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Publishing in Kenya

Updated on February 6, 2013
The Salem Mystery - a novel for young adults
The Salem Mystery - a novel for young adults | Source

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.


Submit a Comment

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Thanks DDE. I need to learn about e-publishing from you.

  • DDE profile image

    Devika Primić 

    5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

    Interesting about publishing I have all my work self-published on thanks for this Hub

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    6 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya


    I will let you know in a special hub on e-publishing.

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    Thanks Emmanuel for responding. Keep us or rather me posted on how it goes when you go online publishing.

    All the best,

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    6 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Thanks Gikumba

    Online publishing is one thing I have not tried yet in spite of a lot of prompting. One of my publisher tells me they are making more money from e-books than traditional print copies so it is something worth trying and I will soon.

    The issue of agents has not caught on in Kenya, and I do not know of any.

    Do not give up on writing as a result of this hub. I just wanted people to know that it is not a bed of roses, unless you hit on a set book very early on.

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    Great hub you got here Emmanuel.... I have just started writing a blog and after only two posts, some people suggest I publish the story. I get all fired up and imagine myself a self made millionaire soon until I bump into your hub. Any way, a few questions for you though (and upcoming/aspiring authors like me)

    1. Why can't you try this online 'thing' called Print on Demand? Do you think it would make sense in Kenya?

    2. Do you have agents/editors who can review and market my manuscript here in Kenya?

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    6 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Thanks for supporting me with that copy of Ngiri Mganga, Ngureco.

    When I signed contracts with my publishers, I gave them rights to negotiate for publishing in other territories. Now I am wiser and should not give local publishers a blanket right for the whole world. That way I can negotiate with other publishers in the region. To make 50 such titles, at the rate of Kenyan publishing means it is my great grandchildren who will get the royalties - which is still okay. That is why it is better to explore publishing on the net. But some prolific writers have over 40 titles in Kenya, so it is not impossible.

  • ngureco profile image


    6 years ago

    My young boy needed a story book and I paid 150 shillings for Ngiri Mganga, and I am surprised that you will only get to keep 15 shillings after having to wait for 1 year. But I imagined that if you can make 50 such titles and you sell 1000 copies of each book in each of the eight provinces during the entire lifetime of the book, then you can end up making a few millions of shilling.

    Why can't you also publish the same titles in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi?

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    6 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Hi Patkay,

    3 years is 3 days, so you need to be writing something for another two or three publishers in the meantime so that you can retain your wits. I hope you hear from them soon, and depending on which one it is, they need to be reminded from time to time that you are waiting - with a friendly tone of course.

  • Patkay profile image

    Patrick Kamau 

    6 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Thanks Emmanuel Kariuki for coming up with this hub. They say that forewarned is forearmed. I have sent my manuscript for a novel to a publisher, I have been waiting for 3 months and I feel that I have waited for long. So to them now is like 3 days LOL. I then don't have to quit my day job. Anyway I will wait and see.

    Thanks for writing.


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