David Muita: The agony of publishing creative works
A cursory look at the literary discourse pages in leading weeklies in Kenya reveals deep concerns about the quality and amount of literary works coming out of the country currently.
Whether we read advice on how to write publishable novels or we are simply concerned that novels written by the current generation of Kenyan authors cannot compete on the continental or even global arenas of literary awards, or whether we are lamenting
the dearth of critical reading cultures among the youth, we are actually asking questions about the role that publishing houses play in enhancing the vibrancy of literature, both in terms of diversity and quality.
For publisher perspective thoughts on these and other issues, I spoke to David Muita, the chief executive of Moran East Africa Publishers, one of the leading firms in eastern Africa’s publishing industry.
What are some of the challenges that publishers in Kenya face?
There are a number, some of which affect the wider society. For instance, we have problems of weakening values that affect our professionalism. Piracy has affected us badly, especially in our Kiswahili anthology, Damu Nyeusi, that has been so pirated that
it is difficult to even estimate how many of our readers do have genuine copies.
Some book sellers, out of selfishness or some other reasons, undercut publishers by only buying a few genuine copies and then acquiring contraband copies that they then distribute to schools.
This problem is aggravated by the lengthy judicial remedies against offenders. Issues of attitude also come in, where many Kenyans would rather buy their books from the many ‘pavement bookshops’ that sell western books that are deemed to be cheaper,
thereby not supporting local publishers. Of course, this encourages breakages in schools, where books are targeted to replenish stocks in the pavements!
There have been claims that most of the recent novels published locally have poor plots, contrived characterisation, and even sloppy editing. What would you say to this?
Yes, I partly share in this concern. First, we receive very poor quality submissions for novels. But when you consider that many Kenyans don’t read local novels anyway, we then opt to publish school books that have a ready market.
But we have also invested in the quality of our editorial teams that we engage. For instance, at Moran Publishers, all our subject editors are university level graduates who bring experience and qualification in helping us judge manuscripts for publication.
But to promote locally published novels, the media and critics can also contribute by reviewing locally published novels more than they do the foreign ones.
Isn’t it also true that the 2016 reader is a totally different client from, say the 1970s one when you initially ventured into publishing?
Absolutely. And we have prepared for the current reader in many ways, for instance by investing more in technology and other convenient ways of packaging our works.
Through integrating print and digital technologies, making our products more relevant to changing constitutional, social and political times, we have ensured that any current reader will find something that they can identify with in our books.
Our school books, for instance, have aspects that touch on gender equality, children’s rights, and the 2010 Constitution. We are partnering with other players, for example ekitabu, Kytabu and World Reader, to digitize our content and market it to wider
So you are also taking advantage of digitisation? I thought digitisation is a hindrance?
Digitisation has not hindered our operations, in fact it has helped us to extend our horizons because we can now discover new partnership opportunities.
In any case, digitised material hardly accounts for more than 10 percent of sales, because many people still prefer to read material in print.
So does it mean that the industry is only changing marginally over the years?
The changes have been tremendous, we could even consider them as transformations! For one, players in the publishing industry have changed from mainly multinational corporations dominated by westerners to indigenous firms, except, perhaps, the Oxford University Press.
About 15 of publishing firms in Kenya are professionally run, although we have a few mushrooming ones whose proprietors tend to cut corners.
But overall, we have changed in terms of adopting technology that makes the business more efficient and reliable than before, indeed we have become an industry. We can compete internationally, as I noticed when I attended a book fair in Cape Town,
where our books sold out long before the fair was over.
So what is the next big opportunity for your firm and the industry?
We are currently training our eyes on the ongoing curriculum review that is happening at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, and we hope to have some of our titles approved for use in the new curriculum.
Unfortunately, most of us will continue to focus on new school texts at the expense of creative works. Perhaps the only creative component that we shall continue to have will be our Integrity Reader series, which seeks to restore in our young readers values
like integrity and honesty.
Speaking of creative works, what are some of your notable literary publications?
One of our novels, Pendo La Karaha by John Habwe, won the 2015 JKF Prize for the adult category of Kiswahili novels. Besides, of the about seven anthologies of short stories that KICD and earlier KIE have approved for KCSE examination, four have
been from us. The first one was the African Short Stories in English: An Anthology edited by Jean de Grandsaigne. We also had Encounters from Africa, Looking for a Rain God, and Half a Day and Other Stories.
In Kiswahili, Damu Nyeusi is also our publication, and we are currently working on another anthology titled Ten Shillings and Other Stories that we hope will also be successful.
So we have contributed towards the teaching of literature in this country. We have also invested a lot in autobiographies that are already in circulation, including Benjamin Kipkorir’s Descent From Cherengany Hills: Memoirs of a Reluctant Academic. More
are in the works, and will be launched soon.