Kenyan publishers: The weak link in Kenyan writing?

Posted: November 1, 2010 in Events, Issues, News, Reviews
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Kenyan publishers: The weak link in Kenyan writing?
A Paper presented at an international seminar on Historical Legacy and Contemporary Writing in the Commonwealth, held in New Delhi from 8-10 October.
By JOSEPH NGUNJIRI
Just like the old woman in the Igbo proverb gets uneasy when dry bones are mentioned so does East Africa and Kenya in particular, whenever the phrase literary desert is invoked.
It is indeed interesting that more than 30 years after Taban lo Liyong issued his infamous edict, Kenya has not done much to disprove the controversial Sudanese writer.
Compared to Southern and Western African writers, Kenya, and the Easter African region still have a long way to go in terms of creative writing. You can easily tell this by the fact that most literary prizes in Africa keep ending up in the hands of either Southern or Western Africans.
This is ironical because Kenya has one of the most advanced publishing sectors in Africa aside from South Africa. However, a careful look at publishing houses in Kenya reveals that they dedicate their energies to the lucrative textbook market.
It has been argued that Kenyan publishers only publish a general readership books as an afterthought, and even then, they do not market them well.
When Henry ole Kulet’s book Blossoms of the Savannah won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2009, such was his frustration when readers could not access copies of the book from bookshops.
And in my case, when my book Henry Wanyoike: Victory Despite Blindness came out in October last year, it took more than six months before it could get to Textbook Centre, the largest book distributor in Kenya.
And when recently, the subject of my book, a blind Olympic champion and multiple world record holder appeared in a radio talk show to promote the book, callers to the station said they could not get the book in their local bookshops.
Textbooks on the other hand require little or no marketing at all. Once your book has been approved by the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) you only need to deliver them to booksellers and schools will make their orders. Of course there is the small bit of going round schools trying to convince teachers that your book is better than the others in the market.
In short marketing departments of Kenyan publishers are comprised of glorified salespeople who spend most of their time hustling school teachers.
About four months ago Kenyan publishers got a major scare when KIE, in a report, indicated that it intended to go back into the publishing of textbooks. Had this come to pass, publishers would have lost more than 70 per cent of their revenue, with the stroke of a pen.
It later emerged that the KIE report was heavily doctored, and that it was only after the mouth watering monies involved in school publishing. If there was a lesson to be learnt by Kenyan publishers then it was that they need not put all their eggs in one basket. But has the lesson been learnt? Only time will tell.
So reliant are publishers on the school market that even when they publish a work of fiction it is in the hope that KIE will adopt it as a set book, thereby guaranteeing them handsome sales. Rarely do they target the mass market.
It estimated that the textbook market potential in Kenya has been exploited up to 70 per cent, while that of non-textbooks stands at a mere 30 per cent, which means that there is a large untapped potential for non-textbooks in the country, and which publishers are unwilling to exploit.
When David Waweru established WordAlive Publishers in 2001, players in the industry laughed when he told them that he wanted to do Christian and motivational books. Today, nine years down the line the same publishers who laughed at him seek his services in terms if book packaging and marketing.
So successful has WordAlive been in those nine short years that when top biblical scholars from Africa wrote the Africa Bible Commentary, WordAlive was chosen to be its publisher in Africa.
WordAlive marked another milestone when Eyo one of its fictional titles was nominated for the prestigious Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa, in 2010. The book was written, not by a Kenyan author but by a Nigerian writer!
The only WordAlive book that targets the school market is the Student Companion Bible.
And speaking of literary awards; this year’s Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize, was won by Ng’ang’a Mbugua, a journalist who decided to self-publish his book Terrorists of the Aberdare, after mainstream publishers turned it down.
There had been a precedent, another self-published effort, Grapevine Stories had won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 1997. It is only then that a publisher agreed to adopt it.
And when Penguin South Africa launched its inaugural Writers Prize for Africa, for unpublished manuscripts, one of the nominees in the fiction category was Kenyan Moraa Gitaa. Moraa’s manuscript had severally been rejected by publishers in the country. One of them accused her of having a “wild imagination”.
When Ngugi wa Thiong’o was in Kenya to launch his latest book Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, he urged writers not to shy away from self-publishing their books, if that is the only way to get their works into the market.
Ngugi defended publishers’ decision to concentrate on textbooks, arguing that as business entities they exist to make money.
He however said that it is the duty of African publishers to nurture and market young writers.
When I asked Ngugi why there hasn’t been young writers coming up to fill his shoes he said that he did not wish to pass negative judgment. “There are enough young writers today,” he said. “We might not see a lot of their works at the moment, but I believe they are working on something.”
He pointed out Kwani? as a group of young Kenyan writers with whom he has a lot of faith.
It is interesting that Kwani? should now be getting their legitimacy from Ngugi. When Binyavanga Wainaina founded Kwani? in 2003 after winning the Caine Prize for African Writing, in 2002, such was the buzz that accompanied it that many people felt a true Kenyan writing renaissance was unfolding before them.
So fired up were they that, among other things, they said that the writing by the Ngugi generation was outdated, and that they needed to step aside and let fresh new talent show the way.
When Vyonne Awuor, another of the Kwani? generation of writers won the Caine Prize in 2003, the general feeling was that these young writers at least knew what they were doing. Seven years after Kwani? was formed Kenyans are still waiting to read the first novel written by a member of Kwani?
By comparison Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was only a nominee when Binyavanga won the Caine Prize in 2002. Today Chimamanda has written two highly acclaimed novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun. The latter went ahead to win the Orange Prize. Chimamanda has been hailed as Chinua Achebe’s literary daughter.
Helon Habila is the other exciting young Nigerian writer. Thus Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka can rest easy in the knowledge that they have worthy inheritors of their mantles.
Back in Kenya, the Ngugi succession might take a little longer. And as he says we should be more patient.

