Publishing in Kenya
The Local Publishing Scene
Kenya has Fourty Publisher who are registered as members of the Kenya Publishers' Association. Of these, a few are "one man shows" with their share holding restricted to family members. A few others were foreign owned but have over the years open their doors to Kenyan investors and even changed their names to reflect their Kenyanness. Finally their are faith-based publishers who restrict their titles to religious books and periodicals. Most of these publishers pay the authors a 10% royalty based on the cover price. I have heard that some authors are able to negotiate for a royalty of 12 - 15% but I have yet to deal with such a generous author. In this article I will restrict myself to the publishers with whom I have dealt directly. Below is a list of Kenyan Publishers, courtesy of the Kenya Publishers' Association.
- Ariba Book Centre
- Biblica Kenya
- Big books Ltd
- Bookmark Africa
- Bookpoint Limited
- Cambridge University Press
- Catholic University
- Daystar University Research and Publication Centre
- East African Educational Publishers
- Evangel Publishing House
- Focus Publishers Ltd
- Geoperi Publications
- Kenya Literature Bureau
- Kenya National Library
- Kwani Trust
- LawAfrica Publishing Ltd
- Longhorn Kenya Ltd.
- Marimba Publishers
- Mentor Publishing Company Ltd
- Moi University
- Moran Publishers
- Mountain Top Publishers
- Njigua Books
- Nsemia Inc Publishers
- One Planet Publishers
- Oxford University Press
- Phoenix Publishers
- Queenex Publishers
- Simpemar Publishers
- Single Education & Publishers
- Spotlight Publishers
- Story Moja Publishers
- Text Book Centre
- The Flip Experts
- The Jomo Kenyatta Foundation
- Top Performers
- University of Nairobi Press
- WordAlive Publishers
Authors and Publishers need each other
Since writing this article in 2012, nothing really has changed in the Publishing Industry in Kenya. A few things have happened and will be mentioned under the relevant heading, but quite frankly nothing very positive has happened as far as authors are concerned.
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. Moon is small and specializes in Children's books. However, for the first time since I can remember, Mon has been unable to pay the 2019 royalties as of July. Usually payments are paid in April.
Sun is one of the biggest publishers in Kenya. They have 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. Things have changed for the worse in the last six years. In 2018 I was paid part of my royalties in a five year period. The rest was to come in a month's time. In mid 2019 I was paid part of the part that had remained unpaid. I have no idea when the entire amount will be paid. I consider this to be a form of borrowing from authors without paying interest. In another territory this would be criminal but this is Kenya. Anything goes.
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 that they register, even in a good year.
Having not paid royalties for 2017 and 2018 there are no signs that Sun will pay royalties for 2019. Some Illustrators who worked for Sun in 2017 were paid their dues in 2019. Perhaps, considering that Moon is having trouble, this could be a sign that the industry in Kenya is in trouble.
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.
The update is that Jupiter has either gone under or pretended to go under with all the unpaid royalties. They have no known address and interestingly, they had withdrawn all contracts on the pretext that there were errors that needed correcting. Now i doubt there is any author with evidence that they had published with them. They are probably selling our books across the boarders in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and South Sudan.
I made the mistake of giving a manuscript to a Ugandan Publishers who had moved into Kenya through introduction by a local editor. After the book was published about four years ago, I have never received a cent. The Ugandan Publishers claims that I was published by a Kenyan Subsidiary who recorded no sales, made loses and that the stock was impounded by the landlord for non-payment of rent. THe mother company in Uganda will bear no responsibility. Again, and I am kicking myself as I write this, I had not signed a contract. Every time I asked for it, I was told that it is being prepared.
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.
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.
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 self-published 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 on self-publishing so that one day you can have salesmen and hopefully a van.
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 and the publisher.
To target teens, they should go where teens go, or plan activities for teens. Imagine if a big musical event was organized for young adults and the entry ticket was of the ten or more titles that the publishers wants to promote. Since books cost much less than tickets to such events, I have a strong feeling that good sales would be recorded, and once the book gets home, someone will read it.
Authors could also organize "meet the readers" tours for their authors across the country or even across the East African region. Even planning for a tour across Africa is not far fetched. This could also include residencies for for foreign authors, so that local authors can be invited for residencies abroad. But Kenyan publishers have been spoiled by the government with a ready market on a silver platter. So when government withholds funds (which are for set books only), the industry goes burst.
So remember that this may be true all over the world: One year is one day in publishing.
In spite of all the above expose, I have learnt some useful lessons about Publishing. These must ring true in any territory in the world. Below is a list in order of importance:
- If you can publish online before publishing locally in hard copy, do it.
- Do not allow publication before signing a contract. Publishers usually hold on to your manuscript for a long time before they make the decision to publish, or as they edit and polish the text. There have been situations when they decide to publish and only inform you after the book has been issued in print. You can mitigate this by including a statement on the first page that "the Author must sign a contract before publication." They are likely to respect that.
- Do not give your publishers rights to all territories and definitely not digital formats. Restrict them to your country and give yourself the leverage to have a different publisher for every other territory
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Emmanuel Kariuki