Two book fairs: A tribute to a glorious past and appreciation of publishing as a cultural activity

Fr Samuel Wachira receives his prize from Prof Laban Ayiro

Fr Samuel Wachira (right), who won the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize, with his book Hustlers' Chains, receives his prize from Prof Laban Ayiro, who was the chief guest. 

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Book fairs offer a neutral ground that catalyses free, and almost unguarded, interaction among book enthusiasts.
  • It is the space within which an ever-busy book editor is relieved of the rigour of an ordinary day at the office and allowed to answer all the questions that anyone has in regard to book-making.
  • To a publisher, every book fair presents a once-in-a-year opportunity to showcase and stamp their brand might.

The 23rd edition of the Nairobi International Book Fair (NIBF) wound up last weekend.

This book event drew significance for a number of reasons. Among others, it is notable that it was the first physical post-coronavirus BookPeople's convention of its kind.

This explains the cheer, vibrancy, and visible sense of optimism that the attendees of the bookfest and their hosts exuded.

A whiff of deja vu. This, in my case, was what I experienced during my attendance at this congregation of bookmen.

I couldn’t help juxtaposing it with the one I attended a few years earlier, in 2018.

Considering that life takes us through seasons and episodes, some of which are unforgettable, my thoughts on the 2018 book fair had all the qualifications of a tribute to a very glorious past.

I vividly remembered the inexplicable spell that the former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who was the guest of honour at the official opening of the event, and his crowd, cast upon us when he arrived at our stand.

In a minute, he wasn’t there. In the next minute, he was before us, a broad smile spread across his face, posing for the cameras as the honchos at our firm gifted him Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s Not Yet Uhuru and David Goldworthy’s Tom Mboya, the Man Kenya Wanted to Forget.

And, then, he was gone, as if he never came. It will be long before I stop marvelling at the dazing effect this encounter had on me.

I remembered the money, too. It was in good supply and never once were we out of pocket.

At the time the 2018 book fair came around, I was six months into my employment as a literary editor at a local publishing firm.

As an extension of my orientation cum-induction, the then publishing director, a BBC English-speaking Kamusinga School alumnus, ‘seconded’ me to the Book Fair Committee that our publishing house had constituted.

Book selection

Every undertaking of the committee was as mentally taxing as it was exciting.

One of the most challenging of these tasks was the selection of the books that we were to display at the book fair.

Superficially, it sounds like an assignment one can crack at the snap of a finger.

This isn’t the case, more so when the publisher in question is one whose frontlist is as rich as its backlist.

In the context of publishing, the frontlist refers to recently published titles.

The referent of the backlist, on the other hand, is books that were published in the yesteryear.

Unless one is guided by clarity of thought, one can be spoilt for choice and easily end up with a truckload of books at a book fair.

While this sounds like an excellent idea, it is untenable given space constraints at a book fair.

Anyway, it was during my time on the 2018 book fair committee and subsequent attendance at the bazaar that I made a few critical observations.

To start with, book fairs offer a neutral ground that catalyses free, and almost unguarded, interaction among book enthusiasts.

It is the space within which an ever-busy book editor is relieved of the rigour of an ordinary day at the office and allowed to answer all the questions that anyone has in regard to book-making.

To a publisher, every book fair presents a once-in-a-year opportunity to showcase and stamp their brand might.

This, indeed, is what informs the brand-related traditional awards that are given at the end of every book fair.

Sales target

Most importantly, these book events are marketing and sales fora. In fact, I would be very surprised if I heard of a publishing house that goes to a book fair without a pre-determined sales target.

This is what brings me to the heart of my reflection. Like every other realm of the economy, the publishing industry is currently hurting.

The democratisation of the industry has, for instance, seen many publishing companies mushroom.

This has translated into cutthroat competition over book market share. In addition, publishers are grappling with the book piracy menace, mind-boggling taxation and a market-strangling book supply policy.

Considering all these challenges, fears that publishers might have a twisted, fractured and blurred perception of their trade are very valid.

It is not in doubt that publishing is as much a commercial venture as it is a cultural activity. For this reason, unless very radical actions are taken, profiteering might easily eclipse the other role of publishing.

Publishing for profit isn’t an illegal endeavour. Nevertheless, for our socio-cultural prosperity as a people, the wisdom of the moment calls upon us to do everything within our means to retain publishers’ perception of their trade as a cultural practice and an art.

Let’s unanimously appreciate the extent to which books define our cultures, their impact on the construction and expression of our identities, and our sense of ethnic or national heritage.

If we appreciate that books are cultural artefacts, we’ll very urgently initiate interventions that will enable bookmakers to strike a balance between corporate publishing and the propagation of culture.

Today, such words and phrases as bottom line and breaking even are in high circulation in publishing industry boardrooms.

Few publishers can afford the luxury of publishing books strictly for their cultural value.

The majority only have time for blockbusters. They can only entertain manuscripts from sellable names. We can change this, can’t we?

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