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Publishing in Kenya
Updated 5th May 2012
Publishers and authors all over the world have a lukewarm relationship, yet one cannot do without the other. It is for this reason that I will not mention any publisher by name, though the details may leave no doubt, as to which publisher I am alluding to. This post should benefit the reader without ruining the relationships that I have with specific publishers. I will not mention the book titles either, to protect the guilty and innocent alike.
I have four publishers whom I will refer to as Moon, Sun, Star and Jupiter. If you are published already, you might identify with the characteristics of some of these four.
· Moon pays well, and on time every year. I can say that the salesmen at Moon know their market, because they make good sales compared to publishers with similar books, even in a bad year.
· Sun has a policy to pay once a year, but will only pay after some arm-twisting. This pressure could go on for the better part of a year but eventually Sun will pay. Sun will never admit to a good year.
· Star also has an annual paying schedule but will not pay even with arm-twisting until they are sure bankruptcy had only been imagined – this could be two years later. When they pay, you wonder why they have salesmen on the payroll. A new CEO would sack the entire sales team due to the ‘tear jerking sales’ they register, even in a good year.
· Jupiter does not even pretend to have a paying schedule. Payment is adhoc, and only when Jupiter stashed what they think is enough money to stave off all the future bad years - this could be in the fifth year.
Sales in Kenya
For a book that has not been selected by the Ministry of Education as a set-book, selling 2000 copies in any year is cause for celebration. But at 10% royalties to the writer, one cannot make a modest living from writing books. People who live off writing books are those lucky enough to have their titles selected as set-books. For a set-book, sales are guaranteed to push the author into millionaire status, even with only a 10% in royalties. There are over 19,000 primary schools in Kenya and each school would have to buy several copies with governmet funding. Secondary schools are about half that figure. This translates to millions of shillings for the publisher and author.
Publishers claim that in the days when primary school education was not free, they recorded very good sales. In these days of Free Primary Education, the Kenya Institute of Education, a government agency, writes the syllabus, and selects book to cover the curriculum. This includes supplementary readers which are storybooks. Selected books are listed in ‘the Orange Book’ and Head teachers are expected to make a selection from that Orange book only. Since parents have shifted the burden of buying schoolbooks to the government, Publishers claim that if a book is not in the Orange book it is doomed to poor sales.
2012 - 'horibilis' year for Kenyan Authors
Out of four Publishers, only two paid me within 2012, citing inexplicable poor sales. Out of the two who paid, one paid a paltry 28,000/= ($350) for four titles to cover a 24 month period!
Clearly something is wrong with Publishing in Kenya.
40 years of waiting!
Even when a publisher takes two or more years to pay you, after you have bared all your problems, expect no interest. The lesson here is that a writer has to be a very thick-skinned mammal. But if you think you carry the record of waiting for a publication, think again. L.S.B. Leakey had his books on The Southern Kikuyu published 40 years after the manuscript was first offered for publication. He was dead by then, and some of the trees he mentioned in Kikuyu cannot be identified because even his Kikuyu agemates who would have helped had all died with the knowledge.
My first book was a children’s storybook which I illustrated in line drawings. I handed the publisher an illustrated manuscript and expected an answer soon. I got tired of waiting after only two years. They had not even decided to reject or not. I have since learned that two years is only two days in the publishing world. No wonder many writers see their work posthumously - if they can see that is. Having lost patience with publishers in general, I plunged into self-publishing with a print run of 2000.
Self-publishing is not a bed of roses. One has to put in some marketing to get the book to the place where it is needed and to let the potential buyers know. Established publishers have salesmen and vans to scour the country, but when you have only one book, you might as well do it yourself. Note also that the sales from a single book will not sustain you so you still need another job. The solution is to keep self-publishing so that one day you can have salesmen and hopefully a van.
Anyway, I self-published a second book and hoped to publish one every year. Selling proved difficult. Bookshops were taking five copies to test the market. Some even took a record two books on credit with the promise to pay when they sold. Whenever I travelled out of town on other business I carried some copies but I learned not to sell on credit out of town, otherwise it would not make business sense chasing after a few shillings several miles out of my town area.
The returns on two books were too small to sustain a business. Finally, I sold the remaining copies at 40% discount to a major bookshop and quit self-publishing for ever.
When you get tired selling…
The publisher who had kept the manuscript of the first book for two years had asked me to contact them if I ever got tired. They knew I had plunged into deep waters. They were willing to publish my book, including the second one since they had encoutered them in the market and assessed them in print. I had already thrown in the towel so I contacted them and the books were published under their imprint with a 10% royalty due to me once a year. This is the tradition – pay the author 10% and give bookshops a 25% margin for their business. The publisher retains the other 65%. He has the Editors, Printers, and a Sales team to pay anyway so it makes sense. Only I wish the Author would earn better the bookshop, otherwise we should all open bookshops.
That said, I have 9 children books, 3 early childhood education (ECD) books and 3 novels by four different publishers. On average unless the books are commissioned, as was the case with the ECD, it takes three years to see the book in print. My first novel took four years even though it had been approved by the editorial team for printing in the first year. Knowing that someone else took 40 years to have theirs published is some consolation. By the time you can call yourself a seasoned author, you are also a guru in the art of patience.
Promotion should be much more than attending bookfares
I believe that publishers have not taken promotion of published work seriously. If they did only half what Cocacola or the mobile phone companies do to remain visible, they would sell better. I have noticed that they do not even attempt to ride on the publicity of an award-winning book. Usually the winner of a literary award is announced in a room where only a lone pressman has been invited. After that, the book continues to record poor sales as it has always done, because the only people who know of the award are the author, the publisher and the donor.
Lastly, Kenyan publishers have a problem with contracts even for books already in print. The document may be there, ready for signing, but you may never get to sign it for years to come. Two publishers have eight of my books between them and no amount of pestering will make them give me the contracts. Since I want to retain the relationship, I am contemplating writing my own contracts and requesting them to sign. It might at least prompt them to fish out the real ones.
So remember that this may be true all over the world: One year is one day in publishing.