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Comments
  1. Fair piece, and I agree that publishers need to take some responsibility: leaving young writers to write ONLY Facebook ‘Notes’ and use their own blogs is not enough, and possibly is part of the industry’s wider and cynical retreat into textbook publishing. That written, the Book Fair this year suggested that some publishers have started to do better, more responsible things by taking risks with new writers – and some good stuff is emerging.

    It’s a disgrace, to my mind, that really good poets like Phyllis Muthoni have had to bravely self-publish, while the publishers, who could bear the cost of this process better than writers themselves, just sit and watch how she does. Or that the poet Njeri Wangari should have no choice but to choose a foreign publisher… Part of the support system for new young writers is, yes, Facebook, the excellent poetry nights, the Goethe Institute and the like, and yet publishers have a role, too. I know that in other countries, even where poetry doesn’t sell well (it rarely sells anywhere), many publishers, even in these so-called ‘hard times’, continue publishing small amounts of poetry in small print runs.

    Good piece, then, but I have one small quibble: I don’t feel that the criticism (not yours, but one that you quote from others) that some of the Kwani writers haven’t yet produced novels is always a fair or valid one. This is because: (a) as you point out, publishers and the lack of other support systems might hinder them; (b) I believe that in East Africa, the short story is a brilliant and powerful genre in itself, and one with real (oral) history and present strength and oomph – to think of the short story (which HERE could be read as a refunctioning/reapplication of our history of traditional narratives) as the little and poor brother of the novel is perhaps to do ourselves a cultural and political disservice and buy (I use the word ‘buy’, chosenly) into that ‘Western’ myth that the novel is the be-all-and-end-all of prose Literature. We might also remember that the novel has capitalistic roots and, often, capitalistic present associations, which many postcolonial writers, including those of us in East Africa, might frown upon. A form, a genre, including the novel, can have its own history and politics: some East African writers might embrace it; some might fall unwittingly into it; some might attempt to reshape it; some might simply reject it. I think that we shouldn’t oblige our prose fiction writers to necessarily embrace the novel, or consider them failure if they haven’t written one. Some, like Binyavanga, might personally wish to publish one, but others might not feel the need. It could be that our attempts to force our prose fiction writers to only aim towards novels is much the same as suggesting that Kenya will only be successful when it fully adopts a precise mimic version of the British Parliamentary System – I think we’d all argue against the latter.

