What you need to know:
- I plunged into the publishing industry by accident. In 2000, Barack Muluka, the then managing director of EAEP, wrote an article in the Saturday Standard that excited me and, when I responded to his piece, he did a rejoinder the following week.
- We then hooked up and when he asked me if I wanted to cross over from my teaching job in a private school, I said an emphatic yes.
Kiarie Kamau is the managing director and chief executive of East African Educational Publishers Ltd. He has been at the helm of this major publishing firm since 2015. He spoke to writer Oumah Otienoh about writing and publishing.
Oumah Otienoh: EAEP was established in 1965 and later became the first multinational publishing firm to enjoy full local ownership in 1992. What gains have you made since this major transition in publishing?
Kiarie Kamau: When we were under the management of foreign masters, there were several restrictions on what we published. Since we attained full local ownership in 1992, we have become versatile in the publishing industry.
This has enabled us to venture into local publications such as children’s stories. We also take pride as the first local publisher to seriously stump its foot on publishing biographies and autobiographies.
EAEP is synonymous with big literary luminaries such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Elechi Amadi and Okot p’Bitek.
I don’t think that EAEP is synonymous with the so-called big literary luminaries. Though our finest writers such as Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have been published by us, our main objective is to nurture the talent of those interested in creative writing.
We have therefore published younger authors such as Florence Mbaya and Alice Gichuru.
Still on publishing, what advice would you give to an up-coming writer in order to increase their chances of being published?
Any budding writer should exhibit the virtue of patience. They should not always lament that they’re unknown to publishers but demonstrate seriousness in their writing.
I’ll also advise young writers not to give relatives their manuscripts as such persons will only glorify them and fail to give a sincere judgement on the work.
At EAEP we are not interested in age, gender, tribe or religion of the author but the quality of the work sent to us for publication.
In fact, when we receive any manuscript, we always remove the pages that mention the writer’s name and send an anonymous copy to our editors, sometimes even in some far-flung areas, to write a sincere report about it.
Why would a manuscript take up to a decade to receive the much needed reply from some mainstream publishers?
We normally advise writers to give us time upon receipt of their work. Sometimes manuscripts take longer than expected due to inadequate capacity to evaluate the work.
It is normally a delicate balancing act between capacity and other ongoing projects like the new curriculum which is now a priority for every publisher.
Sometimes a manuscript may be approved but delay to be published due to lack of funds.
EAEP is a house of many firsts in the area of creative writing. When you published the first Kiswahili course book — Masomo ya Msingi — which you were part of, how did you achieve such a great fete as a publisher even before the Kiswahili curriculum was developed?
Any serious publisher should always identify gaps to fill and do a thorough market research to maximise on returns.
When we published Masomo ya Msingi there was a knowledge gap in our primary schools as Kiswahili was being taught without a standard course book. EAEP saw that opportunity and that’s how Masomo ya Msingi was born.
Book piracy, which has continued to hurt both publishers and writers, is a multi-billion-shilling syndicate in Kenya. As a publishing firm, what is your input towards curbing this menace?
Book piracy has denied both the publisher and writers their hard-earned cash. The publishing industry has many cartels in the book distribution channel. As a publisher, we have every time improved on the quality of our products in order to curb piracy and we also sensitise street vendors on our genuine products.
We also partner with other publishing regulators such as the Anti-Counterfeit Agency, Kenya Publishers Association and Kenya Copyright Board.
Some time last year, the ministry of Education assigned publishers to supply textbooks directly to schools. How did mainstream publishers view this directive?
This move reduced book piracy as the book distribution channel shrunk. I’ll not say that the major publishers were favoured as the bidding process was very competitive.
The MoE advertised the tenders for book publishing in the local newspapers and any publisher was at liberty to apply. Kenya Literature Bureau got a huge chunk of the offer due to their competitive prices. Nevertheless, none of the publishers should complain as the bidding process was free and fair.
Any publisher would wish to record huge sales and all the money is in publishing textbooks. How do you balance this with publication of creative works?
It’s really a balancing act as money is the only language of the shareholders. Creative works don’t give immediate returns like textbooks but some have a high return value over a period of time.
Which is your biggest flagship project since you took over the management of EAEP in 2015?
I’ve only been at the helm of EAEP for three years and we’ve realised a legion of projects such as the publication of Great Achievers Series in all subjects for our primary schools.
Another major achievement during my stint at EAEP is the publication of competence based books for the new curriculum, especially Kiswahili Angaza which brings back the glory of yesteryears when Masomo ya Msingi was the ‘bible’ for our Kiswahili classes.
Lastly, how was your writing and publishing journey before joining EAEP and finally taking over its leadership?
I plunged into the publishing industry by accident. In 2000, Barack Muluka, the then managing director of EAEP, wrote an article in the Saturday Standard that excited me and, when I responded to his piece, he did a rejoinder the following week.
We then hooked up and when he asked me if I wanted to cross over from my teaching job in a private school, I said an emphatic yes.
I have since risen through the rank and file of the publishing industry from a sub-editor to its chief executive.
The writer, a literary critic, teaches at Ng’iya Girls’ High School in Siaya County. [email protected]