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To buy or download free? Why digital publishing is putting writers in tight spot

By Michael Chepkwony | June 22nd 2019

Imagine you are a writer who has been working on a book for the last 10 years. You have dedicated your time and resources to producing the best piece for your audience.

After climbing mountains of challenges, you finally manage to publish it. You hold a launch where scholars pour praises on the new book and recommend people to buy.

And since you are in the digital era, you also make posts about the book on social media. Some netizens ask for a soft copy of the book, perhaps at a fee and you oblige. Some hours later, a friend sends you a softcopy of the book to inform you that your masterpiece is being circulated at zero cost.

You also find generous-posing people on social media asking if there is anyone in need of the book for free. Meanwhile, copies of the book in the shelves remain unsold. After all, why should one pay for what is available for free?

Welcome to the digital era where young people are rebelling against the norms. Contemporary readers, especially the millennials, tease those who still burden themselves with big books in the era of change when smartphones and laptops can accommodate thousands of soft copy books. Indeed, one can carry thousands of books in soft copy in a mobile phone while the old-school readers will have a huge physical library in their homes.

Change is inevitable, but the nature of the transition from physical books to digital publishing is driving writers into losses. A copy forwarded by a writer to a confidant might lead to a series of distributions that topple the market. The situation is worse especially when writers attempt to maximise their earnings when book sellers and publishers are doing little to help them.

The tragedy with most of these rebels in the digital age is that they want books for free. One reader will buy it and decide to sell it to many others at a small fee that does not trickle to the writer.

A search on the internet, especially social media pages, will shock you. You will be astounded how some people are selling novels and anthologies of poems and short stories in PDF formats. The price? As little as Sh30 per book.

The transaction is fast. The moment you pay up, you receive copies of books including those by established authors like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe and Elechi Amadi among hundreds of other writers. There is no certainty on how such dubious traders source the books.

Lawyer Miguna Miguna’s Peeling Back the Mask: A Quest for Justice in Kenya was quickly circulated for free when it was released in 2012. On Facebook and Twitter, individuals extended a wicked helping hand as they posted questions asking anyone who cared to send their email addresses to receive the books. Many did.

Defensive position

In the recent past, the ‘banker who writes’ Kinyanjui Kombani found himself on the defensive position as young readers asked him for a soft copy of his latest novel, Of Pawns and Players.

He had posted an image of the book’s cover on Twitter. It was a clever marketing strategy, but not to lovers of freebies. Dozens of his followers began to torment him for a soft copy of the book, pushing him to a helpless defense. He said he was not willing to share the book via email or WhatsApp because he would run into losses.

Other writers have also expressed their opinions on the effect of digital disruption of the industry. The subject was among the issues discussed among writers and publishers when they converged in Nairobi for a three-day International Publishers Association (IPA) conference. It is a complex, yet inevitable, subject that writers and publishers have to consider now and in future.

In her opinion, spoken poetry artist Wangari Njeri argued that digital technology had destabilised the publishing industry and it was now up to the publishersto adapt to change.

“Though the industry has continued to be resistant to this change, consumers want to be able to read books conveniently using digital devices,” said the poet. She does not support the sale of books in PDF format but argues that writers and poets like herself ought to look for various revenue streams beyond royalties.

“We have since seen the growth of Amazon and the Kindle to ensure that writers are still able to make a living. Nowadays there are more opportunities than existed with the previous generation of writers. Speaking engagements is one such tactic, performance is another,” she said.

Similarly, Kariuki wa Nyamu, a poet and novelist, said buying and selling digital books is becoming inevitable.

“Although I haven’t embraced trading books in PDF format, people request me to send them via email and WhatsApp. I’m hesitant to share since it would end up being shared freely to friends,” said Nyamu, the co-author of When Children Dare to Dream, a children’s short story anthology.

He said he was under pressure to sell his works in soft copies but with regulations.

Protecting writers

“I will start selling, but to ensure that writers earn what is rightfully theirs, I would create encrypted PDF files which consists two passwords. The first password is to open the encrypted document and the second one is to regulate sending of the document,” he said. “This will make sure that no one else can share the files without the knowledge of the writer or the original sender of the message.”

Award winning writer Dr Peter Kimani said the digitalpublications do not outweigh the physical, that it is a misleading conclusion that there was tendency to embrace the digital formats more than the other.

“I have never experienced any concern because publishers are the best in securing formats. My book is available in kindle, amazon and worldreader as well as hard copies,” he said, adding that the printed form has never lost its attractiveness.

His works have been published in both digital and physical formats. His latest novel, Dance of the Jakaranda, which is a New York Times Editors’ Choice, is available in digital format, audio kindle and as electronic book, but not as PDF.

Chairman of the Kenya PublishersAssociation Lawrence Njagi said security measures have been put in place to protect writers, publishersand booksellers.

“We cannot allow open PDF. You find books on places like Amazon and you can download on one gadget and you cannot share or print out or else everyone including writers and publishers will all lose. We ensure it is protected, in fact some are limited to readership for only a year or so,” said Njagi.

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