What you need to know:
- Bookshops insist books by little-known writers stay longer on the shelves.
- Authors say they have had to foot delivery costs and contend with fluctuating sales.
Having a title under one’s name is considered the hallmark of excellence, especially amongst scholars. But distributing and monetising the books is a different ballgame that authors, more so the self-published lot, grapple with.
As it turns out, high-end bookshops often decline to stock titles by little-known authors and publishing firms on grounds that they stay longer on the shelves.
A number of self-published authors who spoke to Saturday Nation say that they have resorted to creative means of distributing their works using social media, referrals, among other means, in order to penetrate the market.
One of them is Ongoma Sakwah, a self-published author of two titles, The Campus Exile and Premium Tears, sells his books mostly by himself and is “enjoying it” in as much as it is sometimes overwhelming.
His social media handles, Facebook and largely Twitter timelines, attract traffic that he has over time managed to successfully convert to buyers of his books.
Sakwah’s strategy was simple: “In 2018, I decided to start sharing short stories on social media as a way of convincing and proving to Kenyans that I have the capacity to authentically tell our Kenyan stories.”
The strategy helped him accumulate over 25,000 followers such that by the time his first publication came out, his online fan base was already anticipating to purchase the release.
The budding author replicated the same by sharing story threads on Twitter, earning him a similar number of followers who would order the books and Sakwah would have them delivered.
He arrived at this mode to hawk his work having received a regret response from some “upmarket” bookshops.
“Some bookstores are reluctant to stock self-published authors’ titles because they have a misinformed perception that any author who pursues self-publishing is not good enough,” Sakwa said.
“Others cite tax issues. They prefer working with traditional publishers writers because traditional publishers are companies that can show proof when they remit taxes from the sales of the book,” he explained.
So far, he has sold 300 copies of his second book within the first three months of publication.
Another self-published author, Eunniah Mbabazi, has equally charted the same waters of using the digital platform to sell her four titles; Breaking Down (an anthology of short stories), If My Bones Could Speak (a poetry collection), Kas Kazi (a novel), and When a Stranger Called (an anthology of short stories).
Mbabazi sells all her books by herself after a similar experience with bookstores that dislike stocking “unknown authors”.
“Close to 70 per cent of my sales have been from social media,” she says. “I majorly use Facebook and WhatsApp.”
Hawking has its fair share of challenges, as the authors say they have had to foot delivery costs and contend with fluctuating sales from as many as tens of copies a day to going for weeks without selling any.
Due to such challenges, J.B Omukangala, the author of Torn Between, admits that engaging giant publishers is commensurate to easier market penetration.
And it was not his first choice to self-publish. He resorted to it after his attempt to have the Kenya Literature Bureau print his book failed.
“I waited for their response since July last year until February this year, every time I inquired about the progress they had made their response was 'we will check it out' then I got tired and withdrew the manuscript when the six months I was given elapsed,” the writer noted.
“Perhaps I would have sold more copies had one of these giant publishing firms agreed to publish my book. But I am satisfied. I'm writing my second book, but I'm not giving it any publishing house to keep it,” he resolved.
Only Ongata School Outfitters in Ongata Rongai has his book in stock as he shops for more willing shops.
Since March, 300 copies have flown off the shelves and he is optimistic of a market growth.
The experience has been a little different for Godfrey Sang, a prolific author of more than 10 books, mostly biographies, among them Just for Today: The Life and Times of Jean-Marie Seroney, which is dispensed on Amazon.
Sang, also a history researcher, has various formal and informal networks across Africa to distribute his books, although he has on several occasions run into a bad experience where smaller book distributors delayed or completely failed to remit money.
Finding platforms to stock the works is still not a guarantee of fetching money, notes the co-author of The Kipsigis Talai: Tragedy, Tribulation and Triumph of a Community in Kenya.
As early as a decade ago, he gave up Sh23,000 when a bookshop he entrusted his books in Uganda couldn’t pay, he says there was no recourse.
Being a member of the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) church, Mr Sang prefers to use the well-established networks for publishing and distributing books, which are much trusted. But the channel is restricted to Christian literature.
The Saturday Nation visited the Adventist Book Centre in Nairobi, run by the Home Health Education, an affiliate of the SDA church, to find out the success behind their model of distribution.
Mr Njoroge Mburu, an associate publishing director in charge of training at the East Kenya Union Conference (EKUC) of the church said that besides the bookshops and the online marketing platforms, they have been recruiting book marketers known in the church circles as literature evangelists.
“We always recruit evangelists and train them on how to canvass. On long holidays, we recruit students who are also church members from various universities into the ministry and offer them a number of books to sell in order to offset their school fees arrears,” said Mr Njoroge.
As of the year 2020, they had 1,360 literature evangelists across the country, some being students, those on full-time or part time.
Ms Betty Muga, who has been a literature evangelist for 30 years, described her journey as fun although challenging.
She has been selling between one to 20 books a day, until when Covid-19 pandemic struck, when she could go for a month without sales.
The distributors used to earn 40 percent of the cost of every book sold. However, the government in 2014 imposed a 16 percent tax on the books, thereby reducing their earnings.