    I, as a poet, writing here as a reader of prose fiction, admire the short story as a complex and appropriate genre in itself. For me, a collection of short stories in a book as long as a novel, often trumps the novel, sometimes because such a collection can contain a greater range of competing voices, a broader selection of perspectives, a greater diversity of situations – in a diverse country such as ours, this might be a beneficial thing. Such variety also, I think, adds a certain democracy to the reading process. Although novels are of course open to differing readings, I believe that they’re more univocal (or authorial-intention-driven) than short stories: often, novels have one point-of-view to promote, and it takes a confident reader to read ‘against the grain’, as it were. This isn’t always true, but it’s possible that the short story doesn’t browbeat the reader at such length, instead presenting a story that is convenient enough for most readers to engage with, agree with, argue with, disagree with… I don’t know, but I do believe that the short story involves the reader more productively in the process of the creation of meaning, and so avoids the dictatorial attitude that some longer prose fiction can employ. It might just be that this is a poet writing, because for me, this is what a poem (because of its form, sometimes because of its brevity, and often because of its linguistic ambiguity) can do, too: it is thrown into the world, and the reader then picks it up, twists it, shapes it for himself/herself, and creates meaning WITH the poet – for me, then, poetry is a thrilling type of literature because it respects the reader and contrary to the belief that poetry has some ‘deep meaning’ that locks the uninitiated out, it in fact invites the reader in to do what s/he will with the words on the page.

    Good piece, and I enjoyed it, in the same way that I find your Sunday pieces important.
    All bests, and in friendship,
    Stephen

    • jngunjiri says:

      Partington, Thanks for the kind words. That is a very persuasive argument you have there about the short story. I will also admit that I too love short stories, heck, I have written a few myself only they are not published.
      Whenever I visit out of the country I ensure that I come back with a collection of short stories because I believe that short stories give me a much wider perspective of a place – the different voices – than say one novel.
      Having said that I am of the opinion that the short story should be able to co-exist with the novel, and thus it should earn its place alongside the novel.
      As things stand Kenyans still consider the novel as the ultimate form of creative writing, and for good reason. It is therefore up to short story writers – me included – to convince the Kenyan reader that the short story is worthy of their time.
      I am largely concerned with how Kenyan short stories can be packaged and promoted among Kenyan readers so that they can get wider acceptability.
      Kwani has wonderful short story writers but the issue getting these these stories to the wider Kenyan audience. Let the readers get intimate with them to a point where they will start appreciating that the short story is as good as the novel.
      How do we change this mindset? this again brings us back to marketing. Are Kwani marketing their works well enough?

  2. John Mwazemba says:

    I TOTALLY disagree. As someone who has been in Kenyan publishing at top management for close to eight years, I think I have some contribution to make. Pundits have always approached this argument other way. Has it ever occurred to anyone that publishing houses actually have shareholders, who, like other investors expect a return on investment? For those who do not know, publishing fiction in Kenya does NOT pay for either publishers or authors. They both do it for charity – ask any bookseller in Kenya (no one knows the pain publishers go through just to have a few copies of their books stocked in Kenyan bookshops). That aside, the Kenyan is the biggest culprit – why don’t they buy and read books? It used to be that ‘conservative’ publishers did not publish books to match their tastes. Now Kwani? and Storimoja have ripped the rule book and published books of all tastes, shapes and sizes. Still, lets be honest, these two outfits are struggling and Kwani? has had to do with donor funding…that tells you a lot about what pundits don’t like to hear – Kenyans do not read. Most of my friends are journalists – the ones expected to read – and only a few handful of journalists read (in one of the largest newspaper firm, I know less that 5 ardent readers). So when pundits say Kenyans read, what do they read. If the books from the ‘mainstream’ publishers are boring, why not buy a book from Kwani? Or Storimoja? I recently flew outside the country and I was ashamed at the airport! Every white man, woman or youth was reading a book at the lounge (I had my book, of course). More that 95 per cent of the Kenyans and Africans in general were NOT reading a book. One or two were looking at magazines (I don’t think they were reading). There is something very ORAL about Africans (and Kenyans in general). They can argue about politics until they turn blue in the face but ask them about the book they are reading and they go blank. The ladies used to read when the men were at the pubs (though some men go to the pub and still read). Now the ladies are watching Mexican soaps, the journalists are high on booze (they are not interested in anything literary – look at the space they give to books and literary debate – a major local newspaper phase out a literary column for more room for politics), children are busy with schoolwork and parents are too watching soap operas to even buy and read stories to their children….and then someone blames the publisher for not publishing fiction? Who will read it? Now with the facebook craze, even the few readers who were there are caught up with ‘facebooking’. Reading is a culture that must be inculcated by society with a role for the parent, child, journalist (to cover book events!), government and publisher. The publisher comes at the end, if Kenyans don’t read, publishers can publish and shout all they can and no one will buy – which is what is going on. I fear for some of the new publishing outfits specialising in fiction, they may not be feasible for long. Fiction publishing as it is in Kenya is charity, lets be honest! And I now work for the NGO sector so I’m not posting this is a publisher!
    John Mwazemba

