Publishing abroad isn’t the answer

PHOTO | FILE Young readers sample story books by local writers at the Nairobi International Book Fair at the Sarit Centre.

What you need to know:

  • It’s possible that by moving abroad, the writer’s book will be among the numbers published but not make money

I read Silas Nyanchwani’s article “8 Lessons writers need to learn” on Sunday, December 30, 2012 with keen interest.

As a publisher and author, I found some of his advice very articulate and worth the ink but some of it may have been given out of a limited understanding of publishing in the global environment and viewing publishing as a social enterprise as opposed to an economic one.

It is correct to advise writers to find their own writing styles. The lesson on self-publishing was spot on and so was the idea of writers, publishers and other local players joining hands to promote local books to boost readership.

Moving abroad

But the notion that a writer can only make money from books by moving abroad cannot pass. It is way too far from the truth. This suggestion lacks a clear understanding of the global book publishing environment. Very few books published in any market get on the top sellers list.

In the United States, it is estimated that three million books were published in 2011. Out of those, only a handful made it to the New York Times Best Seller list and a majority of them did not make money.

It’s possible that by moving abroad, the writer’s book will be among the numbers that are published but not make any money. The reality is that the quality of our writing is wanting and many would-be writers either want to copy themes in Western published books or choose what Silas called the “Whispers syndrome”.

Good books require creativity and they take time to do but many of our authors are always in a hurry to get published. It’s for this reason that most of local books cannot be converted into movies since the plots cannot sustain a movie.

As much as it has been said that Kenyans don’t read, my opinion is that there are some who do but they know what they want in a book and will pay for it if they get it. The problem is that they are often frustrated when they get some of the books from local authors that do not meet their expectations.

It’s not a surprise we have enough graduates who cannot even write a simple essay in the correct grammar. How do we expect to have good books? We have to invest in training authors. My take is that quality writing attracts readers.

It’s also worth pointing out that publishing is a risky business that requires a clear balance between investment and returns. The major reason why publishers may not give fiction a second glance is that the cost of publishing a book is so high and they have to be guaranteed of returns by the books they choose to publish.

One of the marks of a great publisher is their choice of books based on content and market for distribution. The investors in any publishing venture expect returns and, as much as they exist to promote reading and writing, all their efforts must make economic sense otherwise they will not exist for long.

The argument that book reviews count for less is simplistic. Book reviews are a marketing and publicity tool and so careful thought must be given to the choice of book review medium. The reality is that not all opportunities for book reviews will yield sales unless the review is made in a publication that has a reach on the target readers.

The choice of book review medium must be determined by the book content and the target readership as opposed to any open space in a magazine or newspaper.

The need for a writer’s club or society is certainly a step in the direct direction. But, since we do appreciate that the writing is the beginning of a journey to quality books, encouraging writing clubs in schools and colleges will go a long way to establish a culture of writing.

With good writing and good publishing, the books will sell and, ultimately, the writers will make some money along the way.

Barine Kirimi is an author and publisher.