It’s not all gloom and doom for Kenya’s publishing houses

Mr Kiarie Kamau, the chief executive of East African Educational Publishers Ltd. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Limiting the quantity of books that leave their doors would enhance the role of the publisher as a curator.
  • Publishing houses should invest more in design and editing.
  • The other aspect of publishing that requires improvement is the speed of publishing.

Kiarie Kamau gave an insightful overview of the state of the publishing industry in the country (Saturday Nation, May 5, 2018).

As the top executive in an iconic regional publishing house, seeing him admit to the pertinent problems that beleaguer this vital industry opened my eyes to the soft underbelly of publishing on one hand, but also made me think of what could be done to salvage the industry.

First, as an authoritative continental leader of many firsts, East Africa Educational Publishers has an obligation of stamping an identity. Publishing houses have a duty of limiting the quantity of books that leave their doors.

While this may be inconsequential in a market flooded with self-published titles, it would enhance the role of the publisher as a curator of sorts. The houses have to understand the tastes of their readers, and then selectively churn titles whose quality is unrivalled.


EAEP, as a pioneer, boasts some of the biggest names in the continent’s creative output in Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Okot p’Bitek, and even though Mr Kiarie was hesitant in characterising EAEP as a big-name house, this is an identity, I feel, that should be guarded, not necessarily as a way of identifying with the individual brilliance of those writers but as a show of stringent quality control and understanding of reader preference that the houses embody.

Secondly, publishing houses should invest more in design and editing. While this is nothing new, it is true that a vast majority of publishing outlets spend more time discussing royalties, profits and marketing at the expense of the most basic aspects of the book — whether it is attractive and readable.

The other aspect of publishing that requires improvement is the speed of publishing. Whether a book is availed at the moment of need may be the difference between its success and failure, and therefore the success or failure of a publishing house.

As a high school literature teacher, I saw this play out recently when the novel Blossoms of the Savannah was introduced in the secondary school curriculum. The urgency with which these books were required for the immediate implementation of the curriculum gave the publisher little time to produce books to be used countrywide.

It required a house with a capacity to produce very fast and with a robust distribution channel. The lack of this gave pirates an opportunity to pounce on the vulnerability to devastating effect. One week after many of the non-genuine books were bought, their leaves began falling off, some had missing pages.

The distribution channel of published books is another area that has to get a lot of attention. Mr Kiarie Kamau lauded the recent move by the ministry of Education of supplying textbooks directly to schools saying it would reduce piracy.


In it, there are lessons that EAEP and other reputable houses can learn; that however tedious and limiting it may look, direct supply of books to the reader is a sure way of boosting the publishing industry.

Publishers will only flourish when their role as direct controllers of the production and distribution channels is well defined.

To earn more respect, publishing houses should try and break boundaries, attracting foreign writers and readership. EAEP had been a pioneer in this regard, publishing African authors renowned all over the world.

Publishers have to explore selling abroad, a task made easier by the existence of online platforms and international courier and postal services.

The publishers can try incentives too. Even if this idea seems far-fetched, using a day like the Annual World Book Night, celebrated on April 23, they can maintain and increase readership by distributing a number of books from their best-sellers.

The most insightful part of the interview for me, however, is where Mr Kiarie cited the publishing of some Kiswahili books as ground-breaking fetes for which he was particularly proud.

I believe that publishing houses are yet to take full advantage of the possibilities that publishing in local languages can bring. Russian authors used Russian, but it did not prevent the world from reading Tolstoy, Gogol or Dostoyevsky.

In 2000, Kiarie Kamau was not yet even in the rank and file of those in the publishing world. Fifteen years down the line, he was at the helm.

Perhaps this is the emblematic spirit of progress that should characterise our publishing industry, of bringing in new blood, experimenting with new authors, opening up new publishing frontiers, and exploring virgin markets.

The writer is a critic and a teacher of literature at Ringa Boys High School in Homa Bay County