High taxes hindering Kenya's literary works abroad - Sharjah Book Authority chair

Sharjah Book Authority chairman Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri. [Caroline Chebt, Standard]

For years, Kenyan authors and publishers have decried the lack of exposure and market for their literary works but the global markets have raised a red flag on high taxation as a major hindrance to promoting local literary works.

Custom charges imposed on books and taxation on local publishers and foreigners putting up book fairs for authors and publishers to market their works in African countries, Kenya included, remains prohibitive.

Sharjah Book Authority chairman Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri blamed the high taxation as the biggest challenge faced by authors and publishers in marketing their work.

"We have been targeting the publisher markets in African countries like Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, South Africa and other countries. However, taxation rates and customs are high and putting up such events is really expensive," Al Ameri said.

While there have been efforts to expand and spread the literary events across Africa in a move to spread and promote reading cultures, organisers said hosting such events physically is an expansive affair.

Hosting international book fairs like the annual book fair at Sharjah offers publishers and authors a platform for buying and selling rights, signing book deals, exploring translation opportunities and serving other commercial interests of the sector. Participation in international Book fairs and conferences also give authors opportunities for networking with international publishing houses.

Tanzanian author Adam Shafi speaks at the Sharjah International Book fair in the United Arab Emirates. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

Although weaving through the African markets to host international book fairs is still a challenge, in accelerating the development of the publishing industry, Al Ameri said the authority has been partnering with African publishers and authors to support publisher conferences in Africa as well as sponsoring them to attend international book fairs to showcase and promote their works.

"It is through these Book fairs that we want to spread cultures, knowledge, peace and break barriers through literature. Over the years, the annual book fairs have grown and opened doors for the world to interact and promote cultural exchange," said Al Meri.

To ease the promotion of cultural and knowledge exchange, the authority has been supporting translations of books from African native languages to English and Arabic and vice versa.

"Networking is important and governments have a big role in supporting publishing industries. If these industries collapse, they go down with our histories and we lose identity. Spreading cultures through literature breaks all barriers that politics and religion cannot,"  Al Ameri said.

African authors and publishers, however, blame the local governments for failing to support local publishers to market their own literary works.

"Promoting local publishers means the country appreciates its culture but this rarely happens in most African countries. It is worrying that authors no longer explore writing in their own indigenous languages because of the lack of market to sell their works. If governments give incentives to writers and publishers, we will preserve our cultures and languages through books the way Arabic literature does," Mohammed Hassan, a publisher from Somalia said.

Mohamed Hassan during the interview with The Standard at the Sharjah Internation Book fair in the UAE. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

Hassan added that with Kenya having many reputable authors and publishing houses in East Africa, it stands a chance to pioneer in building a strong literary industry if it invests.

"The challenge however in Kenya, the taxes are high yet the industry receives little support from the government. Kenya, however, stands a chance to tap in, to support the industry and lead the region - given its strong industry," said Mohammed.

 Adam Shafi, a Tanzanian author, blames the lack of funding and over-dependence on foreign aid to run programs by publishers and authors from the East African region as a challenge to the promotion of literary events as a region.

"We need to promote our languages, we need to showcase our cultures but the big challenge is that African authors and publishers are struggling. There are no markets, but how can we tap international markets if we can barely consume our work and if we can barely move out to market our work?" said Shafi.