Book Biz

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What you need to know:

  • Traditional publishers are tied to global standards because once a book is written, the expectation is that it will be read across the world.

  • But are such standards simply unattainable for emerging writers, and therefore set up as an indirect block to keep out new entrants?

  • Wafula, who has previously worked at the East African Educational Publishers Limited, and has also judged continental literary prizes, disagrees.

Book publishing is no longer the sacred club where only the cream of writing finesse are welcome. Thanks to technology, getting a book published has become increasingly easy and cheaper for writers who may have no access to traditional publishers.

Globally, WordsRated, a non-commercial research organisation which takes a data-based look at books, literature and the publishing industry, reported in August 2022 that sales of self-published books had risen by 246 per cent. Statistics by HOOT! a children’s books app, shows self-published books increased by more than 40 percent between 2017 and 2018 with 1.68 million books self-published in 2018, and amazon selling about 1.4 million self-published titles. Clearly, self-publishing is on the upward trajectory.

In Kenya, traditional publishers tend to prefer producing school text books. Young people, however, want to write for the public. 

“Commercial publishers have to justify numbers, and in most cases, books meant for general readers don’t come with a guarantee of large audiences. It may also take long to get published because many factors have to align for a book to get picked for publication,” says an editor in a leading publishing house in Kenya.

However, other factors also come into play. Self-published books are likely to be of inferior quality if the work does not get a good editor to make recommendations about how to improve the work.

“Manuscripts must go through several stages of editing to guarantee their quality. Without the rigorous editing, the manuscript comes out with mistakes.”

These sentiments resonate with Lucas Wanjala, the publisher at Booklyst Press Limited who says, on average, only one out of 10 manuscripts that arrive at a publishers’ desk are fit for publishing.

“Kenyans do not write well. This problem starts when people are still in school – from the compositions students write, the kind of emails that circulate among staff  and even the way most people write their job applications. This already tells you many of us are not good writers. And not many writers care about feedback on how to improve their books,” says Wafula.

Traditional publishers are tied to global standards because once a book is written, the expectation is that it will be read across the world. But are such standards simply unattainable for emerging writers, and therefore set up as an indirect block to keep out new entrants? Wafula, who has previously worked at the East African Educational Publishers Limited, and has also judged continental literary prizes, disagrees.

“Judges don’t care who the writer is, a good story is a good story. The books and stories must stand the test of time. That is why no serious publisher will compromise on quality. On the longlist of many literary prizes, you will likely only find one Kenyan out of 15,” he says.

From the foregoing, therefore, the idea of self-publishing stems from a multiplicity of factors, including access, hurdles such as cost of publishing, personal questions of quality and prestige. In this feature, we speak to young people who have self-published. They share their experiences and challenges and ways they think they can work better with traditional publishers. 

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Franz Owano, Doctor and  author
Franz is what one would call a seasoned self-published writer, with eight self-published titles under his name. Three of these titles are available in hard copy: Banda’s War, The Chief Must Die and other stories & All The Old Gods – a collection of essays and short stories (An anthology he co-authored with five others).

Being rejected by traditional publishers was a norm for him – his manuscripts have been rejected over 10 times.

“In many ways it is a test of commitment to your cause. It builds character and creates resilience. In the long run, it was a blessing in disguise since it led me on to the path of self-publishing,” he says.

Franz did not set out to be self-published because he understands the perks that come with traditional publishing, such as validation and high quality of work. One may also be incentivised by the advance (a signing bonus paid before a book is published) offered by some publishing houses. 

“I, however, had numerous ideological differences with the editors. Our visions were not aligned and their ideal version of the finished book was something I did not recognise. There was also the issue of delays in responding. There are manuscripts I submitted in 2017 for which I’m yet to receive editorial evaluation to date,” he says.

One of his manuscripts was accepted by a publisher in the United Kingdom but the terms were unfriendly so he opted to self-publish.

“The copyrights, subsidiary rights, royalties, income from paperback and eBook sales demanded by the publishing house were borderline exploitative. I declined the offer and opted to self-publish after encouragement from my younger brother,” he says.

In his words, self-publishing is time consuming, economically challenging and emotionally arduous. Responsibilities otherwise handled by a publishing firm on your behalf rest squarely on your shoulders.  “The benefits, however, are rewarding since I own 100 per cent of my copyrights and receive all the royalties due to me. In essence, you literally reap what you sow,” he says.

Editing, cover design, printing and marketing are the core expenditure areas, according to Franz. Editing costs between Sh500 and Sh1,500 per page. Cover design creation and layout – between Sh5,000 and Sh10,000. He creates his own covers, so does not have to incur this cost. A standard printing quotation for the minimum batch of 100 copies is priced at roughly Sh80,000. This excludes marketing and distribution. Grand total for publishing a hard copy version of the books ranges between Sh200,000 and Sh350,000. 

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Vivian Sharon, Agricultural officer & author
Vivian is the editor of a self-published anthology of short stories called Broken Rhythm. The book is a collection of eight stories by eight young people between the ages of 20 and 30.

