Self-publishing now the norm with all its pitfalls

A man walks past a collection of books on Harambee Avenue, Nairobi. Aspiring writers frustrated by mainstream publishing houses often resort to self publishing with disastrous results.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  •  Not surprisingly, then, in social media and elsewhere, there are all sorts of prescriptions about what the seemingly recalcitrant public should read
  • This is hardly true, considering the fact that local and international newspapers and magazines still have fairly decent circulation figures, even in the age of the Internet.

Given the ongoing tribulations of publishers in these rather lazy and uncertain coronavirus days, the social media is brimming with all sorts of excerpts from a plethora of self-published books.

You’ll find everything there, from poetry to prose fiction to memoirs and so-called inspirational texts of all kinds. And, more often than not, alongside the excerpts and prominently displayed book covers there will be exhortations to the public to rush out and buy the motley works.

Support local writers, the authors plead with their followers, not without a sense of misplaced entitlement. It is as if the already economically challenged public has an obligation to do a beeline to the nearest bookshop for their latest titles. Or as if reading them is a priority.

Sadly, though, anybody leafing through the latest offerings by most self-published writers will be shocked by their thoroughly unprofessional quality. The flaws run the gamut, from poor binding and printing to unattractive covers, horrendous grammatical, structural, syntactical and stylistic shortcomings.

The problem, it seems, is that many of the self-published authors seem to think that writing is a matter of filling pages with all sorts of jumbled content, rushing them to the most affordable printer and promptly releasing the titles into the market.


Sadly, and pathetically, and amid the usual claims of neglect by mainstream publishers, many self-published writers are agog with self-confidence. Saddled with misplaced expectations, they aspire to become instant best-sellers and effortlessly make tonnes of money, while also gaining instant fame.

Regrettably, though, by all indications little thought is given to the processes a quality publication must go through before it hits the market. Overconfident writers of varying and sometimes starkly dubious talent, for instance, give little thought to the need for the intervention of professional editors, book designers and even quality printers.

Nor do these overzealous and rather naive and starry-eyed would-be writers seem to comprehend the complexities of effective book marketing and distribution. To their shock, many end up with carton-loads of unsold copies stacked in their bedrooms.

This is largely because it does not seem to occur to the self-published writers that their finished works would have immensely benefitted from the input of professional editors and designers. Or even, at the very least, from thorough proofreading before submission to printers.

Alarmingly, too, many self-published authors appear to deem their individual handiworks to be masterpieces that deserve instantaneous wide readership. Not surprisingly, then, in social media and elsewhere, there are all sorts of prescriptions about what the seemingly recalcitrant public should read.

Poignantly, interspersed with these appeals to the public to purchase the self-published works, there is always the perennial whining about Kenyans being guilty of not buying and reading books for pleasure.

Non-reading public

There is agreement, of course, that this same purportedly non-reading public buys educational books – particularly set books and prescribed texts – that form the backbone of the local publishing industry. The trouble, it is alleged, is that people stop reading as soon as they leave school.

This is hardly true, considering the fact that local and international newspapers and magazines still have fairly decent circulation figures, even in the age of the Internet. And that each copy sold, we’re authoritatively told, is read by numerous people before finally ending up with the meat wrappers.

Then there is the fact that there is hardly any home in Kenya without a bible, a Quran, and a wide range of other religious literature that is dutifully and regularly read throughout the week.

Also, there is the irrefutable fact that second-hand booksellers in the country have for ages done brisk business peddling pocket-friendly copies of paperback versions of works by the world’s most popular authors.

Which Kenyan teenager, for instance, has not gone through several Mills and Boon titles in their short lifetimes? And how many Kenyans of a certain educational level have not at one point or the other enjoyed the titillating works of such best-selling authors as John Grisham, Wilbur Smith, Dan Brown, John Le Carré, Danielle Steele, Frederick Forsyth and others?

Second-hand book dealers

And all for a little pocket change, courtesy of the street-corner second-hand book dealers. And that is beside the fact that some of the top-selling authors in Kenya, among them David Maillu and John Kiriamiti, have in the past hit the book market with a bang. And mind you, their extremely popular titles were not and could never have become set books; not with their subject matters, which were certainly not written for the prudish.

Take-home message here? Kenyans will not read anything, but will certainly buy reasonably priced quality publications that appeal to them, notably through light and entertaining contents that are pleasurable to read. Ask any roadside second-hand book seller in your locality.

As for the so-called literary writings so lauded by Academia and beloved of our starry-eyed, Western-influenced authors, it appears that Kenyan readers are happy to have done away with their heavy-going contents as soon as they left school.

After all, who wants to be bombarded with all sorts of subjective and suffocating rhetoric every time they open a book? And pray, who needs the sort of controversies drummed up by donor-funded Western outfits that tend to style themselves as the world’s moral, political and cultural police?

Finally, who really needs all sorts of slogans and clichés in every page of a purportedly fictional work that they bought to read for pleasure?