Publishers stuck in silly past

Published on 21/12/2008

By Tom Odhiambo

There has been debate in recent times about the state of publishing works of art in the country.

We have read John Mwazemba, every now and then, trying to explain why publishing is difficult. He has argued or implied, as many in his trade before him, that our writers are not patient, industrious or creative. Of course, this is not the first time such lines have been invoked to explain the dearth of publishing local writing.

I wish to contribute to this debate, as a way of reflecting on what is not being done and what could be the way out of a conundrum that appears artificial.

First, the publishers. For Mwazemba and his ilk, I believe it is a bit disingenuous and self-destructive to continue sending potential authors rejection slips without critical reports on the submitted manuscripts. Surely, it adds little value to the manuscript to continue claiming that even great writers have had their manuscripts rejected. If publishers have to reject scripts, let them clearly state the reasons.

Secondly, local publishers need to know that all great works of literature have been nurtured. In fact, any good novel you read will have been midwifed by experienced editors who patiently advise the author on where and how to improve the script. Just read the acknowledgements, even by Nobel winners in literature, and realise how editors and publishers profoundly impact the final product on the bookshelves.

Thirdly, we need some innovativeness in the way local texts, especially the novels, are packaged. Since I was in primary school, local publishers continue to release titles with less appealing covers. For all I know, many still judge a book by its cover. This is simply what we do in our everyday lives: we judge our future partners by their appearances first; we even buy grocery by looking at the outward appearance.

One of the most abiding images for me in literature is the covers of the African Writers Series — show me a series to beat it. So, why do some of our local publishers think any prospective reader/buyer will be attracted to a novel that is ‘colourless’?

The next question that bothers me is how locally produced books are marketed. To begin with, most of them do not even get properly launched. When I lived outside the country, I only got to know about a local novel after it was reviewed in some foreign media.

National policy

There is need for local publishers to exploit the different media available to publicise their products. There is the Internet; of course the local newspapers are doing a decent job publishing reviews; the magazine market has expanded so much that any marketer should be dancing in glee. Consider the potential market reached by all the women’s magazine and what advertising in them would do for book sales.

What we need is a national policy on culture, which remains as elusive as a new constitution. But in the meantime, we need the industry to invest a little more in imaginative ways of helping potential authors to improve the quality of their output.

The Government needs to get serious about the arts and culture. In some countries, great works of literature and art have emerged as a result of government funding. Arts councils, such as the British Arts Council, and philanthropic organisations have been actively involved in funding and promoting artists/writers — of fiction, film or music — that have later become household names.

The Government needs to be proactive when it comes to investing in local art. To this end, it should help local publishers by limiting taxation on some publications as well as co-sponsoring local writing/art competitions

As someone who teaches literature, I may be asked: what are the departments of literature in local universities doing? My response: local publishers have to showcase their work by actively promoting new authors in institutions of higher learning. Consider that in some countries a lecturer would get free copies of a text so long as she eventually includes that text in her course. I would wish to see local publishers push for their publications to be included in the higher education syllabi and not just the primary and secondary school reading lists. What will happen when one day the Government liberalises the schoolbooks sourcing system? Will some of the ‘big’ local publishers survive?

Lastly, technology has enabled many Kenyans whose manuscripts have been rejected locally to publish elsewhere. What does that tell the likes of Mwazemba? And are local publishers not worried that a short story rejected by a local publishing firm actually gets published elsewhere and goes on to win a major international prize?

Are our publishing houses searching well enough for manuscripts that could diversify their portfolio or are they just contented with supplying books to primary and secondary schools and waiting for a fat cheque from the Government? I am currently reading a wonderful novel by a local author but published in Canada. How did it pass through the fingers of local editors?

I believe there is opportunity for all concerned parties — writers, publishing houses, departments of literature in our universities, local media and the Government — to take Kenya to where it was in the 1960s and 1970s when it was the reference point for writers and publishers elsewhere on the continent. But the publishing industry, especially the commissioning editors, have to come out of their comfort zones and invest in talent-hunt and nurture the established ones. I know this can be done because in the past few weeks I have been reading fairly good books from local publishers.

Dr Odhiambo researches and teaches literature and communication. [email protected]





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