David Waweru is the Chairman of the Kenya Publishers Association in his term that runs from 2015-2017. The association was established in 1972 to encourage the widest possible spread of printed books throughout Kenya and beyond, to promote and protect the interests of the publishing industry in Kenya. We spoke with David over coffee at the Nairobi Club.
JM: The publishing industry in Kenya seems to be going through some tough times.
DW: Yes. It hasn’t been a good year. The problem is that 75% of the whole publishing industry in Kenya is centered on the school system. The government of Kenya has allocated only Kshs200 for each student around the country which isn’t a lot. Then even with this, the government takes taxes which now include VAT.
Even that small amount of money doesn’t get to the students as many headmasters collude with book sellers
JM: How do they do this?
DW: They do this by over-reporting numbers of books purchased to the Education Ministry yet the books never get to the students.
JM: I have seen that you have been working at the macro level to ensure that the issues are addressed. But I am interested in the micro level. What have you been doing to ensure that Kenyans are reading more?
DW: We have to relook the future. We want to find the drivers in ensuring that Kenyans are reading so that we fulfil our mandate of making Kenya a reading nation. We are looking at a bottom-up approach to ensure that the people at the bottom of the pyramid are reading. We are avoiding the usual thing where people know that in the third week of September there is an event called the Nairobi International Book Fair. We are starting a reading caravan that will have authors travel to different parts of the country as outreach to communities to stoke the fire of reading. We shall help communities without libraries, especially those who have demonstrated a desire for books.
We also have the Ekitabu digital essay competition where hundreds of children in high school write essays in English and Kiswahili. Ekitabu is an organisation that helps publishers digitise work. Thousands of essays are submitted for the competition and winners are then recognised at the Nairobi International Book Fair. They are given awards like tablets and get to meet authors. In future we shall do a tour to visit literary events.
JM: The Etisalat Prize for African Literature recently announced their long list and there were no Kenyan authors. This is an important prize as it shows where the next big writers will be coming from on the continent. Without a Kenyan we have to ask, where is the next Ngugi?
DW: Our mindsets as publishers need to change. We all realize that to exist you must make a profit but that doesn’t mean that we don’t remember that we need to find good books. Someone saw Ngugi’s talent and invested in it. Someone saw Chimamanda’s talent and invested in it. We need to develop that intuition, that nose that senses what a good book is and develop that talent.
We have a serious deficiency of good editorial skills; good editors of creative works are rare in this country. We don’t lack writers as we are inundated with manuscripts but don’t have good editors. Most of the technical expertise is devoted to the school books.
There is an established culture of literary agency in the western countries. Agents would cut a lot of frustration as they are more focused and would submit the correct work to the publishers.
For writers, if your work is good, many publishers would give you a chance. Unfortunately, we have very few people willing to subject themselves to the rigors of good writing. Most manuscripts sent to publishers are first drafts as they never went through their work a second time. If you don’t have the patience you can never succeed as writers need to have a thick skin. Writers are also not studying the market or doing their homework. You will find a publisher who publishes in one field gets manuscripts on something that don’t have anything to do with it. It means that the writer hasn’t done their research.