The Nairobi International Book Fair (NIBF) returned this year more energised. The show had come back last year after two years’ break due to Covid-19 and ran from September 27 to October 1.
However, last year’s event had fewer exhibitors and foreign visitors compared to the previous year. This year’s exhibition had more guest exhibitors and visitors, according to the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA), the organisers of the show.
But more importantly, there were more new books written by Kenyans.
In the recent past, more Kenyans have opted to write. Bookstores in Nairobi are teeming with new books. There are book launches in Nairobi every week these days. Autobiographies seem to be the new fashion in town.
Politicians are trying to outcompete one another in publishing their memoirs. Doctors, lawyers and university professors, too, are preserving their memories on paper.
Young Kenyans are fully exploiting the advantages of self-publishing. With a few thousand shillings, one can get free spell check apps online (which can never truly fully check for spelling mistakes); copy editing and proofreading is available online for a fraction of what professional proofreaders charge (even though the online editors can’t edit for context or local idiom); then one can order print copies that the pocket can afford.
As for the quality of the work, let the reader be the judge, so say the self-publishers. Didn’t someone say the more the merrier?
The surge in self-publishing is probably good for the industry in many ways. First, it is a challenge to mainstream publishers to work harder at identifying and publishing good books.
Second, it could lead to further growth in the publishing sector as the printers of the self-published books might decide to invest more into helping their clients to produce better books. Thirdly, the self-published writers might just attract enough attention from the mainstream publishers to be signed on for their next project.
In other parts of the world, the big publishers set up subsidiaries to cater for different literary tastes. One hopes that this is an approach that members of KPA could use to help the growth of local literature.
On a different point, it seems that despite government officials attending the festival every year and committing themselves to support book publishing and literature, it is just talk and no serious action.
For many years KPA has complained about two major challenges to the book industry in the country: book piracy and the VAT on books. The first is indirectly linked to the government whilst the second is solely in the hands of the government.
One could speculate that piracy was born at the same time as the printing of books. Considering that when books were first printed, they were available to a limited audience: the clergy and ruling elite. Curiosity and the urge to make some money on the side must have made the printers keep a copy or two of the book.
Knowing that items in short supply create illegal markets, criminal networks run printing presses that steal copyrights of millions of books throughout the world. Pirated books are sold on the streets and shops all over the world. In Nairobi today, one can order and get a copy of any book that is available in a bookshop or online within a few hours. The bootleg copy might have a few blank pages but it is really similar to the original copy but at a fraction of the bookshop cost.
Several individuals lose income when a book is pirated. These include authors, agents, publishers and distributors, among others. How can such people be motivated? Why would a Kenyan with a story to tell ever wish to publish it in the country when she knows that some of the people she trusts to promote her book will be gaining from it illegally whilst she earns peanuts or nothing? Remember that old question: does writing pay?
Piracy can be stamped out if the government is willing to enforce anti-piracy laws. People who print books illegally and sell them at a fraction of the market prices are not difficult to trace and arrest. Given that several pirated books are sold openly in the market, why does the government not address this problem? Could it be that the proceeds of book piracy are too big and, therefore, can sustain ‘disinterest’ by people with the responsibility to stop it?
Some people argue that piracy could be a consequence of the cost of a new book. Such people argue that when book prices are too high, copycats will seek to satisfy the demand by supplying bootleg copies.
Tax paid on books is one of the reasons book prices are high in Kenya. At 16 per cent, the value added tax (VAT) on books in Kenya discourages people who wish to buy books because it is the end user who bears it. Why would a buyer pay, say, Sh1,160, for a book that should cost Sh1,000, when they can buy a pirated copy at just about Shb700 without the VAT?
Considering that millions of poor Kenyans send their children to school and have to buy books, the government definitely collects a good sum from the tax on books. But isn’t charging the 16 per cent VAT on books counterproductive when the government seeks to attain 100 per cent transition rates from one level of education to the next?
How will poor children transit from nursery school to primary school when their parents cannot afford supplementary books? Even though currently the government supplies textbooks to public primary and secondary schools, what about children in private schools? Certainly the government-issued books aren’t adequate, so parents buy complementary reading. But in these economically hard times, shouldn’t the government adjust the tax downwards?
If there is a topic that has excited people in the world of books in this region in the past year, it is the use of artificial intelligence, Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer (ChatGPT), in writing. Creative writers, editors, publishers and readers are all trying to figure out whether AI will beat its creator at producing stories. This is a topic that should have been of great interest to the organisers of and attendees at the book fair. Can ChatGPT on its own write books? If it could, who claims authorship? Could publishers commission the chatbot to write books for them and, consequently, dispense with human writers? Is ChatGPT likely to make editors redundant?
Very few people (including authors) know that the preparation of a book, from commissioning, editing, copyediting, designing to proofreading, makes up a larger percentage of the cost of a book. Printing used to be very expensive but has decreased in cost in the recent past because of advances in printing technology that allows print-on-demand. Also, e-books are more affordable than paper books. Some of the process in the manuscript preparation today need less human intervention.
What are the implications of the realities for the book industry in Kenya? This is a fundamental question for KPA. The organisation should use occasions such as the book fair to initiate conversations and collaborations with all stakeholders in the country about the future of books in Kenya. There are millions of readers out there who are also very creative users of technology. How can Kenyan publishers interest them to write and read, with the aid of technology, in order to realise its theme for this year: Nurturing Talent through Publishing?
- The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]