    • jngunjiri says:

      Mwazemba,
      Nice to hear from you. It is also nice to see that matters to do with books still evoke passionate arguments from you, even after you ‘defected’.
      To start with my argument here is lack of marketing by Kenyan publishers and not ‘poor reading’ culture. Mwazemba, if you speak from the depths of your heart you will admit the Kenyan publishers do not market fiction.
      As an avid reader tell me when was the last time you read a REALLY interesting book from a Kenyan publisher? If you can’t remember, then it means that Kenyan publishers are not producing and the little they produce, they don’t market.
      You hit the nail on the head when you say that local publishers only do fiction as a way of ‘charity’. I might even add that they do it as an after thought. The end result is something that might give you indigestion.
      The argument that Kenyans don’t read, is to me, a lazy one, and it is a convenient fall back option for lazy publishers whenever they are under attack for not producing enough creative works.
      Granted that our readership might not be at par with countries in the West, I still insist that Kenyans do read. Mwazemba you are one of them and there are many more out there.
      Who laps up all those western fiction novels in Nairobi’s bookshops? Kenyans of course. You might want to argue that most Kenyan bookshops are sustained by textbooks, which might well be true. However, A visit to Keswick Bookshop, opposite the Holy family Basilica tells you a different story. This bookshop moves books in their thousands and they have a well-oiled distribution network across the country.
      This can only mean that there are Kenyans consuming these books. As I mentioned above WordAlive Publishers is enough testimony that a publisher can make money without having to do textbooks.
      Now that we have established that there are Kenyans who read, it now up to publishers to desist from feeding them with ‘charity’ – trashy – stuff. Kenyan readers deserve better.
      I do not deny that there is the publisher who comes up with the occasional interesting read – though I can’t remember the last time I read a nice fictional book from Kenyan publishers – but they fail to market it.
      How do you expect Kenyan readers to know of its existence when you don’t make noise about it?

  3. Velma Kiome says:

    Interesting take. Kwani?, being a Kenyan literary “guerilla”, so to speak, should consider the same tactics to market itself and its writers. They can push further and use public spaces and create unusual activities around the publication beyond the book café readings and literature fairs. Put literature and creativity in our faces!! (i have a few ideas) After all they successfully gave the literary sticks in the mud the finger by doing it their way. I recall the “buzz” in 2003 when Kwani? exploded (literary… Literary) on the scene, as i was on the visual creative team. (I own 3 copies of Kwani?1, a huge feat for a semi-broke 2nd year university student). After working with Kwani? I was wealthy with possibilities as a creative. To add to the discussion from an illustrator’s point of view: one of Kwani?’s successes was (and to a certain extent, still is) the fearless marriage of visual creativity and literature, a quality most Kenyan publishers are unwilling or reluctant to invest in. I propose that the Kenyan writer and illustrator seek to build equal partnerships in bringing the words alive. Which is one of the reasons that made (and still makes) Kwani? an entertaining read. Zangu peni mbili tu.

