Kiarie Kamau wrote himself into a job in the publishing industry, literally.
This happened 22 years ago, when he submitted a piece to the Literary Forum, then published by the Sunday Standard, a throbbing platform where Kenyan literary minds converged and often clashed, to great acclaim.
Kiarie's piece was a response to what he felt was a hypocritical attack on a report published in The Economist, that had painted the African continent in unflattering light.
Leading the onslaught against The Economist was Barrack Muluka, the then managing director of the East African Educational Publishers (EAEP).
In his piece titled ‘It's time for Africa to rethink its policies', Kiarie called out Muluka and other African intellectuals for turning a blind eye on obvious problems bedevilling the African continent, simply because they have been raised by a foreigner.
By daring to go against the grain and thinking outside the box, Kiarie, then a teacher at Makini Academy, earned himself the admiration of his 'adversary'.
“Muluka invited me to EAEP, where we had a good laugh,” recalls Kiarie. “In the end, he asked me if I would like to work in the publishing industry. I jumped at the offer.”
Fast forward, Kiarie, or KK, as he is fondly called by his contemporaries, today occupies the same position Muluka held when he gave him the job at EAEP.
Sheer hard work
Well, KK has earned the position he currently occupies through merit and sheer hard work. That is not all; he currently sits at the apex of the publishing industry in Kenya, having been elected the chairman of Kenya Publishers Association (KPA), in April.
KK's election is somewhat fortuitous, seeing as EAEP is the foremost publisher of literary and general reading materials, not only in Kenya, but also in Sub-Saharan Africa. Not only is EAEP the home of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, it, through its predecessor Heinemann, played host to the African Writers Series, which published some of Africa's biggest minds, including Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah and Taban lo Liyong.
“Owing to our strength in literary works, we always have our books approved as literature set books in many parts of Africa. Today, more than ten EAEP set books are studied in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia and Malawi,” says KK, who is also a Board member of the UK-based African Books Collective, as well as a member of the Copyright Committee of the International Publishers Association, headquartered in Geneva.
One cannot talk about EAEP without mentioning its founder, the revered Henry Chakava, who is known as the father of African publishing and who personally interviewed KK for the job. “I left the interview room with a headache,” KK confesses, with a cheeky smile.
As chair of KPA, KK hopes to reinvigorate the reading culture among Kenyans, as well as rekindle focus on general publishing in the country. His position is that an ideal publishing house is one that recognises the need to balance between publishing textbooks and sociocultural reading materials. “To gain international recognition, publishing in Kenya needs to lay focus on such enduring works,” he says.
He is keen to point out that contrary to what critics say, Kenyans are avid readers. “There is a reason publishers in Kenya keep churning out general reading materials, including biographical works. Books are sold at almost every street corner in Nairobi; and this is in addition to the many bookshops spread all over. Those businesses would not exist had there been no readers,” KK explains.
On the matter of digital books vis-à-vis the print version, KK affirms that digital technology has brought endless possibilities in the book industry.
“Most publishers in Kenya have embraced the digital versions and are selling the same electronically.”
At EAEP, KK says that the firm simultaneously releases its general books in both physical and digital versions, and sells them through physical and online bookshops, including on Amazon. He cites Kenya’s Tax Czar, the autobiography of the former Commissioner General of KRA, Michael Waweru. “On the day we launched it in Nairobi, the author was pleasantly surprised to get a call from his relative in Massachusetts, telling him she had secured herself a copy via Amazon,” he adds.
KK, however, reckons that the hard copy is not about to be driven to extinction by the digital technology. “For most book lovers in Africa and beyond, nothing can replace the smell of a new book in their hands... and this applies to both young and old,” he explains. “The digital and print versions will continue to co-exist. I do not foresee the complete discarding of the physical book and a total embrace of the digital book.”
An interview with the managing director of EAEP is not complete without talking about My Life in Crime, by reformed bank robber Kiriamiti, which remains their local bestseller to date. “This book affirmed that there is a huge market for local thrillers,” explains KK.
So, what book is the successor of My Life in Crime? Without batting an eyelid, KK says that book is Tower of Terror, by Macharia Magu. “It has all the ingredients of a fast-paced thriller; it is action-packed, full of drama, suspense and engaging plot twists,” he says.
Other books that fall into this category include Mukoma wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat and David Karanja’s The Girl was Mine.
Part of his agenda is to bring new, unpublished authors on board. “I have been a longtime admirer of bloggers like Ted Malanda with his Facebook humour. It is high time he put some of his hilarious stuff in book form and we will publish him,” says KK.
KK is also alive to the accusation by authors and potential authors that local publishers pay too much attention to textbooks, at the expense of general readership books. “While their concerns are genuine,” he states, “just like any smart entrepreneur, a publisher has to balance between realising immediate returns on their investment and long-term investment. Textbooks belong to the latter, while books for leisure reading take long to reach break-even point. In addition, publishers have business plans and strategies, which in turn generate work schedules and plans that have to be followed as per budgetary allocations.”
He has a word of advice for authors planning to send unsolicited manuscripts to publishers: “they must invest in research to identify what the market wants.”
KK has taken up the reins of leadership at KPA at a time when publishers are recovering from the devastating effects of Covid-19. Given that about 85 per cent of book sales come from school textbooks, Covid-19 dealt a heavy blow on publishers.
Nairobi International Book Fair
For the first time in more than 30 years, the Nairobi International Book Fair was not held physically due to Covid-19 restrictions. As such, KPA opted to have it done virtually.
“This was a bold, innovative way of surmounting the challenge, but it did not bring sales. Thankfully, the book fair will be held in September this year,” says KK.
The implementation of the new Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) has helped in the recovery process. “New books are needed for this implementation; and here we are talking about textbooks, workbooks and other complementary reading materials,” KK says.
In spite of the vicissitudes in publishing, KK says that it is a satisfying career for him. “It is a challenging yet stimulating profession, where you sit on the pedestal of driving the knowledge economy by turning new ideas into books,” he explains.