“The book tackles weighty issues such as rape, suicide, abortion, pollution...things young people go through,” Vivian says.
Vivian, who has previously written and published a children’s book with a traditional publisher, says she liked the experience. So why didn’t she seek out the option for the short story collection?

The challenge of accessing a publisher for the collection, especially because the eight writers are all “unknown” was one of the biggest factors that influenced my decision to self-publish. The second was the school-leaning content that publishers prefer. This made them decide to self-publish the anthology from the outset.

“It is difficult to get published by the established publishers if you are not a known writer. Preferred content for traditional publishers also tends to be school books. We did not approach any publisher,” she says.

The group peer reviewed each other’s work and then enlisted an external editor who gave them thorough feedback. This, Vivian says, is the closest they came to quality control.

“Our total costs, including the cover design and printing the first 100 copies was Sh80,000. To raise this amount, all of us contributed a fraction of it,” she says.  

“We market through social media and through book-reading events. It is a challenge to sell your book if you are not a big name. There are also people who believe that self-published books are not of standard quality so this attitude keeps them from buying,” she says.

Vivian says she wouldn’t mind working with a publisher in future, but that will depend on the terms.  “My concern is the royalties they pay and the time limits –  it can take a while before you get the royalties or you get less than expected,” she 

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Sarah Otieno, Chef based in Kisumu
Sarah did not set out to be a self-published author, at least not for her first book, Winning the Battle Over Miscarriage.  However, she had a bad experience with the first publisher she approached, and set her on the path to self-publishing.

 “I gave my manuscript to a reputable traditional publisher in 2011. I had to pay Sh5,000 for them to read my manuscript and tell me if it was publishable or not. After that, they wanted to publish my book in a hurry. They picked information from the Internet, and then added it somewhere inside my book. I was not pleased. I raised the issue with them but they were not keen on making amends, so I ditched them,” she says.

Getting the manuscript back from the publisher turned into a police case. 

“My manuscript was retained for two and a half years. I had to involve the police to get it back,” she says. After this experience, Sarah decided not to engage another publisher. She self-published the book in 2017 at a cost of about Sh150,000.

“I edited the book myself, then shared the soft copy with five trusted friends. They read through and shared their feedback. The Sh150,000 covered the printing costs and the cover design,” she says. “Additionally, for anyone keen to self-publish, the Kenya National Library Service (KNLS) can give you all the information you need, including the ISBN number. Their help was very instrumental.”

Her book retails at Sh800 and is sold via Amazon in softcopy. 

“Most Kenyan writers are not on Amazon. From my experience, getting on Amazon would be a game-changer in their ability to sell their work. Copyright is good. My book hasn’t been downloaded anywhere, which is a good thing” she says.

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Muthoni Maina, Marketing Consultant
Muthoni’s book, The Leaves of May, is about generational stories told from the point of view of three women who lived at different points in history, from precolonial, and colonial to the present time. The setting is a fictional African country. It straddles African cultures, histories and traditions, as well as Christianity, and how the modern world has changed the way we live. 

She submitted the manuscript to a publisher, who thought the book was great, but asked her to wait. 

 “I received a letter from a major publisher who was interested in my work. However, the publishing manager said he didn’t want to publish the book under general readers because in his opinion, Kenyans don’t read. He advised that I wait for a couple of years until the designs for 12-year-olds were done so my book could be submitted to KICD. This way, the book would not be published as a general reader (targeting Kenyans in general) but as a children’s book targeting schools. Once a book has been accepted by KICD, it becomes easier for parents to buy the book for their children,” she says.

While Muthoni liked the idea of her book being accepted into the curriculum, she did not believe that Kenyans don’t read; she also didn’t want to wait. That is why she opted to self-publish.

“One of the advantages of collaborating with a publisher is that their name is recognisable and therefore trusted. I cannot just sell my book to anyone because they do not know the content that is in it. If my book has a publisher, people would be more comfortable because they know the regulation and code of conduct of the publisher in question,” she says.

In other words, Muthoni says when one is backed by a publisher, it is easy for people to buy books, even for their children, because they have the peace of mind knowing the book has been vetted. 

“It is difficult to reach the standards that have been set. Publishing houses have experience in design, editing, designers... the system works like a well-oiled machine. Meeting these qualities is difficult for an individual. It was the biggest challenge for me,” she says.

Muthoni turned to technology to learn some skills. She designed the back cover of the book on her own because she did not have money to pay a designer.

“I went to Fiverr, a site that connects people and businesses with freelancers offering digital services, and got an editor. The site has book editors, can search for the person with the expertise you need from all over the world,” she says.

That said, self-publishing is an expensive endeavor. Muthoni is yet to create Kindle and Amazon versions of her book because she has to hire someone who can do the format. 

“I am hoping I can do it myself to save on cost. But I need to get people who understand,” she says.

She spent Sh60,000 on editing alone. The total came to Sh120,000, including paying the editor, printing the first batch of 100 books, and other miscellaneous costs. The book was launched on June 11, 2022, and is available at Nuria bookstore.

“You cannot say you are a writer when you produce shoddy work. So if your work goes out with bad grammar and is full of mistakes, your image will be dented,” she says.


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