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The sorry state of creative writing in Kenya

Towards the end of September book lovers will get to know the winners of the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize. This will be the fifth time the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) will be handing out the award named in honour of Kenya’s foremost humourist and satirist, the late Wahome Mutahi.

IMG 1Ng’ang’a Mbugua (left) receives a certificate from Prof Egara Kabaji for winning a literary award at a previous ceremony

While it is a good thing that Kenyan publishers decided to honour the man whose giant shoes are yet to be filled to date – the attempts at humour in local paper is nowhere close to what Wahome offered with his whispers column – the award remains woefully underfunded. This year’s winners will be taking home a humble sh50,000, similar to what Onduko bw’ Atebe pocketed when his book The Verdict of Death won the inaugural prize way back in 2006.

One would expect that the prize money would have at least obeyed the rules of inflation and be revised upwards but sadly it remains stagnant eight years down the line. In a way the story of literary awards is a sad narrative of creative writing in the country; going nowhere fast. With a prize money of sh50,000 it is not a surprise that would-be writers are unwilling to ‘waste’ three years – the average time one takes to finish a modest novel – of their time writing.

It is instructive to note that The Verdict of Death remains Atebe’s only book to date. The dreams he had harboured of striking it rich through writing scattered when the first royalty cheque arrived. He told this writer that the money he gets once a year in the form of royalty is barely enough to meet his living expenses. That explains why he veered off into business where he is doing well as a private electrical contractor.

Part of the reason creative works in the country are doing poorly has a lot to do with marketing. It is an open secret that Kenyan publishers place too much emphasis on textbooks at the expense of creative works. Even with textbooks there isn’t so much marketing; publishers fight to have their books in the Orange Book as they are assured of being bought by schools using the free primary and secondary funds.

The only time a creative writer is assured a financial windfall is when their book is picked by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), formerly KIE to be a school set book. That way the writer is assured of earning at least sh80 million in a span of four years. It is little wonder that publishers do creative works with an eye to the set book market. If your book is not a set book the most you can hope to sell in a year is an average of 5,000 copies as supplementary texts in schools.

This goes to further cement the fact that publishers have not yet developed tools for marketing their books outside the school market. If your book is not selling in the school system then you can rest assured that it will be gathering dust on bookshop shelves.

One would expect that publishers would capitalise on the hype and publicity generated when a book wins a literary prize to push those books to the general public but sadly nothing of the sort happens. Once the award ceremony is over it is back to business and the production of more textbooks. And in spite of the fact that most major publishers have subsidiaries in other countries, in the region, those markets only exist to absorb more textbooks, which incidentally are the bread and butter of local publishers.

Research however shows that creative works have the potential of earning publishers more money than textbooks if only they invested in more aggressive marketing and competent editing – most creative works are horrendously edited if at all. It is estimated that publishers have used up to 70 per cent potential of the textbook market while that of creative works stands at a lowly 30 per cent. There is still a 70 per cent potential yet to be exploited; a goldmine in publishing terms.

The question therefore remains are publishers willing to roll up their sleeves and mine the 70 per cent potential? Until such a time writers will continue to take home measly prize monies and creative writing will remain a labour of love in the foreseeable future.

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Kenyan publishers: The weak link in Kenyan writing?

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.
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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Why Kiyiapi’s presence at the Nairobi International Book Fair means so much to Kenyan publishers

Kenya’s Education Permanent Secretary Prof James ole Kiyiapi will, on Thursday, September 23 preside over the official opening of the 13th edition of the Nairobi International Book Fair, at the Sarit Centre in Nairobi.

The very fact that Prof Kiyiapi has agreed to officiate at the event is not lost to players in the publishing industry. This can be translated as a sign of improving relations between Kenya Publishers Association (KPA), the organisers of the book fair and the Ministry of Education, based at Jogoo House in Nairobi.

Relations between publishers and Jogoo House had deteriorated to an all-time low, with publishers complaining that former a Prof Karega Mutahi, the immediate former Education PS, was arrogant and high handed.

Publishers however had their last laugh after Prof Mutahi was caught up in a maelstrom of corruption allegations, over textbook funds, and was suspended by President Kibaki, following sustained pressure from the public, donors and civil society.

To say that publishers breathed a sigh of relief would be an understatement as textbooks are the bread and butter of a majority of Kenyan publishers. If money meant for school books was being misappropriated, then it meant that publishers were unable to make ends meets.

At some point publishers were heard complaining that Jogoo House was getting too chummy with booksellers, falling over themselves to fulfill the whims of booksellers while publishers looked on green-eyed.

A case in point was when ministry officials allowed booksellers to publish names of booksellers cleared to sell books under the Free Primary Education (FPE) in the Orange book. All this was done behind the backs of publishers.

Thus when Prof Kiyiapi was moved from Medical Services to Education ministry, publishers made the earliest efforts of being seen to be in his good books. At a recent meeting between the publishers and the PS, publishers asked him to consider removing the six-book ceiling on books approved to be used in public schools.

Under the six-book ceiling public schools can only chose from a list of six books per subject. This means that even if ten books have met the required standard by KIE, only six books would pass. The rest would either go to waste or publishers would be forced to market them to private schools. Publishers are not known to be very good marketers.

This means that publishers whose books were not approved incurred heavy losses.

It is understood that at the meeting, the PS promised to look at the issue and was in agreement with publishers that the six-book ceiling needs to be done away with.

It now remains to be seen whether the ministry will effect the removal of the offending six-book ceiling.

Back to the school books scandal. The effect of schools failing to get funds for buying books meant that revenues for publishers were not getting money for books they had already published and thus their revenues severely affected.

The result is that publishers found themselves in dire financial circumstances and most were forced to retrench their staff.

The 13th Nairobi International Book Fair is therefore being held against a backdrop of declining business on the part of publishers. This is evidenced by the fact that there will be very few new books being launched this time round.

And that is why Prof Kiyiapi’s presence at the Book Fair is viewed as a major victory for publishers.