Want money from writing? Move abroad

PHOTO | FILE Students read in a library. The common song is that Kenyans don’t read. But if the books on the streets are anything to go by, Kenyans are reading.

What you need to know:

  • It is hard to write a novel, get published, sell many copies, make money and get people talking

This page has kept alive the literary discourse alive the whole year. Lecturers, writers and journalists have traded arguments, reviewed books and shared opinion.

And now it is important to present a few lessons to take with us into the future. Here are eight things to remember if you are in the business of books.

1. If you want money from your book, move abroad

The worst fact about writing in Kenya and Africa outside Nigeria and South Africa is that books don’t sell. There is an argument that Kenyans don’t read.

It is hard to write a novel, get published, sell many copies, make money and get people talking. That has been the case for many years.

Unless you get selected for classroom reading, you have little chance. It is that bad. Whether you scoop all the local awards or the Caine, you are soon forgotten. The curriculum developers invariably gravitate towards the big, old names.

It is no longer news that local publishers hardly give fiction a second glance. A prominent university lecturer recently said he has not written books because he would not earn anything, courtesy of the plagiarism.

So, if you are a writer with an ambition to make a name and earn something on top, think of these names and find something in common: Binyavanga Wainaina, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Ben Okri.

The big names like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka live abroad. Though there are political reasons for their “exile”, let us just say their interests are best served there.

So, ignore what you read in newspapers, find a way and get yourself over there and write profusely. From there, maybe you can have your break.

2. Book reviews count for less

Occasionally, budding authors have asked me to review their works. They have written great books that should be read by all Kenyans, but they have put all their trust in a newspaper review.

There were days when reviews were all the author needed to get on the royalties bandwagon. But, lately, book review pages are not the most read parts of the newspaper.

Actually, the page seems to have a handful literary enthusiasts who might not compute the necessary numbers the author needs. A writer should reach more people through their churches, schools and book clubs.

Don’t feel that you are stooping too low to push your book on Facebook and Twitter. Learn from the budding musicians.

3. Drop the ‘Whispers syndrome’

The late Wahome Mutahi and his infectious column, Whispers, seem to have cast a long spell on would-be humourists. While everyone who pursues art is entitled to a role model, pastiches are never good.

Many humourist seem to borrow too much from Whispers’ style. Find your style. Relate with your personal experiences long enough and you will carve out a suitable niche for yourself.

Kenyans are humorous and coming with your own style should not be too hard a task.

4. Beware pitfalls of self-publishing

One thing that can drive anyone nuts is the amount of grammatical and typographical errors in self-published works. In this arrangement, desperation meets entrepreneurship and professionalism is overrun. The result is often catastrophic.

Get a professional editor and seek some advice before going to press. Kenyans speak the best grammar in Africa and can’t have it served any less in a book they are supposed to enjoy.

5. Writers need a society or club

One or two could be existing but since I am unaware of this, I will write about it anyway. It is time young writers came up with a professional society to safeguard their interests.

The society can liaise with other like-minded individuals and bodies to help in reviewing, publishing, marketing and other nitty-gritty of publishing. The society can pitch for media space to air their material as well as other forums where writers can meet and discuss their art.

6. Even with Kwani? and StoryMoja, there is still a gap

These new-age pioneers of publishing have done more than publish beginners who could not fit into the traditional expectations of a writer. They have done it with minimal resources and sort of gone against the grain. Contemporary issues are their forte and they go after them with admirable alacrity.

But they cannot escape the elitist tag. Indeed, their forums are often held in up-market places and often attract a crowd that will prove a challenge for the ordinary Joe. So, yes, there is still room for a publisher or organisations that can reach the ordinary slum dweller or villager as well as the man and woman on the better side of Moi Avenue.

7. Kenyans do read, but what?

The common song is that Kenyans don’t read. But if the books on the streets are anything to go by, Kenyans are reading – but titles from somewhere else on the globe.

A sad indictment about the literary output in the country or Africa at large but, hey! writers, publishers and other players must join hands to promote local books and boost readership.

School curricular, especially at high school level, should allow for a better appreciation of literature. This will allow for better attitude towards books in their later life as accountants and engineers.

8. Books be made into movies

Not many books written in Kenya have been converted into movies. In the present world, movies greatly complement books and we should be there already. Young writers should work on books that can easily be converted into movies. Maybe those who don’t read can still learn as a lot through a movie.