage hike without discussing it with me. They simply positioned a member of staff in the shop to inform suppliers that Silverbird was now taking 40%. No discussions, no informing, they were telling suppliers, ‘take it or leave it.’ It is sad that we live in a country where the freedom to abuse and take advantage of is so freely taken and accepted by victims and perpetrators. Not this victim.

I was furious, no, the word isn’t ‘furious’. Because of the ‘same sh*t, different day syndrome’ lives we live in this country, people are so worn down they don’t have the energy to conjure up fury anymore. I asked to see someone in charge with whom I could have a discussion, not the messenger. No chance, the messenger was the best I was to be given. I said I’d write a letter. The messenger was more than happen to give me the title of the person to be written to. I’m sure he was assured by the apathy that is so pervasive in this country. Keep making things harder and harder for people, wearing them down so much, they barely have the energy to achieve the basics.

I’m sure he expected me to go through the process of, ‘Why am I wasting my time to write a letter, print it, put it in an envelope and then take transport and sit in gridlocked traffic back to Accra Mall, and then hand the letter in, to be given to a faceless someone buried in the recesses of the Silverbird administrative offices where it’ll receive ten seconds of attention and either find its way into the bin, resulting in no change whatsoever, not even an acknowledgement of my letter. Why am I bothering?’ That ‘Why bother, you won’t achieve anything’ attitude is what has gotten us to this point, where nothing matters enough for anyone to take a stand, where no one has the energy to care and people do what they want, mostly to the detriment of others. We celebrate this as FREEDOM.

As I said, the rest of the bookshops in Accra were taking between 20 to 25% commission, however, with Silverbird, I didn’t have too many issues with their taking 30%, considering the prominent location of the bookshop and the amount of people who frequented the Mall. When the bookshop was situated on the ground floor, a lot of traffic passed through and on average, I made between 60 and 80 book sales per month, with Silverbird taking a 30% commission. With those kinds of sales in a city of a country where the natives are said not to read, I was more than happy. I would be frequently and pleasantly surprised to find my book as part of the window display or on the separate islands of book displays dotted around the shop.

Then the bookshop moved upstairs. Obviously, less traffic passed through as people only really went upstairs if they were going to the cinema. Immediately, my book sales fell to half of what I was previously making. That is when Silverbird decided to take more from the author.

I asked the breaker of the bad news to explain to me how the authorities at Silverbird justified the increase in the commission they took. He told me that was the reason why he was in the shop to discuss it with suppliers. I went to great pains to explain that he obviously didn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘discussion’. He wasn’t having a ‘discussion’ with me, he was telling me. We went around in circles until I gave up.

The first thing I did when I got home was publicise this travesty on Facebook. Immediately, writers responded. As typical, I won’t be surprised that all their complaints find their full stop at Facebook. I complained to a friend and his suggestion was to hike up the price of my books, so I could recuperate the difference that Silverbird was now taking. I was scandalized. “Why should the consumer bear the brunt of Silverbird’s greed?” My friend shrugged. After I’d explained that I was going to write a protest letter, encourage other writers to make a stand and also to make a report to The Ghana Association of Writers (GAW), my friend guffawed and told me that I would be wasting my time, as nothing would come of it. This is how people are exercising the freedom we feel so proud to brag about.

The next day, I made my complaint to GAW and asked them to look into things. Again, I told another writer the terrible news and he made appropriate sympathetic sounds. What did he do afterwards? I’ll tell you. The next day, I saw him advertising on Facebook that his books were on sale at Silverbird and he urged people to rush and buy copies. Forty percent commission was okay.

As writers, we have no support systems; literature doesn’t even seem to be considered as part of the arts. After months, or even years, of writing the manuscript, the self publishing authors – because there is no industry, just like most of the arts in the country – pay for the manuscript to be edited, the pages to be laid out, the printing and then storage. They then trek to the bookshops and have to make several phone calls before they agrees to take or not to take the books, which they take on sale or return, meaning there is no risk involved for the bookshop. Ghanaian writers make very little profit, and most of us are still struggling to recoup our initial investments.

The bookshops, who behave as if they doing the author a favour does not promote, market or advertise the books. When the books sell out, most of the bookshops don’t believe the writer deserves the courtesy of being informed. When I’ve rang to check if they still had copies of my book in stock, I’ve had conversations that go something like this: “People have been asking for the book but it’s finished.” Through gritted teeth, I’d ask if they wanted more copies. Of course, they did.

After the books are sold, the author has to wait, sometimes for months, before payment is received, minus the shops’ commission. This is also the type of service Silverbird offers and they feel nothing unethical about taking nearly half the price of a book as commission.

Often you hear people say, ‘Ghanaians don’t read.’ The truth is, Ghanaians are reading more and more and this, I believe this is due to the efforts of Ghanaian writers who, though facing many obstacles, fight to keep this fledgling literary industry alive, by writing stories that are relevant to us as Ghanaian, by Ghanaians. We need to write our own stories from our perspectives and the more we do that, the more our people would read. No one who writes in Ghana does it because of money.

I hope when people read this, those of you who are writers and have books stocked at Silverbird, in particular,  would take the time to make a complaint, because the more of us that take the effort to show our displeasure at the cavalier way we’re being treated, the stronger a force for change we become. It shouldn’t stop at making comments on social networks or complaining amongst ourselves. I know teamwork is not a national trait, however, if we don’t start putting that skill into effect, soon Silverbird and others would tell us that due to increasing costs, their commission would increase to 50%.

Soon the only books that would be stocked in the Silverbird bookshop would be the books they’ve imported from abroad as Ghanaian authors would not be in a position to stock their books there. Already, we have few outlets for our products. We’re the only people who are truly interested in building our fledgling literary industry; therefore, we must find the time to fight for it. Government is too busy doing what is good for them.

Apart from authors, publishers and book lovers taking a stand, I believe bookshops have an obligation to also fight for the industry. It’s heartbreaking that Silverbird is spearheading the probably demise of Ghanaian literature when, of all the bookshops in Accra, they are in the optimum position to help promote and safeguard Ghanaian writing and by extension, the growth of our literary industry.

Each time I think of Silverbird’s action, the words from Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ spring to mind. ‘Every time I plant a seed, he said, kill it before it grows. He said, kill them before they grow.’ We shouldn’t allow that to happen.