Book Fair: lessons learnt

With this year’s Book Fair over and done with, there are a few things that organisers and the book industry in general need to take into consideration. Granted that the Fair, which was in its tenth year, was relatively successful, there are lingering feelings that it would have been much better.
Anyone visiting this year’s edition of the Book fair at the Sarit Centre, in Westlands, must have noted the increase in the number of stands, which is a good thing for the industry. It shows that the book industry is expanding. However, with this expansion comes the issue of space. Any casual observer at the Fair must have noticed that the stands were actually cramped.
This came out clearly particularly on the days there was increased traffic. With so much traffic, moving around the exhibition hall became quite labourious, and this is not a good thing for the various exhibitors, some of whom felt that visitors did not spend quality time at their stands. Thus, they ended up not reaping the maximum benefits of the increased traffic.
Secondly, as a result of the increase in the number of exhibitors this year, there were some stands that were relegated to the hall at the back. These ones must have felt shortchanged as not every visitor to the place was aware that they were there in the first place. I for one had not noted that there were additional stands at the back until someone dragged me back there.
This situation is now asking serious questions as to whether the Sarit Centre Expo Centre is too small for the book exhibitors. Is it time for publishers to shop for a different venue? This is a question only publishers can answer.
There also have been concerns to the effect that the Fair would do well if it was to held in a more central place, where most people can access easily. The answer to such a venue naturally falls on KICC. But will publishers, known for their aversion to part with money, afford the fees, a revamped and professionalised KICC demands?
Still, publishers have to grapple with the concern that the Nairobi International Book Fair is not properly marketed. Kenyans are yet to see the kind of publicity blitz that usually accompanies fairs like the Motor Show, Homes Expo, among others, being lavished on the Book Fair. Apart from diehard book lovers, a majority of Nairobians would most likely tell you that they have never heard of the Book Fair.
Perhaps due to the fact that most of their money comes from text book publishing, the most part of marketing for the Fair is concentrated in schools. Publishers, as a matter of priority, need to move out of their over reliance on text book publishing and start paying more attetion to general publishing. That way they will be able to attract more of the general public to the Fair.
It is also worthy noting that publishers do not engage in aggressive marketing of their products (read books). It is no wonder that they keep whining about the poor reading habits of Kenyans, when they are not creating enough hype on their books. The Kalenjin People’s Egypt Origin Legend Revisited: Was Isis Asiis?, a historical book published by Longhorn Kenya, is a case in point.
Having read the book, Philip Ochieng wondered why nothing was being done to publicise the book. In his Sunday Nation column published on August 5 2007, he posed the following question “Why was a book of such significance to Africa published quetly in an African city and sneaked into its bookshops without a single word of publicity?”
The marketing aspect begs another question. Should the promotion and marketing of the Nairobi International Book Fair be placed in the hands of professional marketers in future? Over to you publishers.
The other aspect that begs attention regarding the Book Fair has to do with international publishers. For a Fair that boast of its international status, one would expect to find a fair number of international exhibitors. Sadly this is not the case with the NIBF. One of the core roles of book fairs is the rights trading, and that is where international publishers come in. That, in our case, means that very few of our publishers get to sell or buy international rights.
And this does not mean that there no books being published here that would interest audiences in other parts of the world. On the contrary there are many books published locally that would be of immense interest out there, but the publishers are not doing much to have them known. Who else can they blame other than themselves?
The same thing applies to award winning books. The very fact that a certain book has won an award – any award – is enough reason for it to be promoted as widely as possible. But sadly our award winning books rarely get the attention they deserve on the international front.
Perhaps the only Kenyan book that received worldwide attention courtesy of winning an award is Margaret Ogola’s book The River and the Source, (Focus Publishers) which bagged the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 1995. Today there are several international editions of the book doing rounds globally, including translations. However, that credit goes to the Commonwealth Writers Prize, which the book won the same year. It is organisers of the Commonwealth Prize who are the reason the book enjoys such international stature.
Speaking of prizes, lack of enough marketing also afflicts The Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, which is the premier books award in the country. Were the organisers of the award – The Kenya Publishers Association – to market it more aggresivelly then the winners would not be the obscure lot they are today.
Again the prize money awarded to the winners, KSh40,000 (US$597), is not motivating enough. More importantly, the controversies characterised in the judging of the books is one the award can do well without.
The second Wahome Mutahi Prize for Literature will be held at the end of next year’s book fair, and I am afraid the same depressing award money, if not less, will be dished out to the winners. Isn’t the memory of Wahome Mutahi aka Whispers worthy much more than that?