  4. Mehul Gohil says:

    That Mwazemba guy is dead wrong. Ati “Kenyans are not readers”. That is absolutely and utterly false. He can try a few experiments. E.g, on a Saturday afternoon starting 1pm walk towards the end of Moi Avenue as it meets the craziness of Haile Sellasei somewhere there…there are all these book hawkers selling for 50 and 100 bob 2nd hand, 3rd hand, even 10th hand books of all kinds from Pynchon to Mills and Boons to Carl Sagan. Ordinary Kenyan flock the pavements and suffocate these book hawkers. Each weekend lot they bring must have about 100 books…they sell them all coz the following weekend the lot is different. And this happens weekend after weekend. Sometimes even weekdays (in the late afternoon). Kenyans are reading. Or how about boarding any random bus from Kencom…90% chance you will find at least 2-3 fellas reading on the bus and the person sitting next to them leaning to share in the reading. Kenyans are reading.

    But no Kenyan books on those streets. You will find stuff from SA, Nigeria and even some odd french things from Senegal but nothing from Kenya, not even an old Ngugi.

    Publishers have never ever marketed Kenyan fiction. 30 years I have been alive in this country I have more or less known only Ngugi and Meja and Kwani and nowadays Storymoja…other writers are obscure and who knows their names anyways? That’s such a small group of Kenyan writers to have read.

    This guy Mwazemba is hallucinating coz Kenyans do read…just that they don’t read Kenyan stuff coz it’s never been made popular.

  5. margaretta wa gacheru says:

    I’m with Gohil who says it is blarney to say Kenyans dont read. just head into any one of the mushrooming cyber cafes to see that kenyans read. okay, they may not be all for kenyan short stories but when you have a government policy rejecting all but one of the works by Kenya’s greatest writers Ngugi, then you know the people are also receiving mixed messages. if we had ngugi’s novels available and or imperative reading as per the national syllabus, kenyan youth would by definition be more enlightened as to what is going on in the world and what is their place in it. but they dont have that opportunity at present. so i appreciate ngugi’s generosity for appreciating the role played by kwani! kwani! which has had to rely for years on Ford Foundation funding and now that much of that has dried up, they too are struggling.
    i think it also makes sense to see the publishers within the context of a global market. Kenyans are increasingly going global in their outlook on life and that means the kenyan publishers also have that much more competition for the attention of the readers that do exist. unfortunately, many of our best young readers are immerse in social networking for better or worse. But i agree that Ngugi ought to get the next Nobel prize. Let us hope that is an inevitability.
    p.s. i think this blog is amazing!

  6. John Mwazemba says:

    Hey, guys, a few people (even if they are flocking) and ‘suffocating’ hawkers along Moi Avenue is not enough to sustain a publishing industry. Our newspapers and media in general (and Ngunjiri you are a journalist) don’t give a hoot about literature and book events. How many pages are published each day and there is only one small column tucked in the middle of nowhere in our major dailies. Another daily doesn’t have any column at all. Their research must have shown them something – that most Kenyans are not interested in books. This realisation was the hardest pill I ever had to swallow. I can even give you some figures (approximate, in my own estimation). We have about 3k (most likely less) loyal readers in Nairobi who attend all book launches and buy books, go to the Hay Festival, attend Kwani? events etc. The marketing argument has some truth in it – but only to a certain extent. How many people have read Ngugi’s books in Kenya? Don’t they read Ngugi because they are not interested or because they have never heard of him? And Binyavanga Wainaina? How many Kenyans have read his caine-prize winning story? Wasn’t it all over the news at the time and a lot later. Marketing is only effective if people are interested (we see what we want to see). How many toilet detergents have been marketed on TV (do we buy them simply because we they have been ‘marketed’)? The buyer/consumer must have something that ticks when he/she reads a book review, reads an excerpt or sees a poster. A good novel, even a Jomo Kenya Prize-winning one sells about 5,000 copies in a year. And this is how it happens (then you can crucify the publisher because that is fashionable). The publisher organises an expensive launch and spends about 200k. They invite the media both radio, newspapers and TV. A few newpaper correspondents attend (forget radio and TV- they rarely have space for such ‘useless’ things like books). The coverage of the launch is so poor that in the end no one knows that a book has been launched. All the blame is the publisher’s for not marketing the book. Well, this is what happens in the West -even journalists are booksmarts and they have even celebs like Oprah who endorse books. To prove the media is powerful, even in the west, long after the publisher has been blamed to bits and he has fought hard to sell (with little success), if Oprah picks it,. it’s a sudden bestseller. Okay, blame the publisher – and I agree – it is partly his fault but its no ALL his fault. The channels and gatekeepers of publicity in this country don’t care about books as they do politics. Look at how the country is on fire right now with the Ruto trip to the Hague – what marketing has Ruto done? It’s all media hype…and every corner of the country is on fire. Suppose an award-winning Kenyan writer had been given even 0.1% of such hype?

