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.
Kenyan publishers: The weak link in Kenyan writing?