A new writing award from Centum, but pirates could spoil books party

Centum Group CEO James Mworia and the Iranian ambassador to Kenya, Dr Hadi Farajvand, join Makini Academy pupils in a colouring activity during the 20th Nairobi International Book Fair at Sarit Centre, Nairobi. The fair will end tomorrow. PHOTO| FRANCIS NDERITU

What you need to know:

  • Mr James Mworia, Centum’s chief executive officer, made the revelation at the official opening ceremony of the ongoing Nairobi International Book Fair at Sarit Centre on Thursday.
  • The Kenya Publishers Association chairman, Mr Lawrence Njagi, had challenged Mr Mworia, who was the guest of honour, to sponsor a digital literary award.

Tonight, book lovers will know who will be the winner of the this year’s edition of Jomo Kenyatta Prize, Kenya’s highest indigenous literary award.

A total of 18 authors will be seeking the honours in the six categories of the prize sponsored by Text Book Centre.

And there is more good news for Kenyan writers. Starting next year, they will have one more literary prize to compete for, sponsored by Centum Investments Limited.

Mr James Mworia, Centum’s chief executive officer, made the revelation at the official opening ceremony of the ongoing Nairobi International Book Fair at Sarit Centre on Thursday.

The Kenya Publishers Association chairman, Mr Lawrence Njagi, had challenged Mr Mworia, who was the guest of honour, to sponsor a digital literary award.

“I look forward to coming here next year to preside over the literary award,” said Mr Mworia.

He said that as a person who loves books and knowledge, he was happy to be associated with publishers and the new award.

Once it is formalised, it will become the third literary prize to be administered by KPA after the Text Book Centre Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and the Wahome Mutahi Prize for Literature.

The Burt Award for African Writing, whose prize is around Sh1 million, is no longer exclusively Kenyan as it allows writers from five other countries to take part.

BEAUTY OF THE AWARD

The beauty of  the Centum award is that it will be an annual event, as opposed to the other KPA awards that are presented bi-annually.

Mr Mworia expressed his concern that books in Kenya are faced with severe constraints as a result of taxation from the government.

“Knowledge is a great leveller of people; no one should be denied the right to knowledge,” he said and called on the government to review its policy on taxing books.

According to him, charging VAT on books has the effect of limiting access to education and knowledge for the less privileged in society.

The VAT on books, which was introduced by the Jubilee government, has become an impediment to the growth of the publishing industry. VAT has placed a financial burden on parents, who are finding their buying power diminished as they have to pay more for every book after the introduction of VAT. The end result is that fewer books are being bought.

Mr Njagi is optimistic since the 12th Parliament has better informed MPs, who include the new Kasipul Kabondo MP, Eve Obara, who until last year was the managing director of Kenya Literature Bureau (KLB), it will be easier to push for scrapping of the tax.

Njoro MP Charity Kathambi Chepkwony also used to work for KLB.

Mr Njagi is optimistic that the former publishers and like-minded MPs will fight for a change in the VAT Bill in Parliament.

And as publishers take part in this year’s Book Fair, now in its 20th edition, another Parliamentary Bill is keeping their minds occupied — the proposed Anti-Piracy Bill. The proposed law, sponsored by the Kenya Copyright Board (Kecobo), seeks to introduce more punitive measures against those caught pirating books.

Currently, book pirates are let off rather lightly. The maximum fine for a person caught pirating a book is Sh800,000, which means such a person can escape with a much lower fine.

It should not be this way, says Mr Edward Sigei, the chief executive of Kecobo. “If a person is caught with pirated books worth Sh20 million, the most they can be fined is Sh800,000. That is a slap on the wrist,” he says. 

The new Bill proposes stiffer penalties for book pirates. “We are looking for the imposition of fines equal to or more than the value of the pirated books.”

Kecobo assists publishers with investigations and prosecutions. At the moment Mr Victor Lomaria, the managing director of KLB, would welcome the services of Kecobo. The publisher’s book, Four Figure Mathematical Tables, written by the Kenya National Examinations Council, is currently a magnet for pirates.

“Pirates are really giving us a hard time,” says Mr Lomaria. “Even with the advanced security features we have placed in the book, piracy cartels are still reproducing our books and selling them to unsuspecting parents and students.”

Pirates are normally attracted to fast-moving books because they are assured of making quick money. The Four Figure Mathematical Table is a compulsory book for students in Form Three. What this means is that in any given year, there is demand of more than 400,000 copies of this particular book. And this is where pirates strike.

Mr Lomaria says pirates are getting increasingly sophisticated. Some are even printing pirated books outside the country — in India and China.

“Since the pirates only incur printing costs, they undercut us and sell the book for less than Sh200,” he says. The retail price of the book is Sh450, without VAT.

The piracy cartels, according to Mr Lomaria, get access to the final buyer through crooked booksellers and head teachers. Such booksellers normally ask for huge discounts from the pirates so that they can stock the books. But since publishers with the help of Kecobo are tightening the noose on booksellers, pirates are going directly to head teachers.

The tragedy of pirated books is that they often contain the wrong content.

“For example, the pirated books we have impounded have content from previous editions,” he says. “What this means is that children who use these pirated books will most likely fail in exams since they are using wrong information.”

Even as the industry grapples with these challenges, it is still reaching out to more Kenyans to buy books by local authors. This, in part, informs the decision by the publishing industry to manage both the Jomo Kenyatta and Wahome Mutahi prizes as one way of bringing the attention of the new works of fiction to the reading public.

The theme for this year’s book fair, which ends tomorrow, is “Unity Through Books”.

Mrs Mary Maina, the chairperson of the NIBF says this year’s message of ‘Unity through Books’ reached more people. On the Thursday the Book Fair’s hashtag #NairobiBookFair became a trending topic on Twitter, thanks to a dedicated team of bloggers led by Emmanuel Yegon,  a student at Moi University.

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