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Sh20,000 for this book? No problem, I’ll buy it

What you need to know:

  • Some Kenyans see nothing wrong with paying Sh50,000 for a good read.
  • Others have spent unbelievable amounts of cash in their quest to absorb knowledge in black and white.

For literature professor Tom Odhiambo, forking out Sh10,000 or more to buy a single deserving book is not a decision to regret.

“I buy books all the time, of that amount (Sh10,000) or more,” he told us recently.

Prof Odhiambo is in a tiny group of bibliophiles who will not let money stand in the way of them getting a nice, informative book for their libraries.

Whether it is an immersive policy book or a mind-opening analysis tome, the desire to absorb knowledge in black and white has seen some Kenyans spend unbelievable amounts of cash to get them.

Monitoring and evaluation specialist Desmond Boi is among them. In 2019, he bought the book, The Political Economy of Development in Kenya written by Kempe Ronald Hope Sr, that cost Sh43,537 then. 

“It is among my most treasured reads. And it offers a good piece of research pieces,” he told us, adding that he read the 304-page book to the end.

“I found this book a little bit more detailed than what others have written. Secondly, because I am currently writing a book on the same subject that will look at issues more broadly, the book came in handy,” said Mr Boi.

The book, first published in 2011, identifies Kenya’s key socio-development problems and offers solutions to improve both governance and economic performance, making it valuable for people working on development issues and African politics.

Mr Boi said it is his interest in political economy issues that made him buy the publication. Asked to rate it on a scale of one to 10, Mr Boi gave it a nine.

He is not alone in the purchase of pricey books. Prof Peter Kagwanja, the chief executive of the Africa Policy Institute and an adjunct scholar at the University of Nairobi, has bought titles worth Sh10,000 or more.

He sees it as investment in his career, “just like a carpenter has to buy his tools or a doctor has to invest in medical technology”.

Buys, reads and reviews

Some of the books he has bought recently include Searching for a New Kenya: Politics and Social Media by Stephanie Diepeveen that costs at least $110 (Sh11,775) depending on the applicable shipping cost.

He has also bought I Say to You: Ethnic Politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya by Gabriella Lynch, which goes for $100.89 (Sh10,800), among other titles.

Apart from reading the books cover-to-cover, he considers them ground-breaking and ideal for his career. He buys, reads and later reviews. 

“It then becomes part of my library, which has thousands of books,” he said. “I read them for my teaching, enriching my analyses and referencing as I write. My students, mentees and colleagues in the Africa Policy Institute also borrow.”

With the reading of those books, he says, he acquired insights he did not have before getting them.

Prof Kagwanja has himself authored books that cost a pretty penny. He is a co-author of the book Kenya’s uncertain Democracy: The Electoral Crisis of 2008, that costs more than Sh10,000.

The book is about the long-term causes of Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election crisis that almost pushed the country into anarchy. 

The book has sold thousands of copies in North America and Europe, particularly in libraries and universities. However, he is not sure whether there are Kenyans who have bought it. 

And although he has his personal copy, he is “unable to give complimentary copies to friends and colleagues”.

“It is published in London by Routledge and sells at $160 with an option of $153 for used copies bought online,” said Prof Kagwanja, an adviser to former President Mwai Kibaki between 2008 and 2013.

Steep price of books

Prof Kagwanja says he is usually inclined to spend a fortune on a book that can assist him in his profession. 

“It is in my area of professional interest,” he said. “Most of the books are not available locally. Some are not even in soft copy. You have to purchase and ship them from outside the country.”

Reflecting on such a scenario where Kenyan authors publish with foreign firms and in effect make the product expensive, Prof Odhiambo wrote (Saturday Nation, April 17) that authors are partly to blame for the steep price of books.

“It is surprising that Africans, or should we just say, Kenyans, are yet to decolonise themselves of the hazards of having their ideas printed, stored, distributed and sold (from) elsewhere,” he wrote.

“It is expensive to publish a book. It costs money to research, write, edit, design, print and sell a book. It costs more if the book has to be shipped from abroad. If you add taxes, then books become too expensive for the common reader,” added Prof Odhiambo.

The don was responding to a story about magistrate Alice Macharia, who wrote a book that was published by Routledge and she was shocked that it cost a whopping Sh18,625 on online shopping site Amazon.

The book Rights of the Child, Mothers and Sentencing: The Case of Kenya has 192 pages and it dwells on the autonomy of children accompanying incarcerated mothers and those they leave behind in the community.

Some of the most expensive books in history are rare copies and manuscripts mostly sold in auctions. One of the most pricey books is the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon, which was written in 1830. It is said to be worth $35 million (Sh3.7 billion).

In the local bookshops in Nairobi, books not related to coursework peak at around Sh5,000. The motivational book Blue Ocean Strategy goes for Sh5,090 at Text Book Centre while Olesegun Obasanjo’s biography My Watch sells at Sh8,120 at the same store.

At Prestige Bookshop, one of the most expensive books is African Ceremonies by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher that goes for Sh20,000.


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