A gamble that Simon Sossion took 10 years ago, amid much cynicism from detractors, has paid off handsomely. His firm, Spotlight Publishers (EA) Ltd, is now at the apex of book publishing in Kenya and the region.
Publishing in Kenya is notoriously tricky. The soft-spoken chief executive recalls that back then, he took a leap of faith. “We were confident that we would play a role in the market,” he says. “It has taken faith, hard work and doing the right thing, ethically and professionally, to reach where we are today. We also invested in the right people to work with us.”
Sossion stresses the importance of remaining faithful to the contract a publisher enters with the author. “It is extremely important to be honest with your authors, pay them their royalties and keep clear records,” he says.
It is little wonder that Spotlight has managed to attract and retain reputable authors in the region. They include Ken Walibora, whose book Kidagaa Kimemwozea was a secondary school set book from 2013 to 2017, and Wallah Bin Wallah, author of Taswira ya KCPE Kiswahili.
Saturday Nation columnist Austin Bukenya, who, incidentally, was Sossion’s lecturer at Kenyatta University, is another of Spotlight’s star authors. So is Prof Evan Mwangi, another regular Saturday and Sunday Nation contributor. Then there is Said Ahmed Mohammed, East Africa’s leading Kiswahili novelist, poet and playwright, author of Utengano, Mashetani Wamerudi and Wenye Meno.
These authors and many others recently gathered at Sarit Centre, in Westlands, to mark Spotlight’s 10th anniversary.
The Saturday Nation sat down with Sossion to reflect on a variety of issues in the publishing industry.
By the time he was setting up his own outfit, then known as Target Publications, the textbook market — the mainstay of local publishers — was somewhat saturated. If he had to survive, he had to find space. His research had indicated that the field of revision books held some potential.
Sossion, who was born 53 years ago in Bomet County, says their entry into revision books was not by chance. “We had done an extensive market survey,” he explains.
Though reluctant to reveal how big his outfit has grown over the years, he is now one of the heavy hitters in the industry. Today, if your child is in a private primary school, chances are that they use one or two Spotlight books in class. There are about 16,500 private schools in the country, as opposed to about 23,500 public schools.
Before the launch of the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC), Spotlight only dealt with revision books. “The ushering in of CBC in 2017 gave us a perfect opportunity to enter the course book market with publications for Pre-Primary 1 and 2 and Grades 1 to 3,” says Sossion, who is also the vice-chairperson of the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA).
Speaking of CBC, Sossion, an alumni of Kangaru School, says this is the right way to go for Kenya’s educational system. “With CBC, the full potential of the learner is identified and nurtured as opposed to the accumulation of knowledge and reproduction of the same during exams,” he says. “A key distinctive feature of CBC is the emphasis on practical learning activities which strengthen teamwork, collaboration and communication among the learners.”
In developing the curriculum books, Sossion explains that publishers look for the best teachers and train them to become authors. “The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), which assesses and approves books to be used in schools, has been working very closely with publishers in training our authors, editors, designers and production staff on how to produce CBC-compliant course books,” says Sossion, who also chairs the training committee at KPA.
“Besides, Kenyan publishers now have the requisite experience, having participated in developing CBC materials in both Uganda and Rwanda,” he says. “Uganda rolled out its CBC in 2012, while Rwanda launched theirs in 2015.”
Sossion, however, insists that the whole process of producing CBC books must be driven by locals. “Authors, editors, designers and illustrators must be Kenyan,” he says. “They understand our cultural and moral landscape better than any outsider. The conceptualisation, writing, production and distribution of CBC learning materials to our Kenyan schools is a very delicate moral and national responsibility that is best executed by Kenyans. It should never be surrendered to foreign interests.”
The biggest nightmare for local publishers, says Sossion, remains piracy. “Pirates target any book as long as it can move a few thousand copies,” he explains. “They are wreaking.”
What is the remedy?
“Unless and until we declare piracy an economic crime, pirates will continue tormenting us,” says Sossion, who is a past chairman of the anti-piracy committee at KPA. “We need to stiffen penalties handed down to these offenders.”
This, he argues, can only be done by amending the Copyright Act 2001 (Revised 2009), which governs counterfeiting and illegal reproduction of intellectual property. The existing law, he insists, is too lenient on offenders. The law only provides for a maximum fine of Sh800,000 or a jail term of 10 years, or both.
“Assuming that one has pirated books worth more than Sh10 million, which they regularly do, and they are only fined Sh800,000, how is that person deterred from getting right back into the vice?” asks Sossion. The fine, he adds, needs to be adjusted upwards to, say, Sh10 million.
Sossion believes that the local publishing industry will only survive in the future by embracing innovation and technology. “The future is digital,” he says. “If we fail to embrace modern technology, we risk becoming extinct.”
He says that Spotlight Publishers is firming up local and global linkages. He cites their partnership with HarperCollins.
“We also have a fruitful partnership with Penguin Random House, which gave us the rights to locally produce The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” he adds.
Apart from Rwanda and Uganda, Spotlight books are also used in South Sudan and Somalia.