It’s time to usher new faces into the literary hall of fame

Kisumu Regional Bookfair

Parents shop for books at Moran Publishers stand during the Kisumu Regional Bookfair in 2019.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

A friend in the publishing industry called me recently, asking if I could put him in touch with two of Kenya’s foremost novelists. He likely assumed I had maintained contact with these greats after my earlier incarnation as a literary and publishing editor.

"Why do you need these contacts?" I asked.

"I want to discuss business with them," came his cryptic reply.

My curiosity was piqued by the common assumption among newer publishers that only novels, anthologies of short stories, and plays by the ‘big names’ sell. It is, of course, presumptuous to conclude that my caller wanted to discuss book deals with these established writers. He might have been looking to invite these authors to forums where they could inspire upcoming writers. Nevertheless, it is widely believed that publishers prefer scripts by established writers over those by newcomers. This belief is fallacious on four critical fronts.

First, while established writers may have a head start, thanks to an existing fan base, the truth is that the difference in sales between works by established writers and those by new ones is not significant. In Kenya, if a book is not on the school reading list, it is unlikely to sell extremely well; under normal circumstances. And while the new competency-based curriculum (CBC) may eventually change this mindset, for now, reading for leisure, especially among ordinary folk, is apparently not a priority.

Secondly, because we largely buy books for schools and read primarily for exams, it is not novels by well-known writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Henry ole Kulet, David Mulwa, and Kinyanjui Kombani that sell the most copies.

Highest sellers

Instead, set books prescribed for transitional classes are the highest sellers. However, the new procurement system for school books has complicated the landscape, affecting what really constitutes these large sales volumes, but there you have it.

Third, the argument that scripts by established writers are more likely to be published fails to consider market dynamics and reader demographics. A smart publisher knows that the majority of Kenyans are under 35 years old. While great works should appeal to all generations, in Kenya, it is strategically advantageous to produce works targeting the youth. I recall once asking Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye (GBHS) at the annual book fair at Sarit Centre in Westlands, Nairobi, what she was writing. She replied, "I have written quite a bit, it’s your turn now. What are you writing yourself?" The message was loud and clear to me and the younger generations.

Fourth, publishers cannot ignore new writers if they want to create bestsellers in Kenya and Africa. In Kenya, if your novel becomes a set book, you are guaranteed sales that are hard to achieve through other means and with other categories of books. Besides, many works by older writers, especially in the popular fiction category, are considered too liberal for the school market — the goose that lays the golden eggs. Therefore, books tailored to meet school requirements stand a better chance of success.

What am I saying? It is time to abandon the notion that new writers have no chance. There is a significant gap waiting to be filled. Older writers have done a great service by capturing the hopes, fears, and aspirations of their generations. This moving history of Africa and the world is a continuum of literary heritage that must be upheld by continuously introducing fresh faces into the literary hall of fame. As Achebe might have put it, let the old writers perch and let the new ones perch too.


Once the vetting and selection of CBC course books are completed, a huge market will hopefully open, with curriculum support materials extending to novels, novellas, storybooks, reading schemes and other literary works. This will be an opportunity for publishers to create a healthy mix of old and new writers from Kenya and Africa. The world is in a continuous state of flux, and the literary world is no exception. To the young literary wizards eager to break into the literary hall of fame, I say: On to your pens, keyboards, and broomsticks!

The writer is a publishing and editorial consultant; [email protected]