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Why can’t authors, like rockstars, drive an X5?

By Alex Nderitu | March 28th 2015

“We have a national policy on jiggers but no national policy on books,” — Musyoki Muli.

‘If Ababu Namwamba were here, he would be smiling because I seem to have taken over his hot seat!’ Those were the words of Longhorn Managing Director Musyoki Muli as he fielded hard-hitting questions at a sitting of the Daystar Creatives Academy in Nairobi.

The session was entitled ‘Publishing Options: Self, Online and Traditional’ and Muli, being the only representative from mainstream publishing, unwittingly became the target for all sins of conventional publishing, real or imagined. Others in the panel were award-winning novelist Stanley Gazemba and I.

The moderator, Zukiswa Wanner, started by asking me to define ‘digital publishing’. (My first novel When the Whirlwind Passes hit cyberspace in 2001).

I simply described it as the process of making and managing electronic equivalents of physical books.

Zukiswa complained to Muli that she had been unable to purchase the Longhorn-published novel, Was Nyakeeru My Father?, even after it won a Burt Award. Muli admitted that was a mistake but they otherwise have a re-stocking system.

Then Gazemba took on publishers. The mere fact that he keeps changing publishers is an indication that something is wrong. He gave the example of a book he initially published with Sasa Sema Publications (under Lila Luce) whose sales had dropped since Longhorn took over.

Muli explained that they initially had a separate team of salespeople to move creative works but later found out that the group was not being taken as seriously by the book market, as the text book crowd; who bring in the lion’s share of profits.

Then the audience spoke. Their complaints ranged from editors taking too long with manuscripts to publishers not paying royalties or even giving royalty statements.

One said although she has a publisher, she buys some of her own books from them and always manages to outsell the publisher!

A blogger, said she took back her non-fiction manuscript after an editor sat on it for over three years.

Diana, a student, asked why literary activity seemed to be confined to Nairobi. Zukiswa countered that she and I had just returned from a PEN workshop in Eldoret, where school PEN clubs were established, and the same exercise had earlier been done in Kakamega and Mombasa.

Dennis, a professional copywriter, asserted that authors should be ‘rock stars’ – complete with the accompanying bank balance: “How come Nameless can afford an X5 (BMW) and Jaguar (the musician) a Jaguar? Authors should also be rock stars.”

Most questions were addressed to Muli and this is was what made him feel like he had swapped places with the embattled PAC chairman. “We have a National Policy on Jiggers,” he said. “But no National Policy on Books.” He argued the government should ensure books are easily published which would boost the “knowledge economy”.

An audience asked him how she could digitally publish a slim book she had earlier self-published. I advised her to place her book on a Print-on-Demand system like Lulu.com or and Amazon’s CreateSpace division.

Gazemba added that an e-book version of his book, Grandmother’s Winning Smile was currently outselling his two other books – Callused Hands and The Stone Hills of Maragoli – combined!

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