  7. George Ogutu says:

    I notice no one is saying anything about the writer – or what passes for the same.

  8. MISCO B S says:

    Good people! Ever heard of A Journey Within by F Mbaya, The Lone Dancer by J Kiarie, Breaking the Silence by Muthoni wa Gicuru among many others? Emmanuel kariuki too has three nice little books to his credit.

    What curriculum to these creative works adhere to? Ngunjiri’s article could have been more informative and balanced if he did a little research, than relying on old tired statements? For example, in the last five years, how many creative works have been published? Who are the new upcoming authors?

    Also, given the networks I am sure he enjoys, he would have tried to document some of the reasons why publishers reject manuscripts. It is not just about the money.

    Some – just as they boast about their Italian suits, Russian socks or are happy to identify with a ‘Jeffrey Archer’ than a ‘Uche Onyebadi’. Really! What is African about us? But, I am sure we have done well.

  9. patrick ochieng ochieng says:

    Before citizen TV stepped forward to give us rating-busters like – papa Shirandula, mother in law, afrodisiac etc , it was the common belief that Kenyans would not waste their time watching homegrown productions. It took a visionary TV station like Citizen to expose this myth for what it was – ‘Just a myth.’
    There shall never be high quality works of fiction by Kenyan writers unless publishers give them a forum. And with no such works of fiction, what is wrongly termed ‘reading culture’ will never be inculcated.

  10. I am an African-American writer with several publications. However, my publications are all fiction (novels). I have ambitions to relocate to Africa with the desire to be published in Africa. However, the comments I have read are quite discouraging. I think, Kenya needs a new spirit to wake up the masses to story telling.

    • fridah macharia says:

      The story tellers are there, but the readers have no access or vice versa never the less you can still try your luck, who knows you could be the lucky one!

  11. Erastus Maina says:

    Interesting debate. As one of those who have suffered in trying to get my work published, I can attest to Mr Ngunjiri’s testimony about the frustration of budding Kenyan writers. Even getting them to accept to look at a manuscript is hard enough. The self-publishing route, though difficult, is the only way out. I also think that its not true that Kenyans do not read. I cannot comment on the source of the statistics that Mwazemba quoted, but I read my first novel (Ride the Iron Horse by Marjorie Darke) when I was barely ten and I have been reading since then, both African and other titles. I can only hope that I am included in hi tally of 3,000. Its really sad indeed that we encourage creativity in our children only to stiffle it by not providing opportunities to channel this creativity. Look at JK Rawlings…from a housewife to a billionaire. If our local music is generating so much income for our youth, why can’t our publishers follow the cue? Its a sad situation indeed.

  12. cyprian says:

    please ladies and gentlemen help me publish my book end of era am cyprian please talk to me 0722771302

  13. fridah macharia says:

    that is very disappointing. i believe that its a strong issue that needs agent attention. perhaps someone should write either a book about them and self publish it or again try them to publish so that they would nail themselves on the cross. but how hard can it be to start our own publishing company to publish and market a young and an upcoming writer. i mean if lawyers can start a law firm so can the writers!

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