Are local publishers on their last chapter?

Pupils peruse titles on display at a past book fair. Kenyan publishers have been relying on schools texts to stay afloat but now, with schools shut, many face a bleak future. PHOTO FILE | NATION

What you need to know:

  • When the coronavirus reached our shores in March, some publishing firms were already suffering a cash crunch.
  • By the time schools were closed in March, publishers were yet to realise full sales for 2020, as the peak is around May.
  • The earliest salespeople can get back to work is third term of 2021 academic year — to market the books to be used in 2022.

The announcement by the Ministry of Education that schools will not open this year, and that students will repeat classes in 2021 due to the effects of the Covid-19 crisis, came as the worst news to Kenyan publishers, who were already hurting.

When the coronavirus reached our shores in March, some were already suffering a cash crunch.

The past four months have seen in massive layoffs of staff, and now there are genuine fears over the possible collapse of some companies.

The earliest publishers can expect to make book sales is 2022.

That Kenyan publishers are heavily reliant on the educational sector is no secret, and the uncertainty on the reopening of schools has virtually grounded their operations.

Lawrence Njagi, chairman of Kenya Publishers Association says many are grappling with the headache of maintaining an idle workforce while paying rent and warehouse charges.

“The earliest publishers can expect to make book sales is 2022,”says Mr Njagi. “We are faced at two years’ worth of losses.”

In such a scenario, he says, pupils will not buy books, as they had already bought them at the beginning of the year.

MEANINGFUL SALES

“Publishers can only hope make meaningful sales in 2022, when pupils will be promoted to the next class,” adds Mr Njagi.

By the time schools were closed in March, publishers were yet to realise full sales for 2020, as the peak is around May. This means that publishers were left with stocks in warehouses, where they have been attracting storage and insurance charges.

Some publishers normally print stocks that would last up to two years. To finance the production of such books, publishers take out loans and bank overdrafts to be repaid when they make sales.

Salespeople market books in schools and, with schools closed indefinitely, they have been rendered redundant,

Mr Njagi told the Saturday Nation that some publishers have laid off up to 40 per cent of their staff, with the sales and marketing departments the worst hit.

“Salespeople market books in schools and, with schools closed indefinitely, they have been rendered redundant,” says Mr Njagi, adding that some have had to take pay cuts of up to 70 per cent.

“It is painful to have to part ways with staff who have families to take care of, but then the reality is that we have to this to stay afloat. The situation is dire,” says Mr Njagi, who is the chief executive of Mountain Top Publishers.

The earliest salespeople can get back to work is third term of 2021 academic year — to market the books to be used in 2022.

Even then, their movement will have to be heavily regulated, as the institutions will have health protocols to stem the spread of Covid-19.

Just before Covid-19 struck, publishers were hard at work submitting Grade 5 books for the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC), to the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development for evaluation and approvals. The deadline for submission was supposed to be April 6, but KICD gave them an indefinite extension.

REGIONAL BOOK FAIR

Other events that suffered disruptions were KPA’s annual general meeting, which was scheduled for April and had to be held online via Zoom, and the regional book fair, scheduled for in Mombasa, in June.

But for the first time in years, the Nairobi International Book Fair (NIBF —the biggest event in the calendar of KPA — will not take place.  The publishers have been using this even to market their books, with visitors including teachers, students, authors and other book lovers. 

Mr Njagi said that the NIBF committee is working on modalities of holding a virtual fair.

Even before Covid-19 crisis, publishers had started to feel the pinch of tough economic times. The introduction of the CBC, for instance, had promised a boom in sales but it turned out to be the opposite, as some publishers burnt their fingers producing books for the new education system.

The Ministry of Education, through KICD, involved publishers in a tendering system, which caused cut-throat competition among publishers.

“The bruising tendering battle locked out many publishers from the process and also resulted in losses for those who won the tenders,” said one publisher.

The tendering process was initially touted as one helping achieve a 1:1 ratio of book per student in public schools. Its critics argue that while the government might have succeeded in putting books in the hands of pupils, the content has been compromised, which they blame on the contracting of the lowest bidders, who are not necessarily the highest scorers in terms of content.

Publishers are their own worst enemies.

Barrack Muluka, a publisher and past chair of KPA, blames the publishers for “boxing themselves into the tight corner they now find themselves in”.

“Publishers are their own worst enemies,” he says. “We allowed the government, which is our foremost customer, to divide and eventually rule us.”

He says the economic hardships are as a result of the publishers’ failure to diversify and over-reliance on school texts.

“Whenever they are approached with manuscripts for novels, poems and general reading materials, they say they are too busy with the curriculum,” says Mr Muluka.

But he wants the government to support publishers so that they don’t die.

“The vacuum left by indigenous publishers would be filled by foreign multinationals, who will feed our children with alien content,” he says.

Prof Egara Kabaji, an author and university lecturer, recommends bailout for publishers.

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