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Why self-published writers are on the rise

Arts Lounge

Where do writers whose manuscripts have been rejected by publishers go? Do they sit, twiddle their thumbs and quietly curse at publishers?

Well, going by the recent experience, not any more. Gone are the days when publishers were the only game in town. Today, there is a wide array of options open to writers. The world-wide-web presents a host of these.

A writer whose publisher’s door firmly shuts out only needs to raise some cash, and Viola, they are published. What is more? An increasing number of published authors are resorting to self-publishing.

For these writers, self-publishing is hassle-free - no questions asked and you are the boss. There are no ‘nosy’ editors, no vetting and best of all, there is absolutely no risk of your manuscript being ‘sat on’ as long as they can finance the whole project.

Self-publishing is today, an issue mainstream publishers cannot just wish away. It is no longer funny when one of the senior writers decides that they no longer need your services and that they too can publish their own books.

It gets complicated when the new ‘publisher,’ due to their flexibility, attracts a host of other writers, who similarly are in a rush to see their works in print.

This raises a number of questions; is self-publishing worth the trouble, and is it sustainable in the long run? Before we answer these questions, examine what motivates people to want to get published.

Any person who has ever put a pen on paper, never mind the quality, will tell you that the writing process is like undergoing a pregnancy.

Eventually, one must give birth, figuratively speaking. And this explains the frustration, by writers, when a publisher declines to publish them.

And since their writing journey must come to its logical conclusion, a manuscript must get published, and if a publisher cannot do it, self-publishing becomes the only way out.

But to be fair to publishers, I would understand why they reject some manuscripts. I have had occasion to go through some manuscripts, and if truth be told, some of the writing is atrocious.

Reading through one paragraph gives you a headache. When such a reader reacts to a publisher’s rejection by going the self-publishing route, they are not doing themselves any favours.

In my previous life as a book reviewer for a leading newspaper, I received many manuscripts, some by self-published writers seeking to have them reviewed. And just like they have their way with printers, they expected me to review their books unquestioningly.

They are usually impatient and demand answers as to why their books cannot be reviewed soonest. To them, their book is the best thing that happened in the world of writing, which is understandable; no one hates the product of their labour.

One such writer brought me a ‘book’, whose content would have trouble competing in a Grade Five composition competition. The book’s physical quality was equally atrocious.

Raw deal

When he came to demand answers, I patiently explained to him that his printer, by agreeing to print the book in the state it was in, had given him a raw deal. In short, I advised him to hire the services of a good editor to revise the book before taking it back to the printers. If he followed my advice, I am sure the editor must have earned his every penny!

What such writers forget is that publishers add value to manuscripts, which explains why they hire editors. On the other hand, there are certain publishers, who for their own reasons, reject otherwise good manuscripts.

In such cases, owners of these manuscripts are justified to self-publish their works. These writers, knowing the importance of editing a book, pay an editor, who then refines their work, before they finally take it to a printer.

The result, more often than not, is a product that can compete with anything an established publisher offers.

Prof Kithaka wa Mberia and Ng’ang’a Mbugua are two examples of writers who went into self-publishing and today, own full-fledged publishing houses. Their success can be attributed to taking their craft seriously and avoiding cutting corners.

While Prof Mberia owns Marimba Publishers, Mbugua runs Big Books and they have accolades to show. One of Prof Mberia’s books, Kifo Kisimani, was at some point a set book for secondary schools. Last year, his play, Kwenzi Gizani won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. On the other hand, about three of Mbugua’s books have won the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize.

Early this year, Big Books published Referee of a Dirty Ugly Game, the autobiography of Ahmed Issack Hassan, the former chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, which in itself is not a mean feat.   

Did you know that Aden Duale’s book, For the Record, was self-published? Now, this brings us to marketing, where self-published writers fumble.

As opposed to an established publisher, who has hundreds of titles in their catalogue, and therefore benefits from economies of scale, a self-published writer, with only one or two titles, will find it hard to compete.

For one, the marketing budget might outstrip, by far, what he expects to get from selling the book, if it sells at all. Still, there are some smart authors, who have perfected the art of marketing their books through social media; these authors (Silas Nyanchwani easily comes to mind here), market their books in ways that leave mainstream publishers envious.

Many younger authors are going the self-publishing route. They are doing a decent job of marketing their books. Maybe it is time publishers and these writers sat down and work out a winning formula that benefits both sides.

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