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Publishing a book in Kenya is not for the fainthearted

Saturday February 1 2020

typewriter

Some days you will bang furiously, as though the story is writing itself, other days you will struggle to find this magician they call a muse. PHOTO | FILE  

BETT KINYATTI
By BETT KINYATTI
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One day, weeks, months or years from today, you will open a blank Word document on your laptop and you will begin to write. You will be writing a story about your life. Why? Because everyone has a book inside them. Every human being on this Earth has had — or will have — an experience worth eternalising in a book.

It could be a story about overcoming an addiction — alcohol, heroine, pornography. Or your 30 years in combat in the army’s front lines. Maybe your brutal decade in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. Or as a midwife in a public maternity hospital who birthed babies through different political regimes. Hell, maybe you just want to talk about facing Mount Kenya.

So you will bang away at your laptop. Some days you will bang furiously, as though the story is writing itself, other days you will struggle to find this magician they call a muse. You will lose hope on such days, you will doubt yourself and the ability of your story to change the world as you imagine it will. But you will muscle your way through the fog and mud. The burden to tell your story keeps you relentless.

The ready-to-publish draft will be ready in two years. It will have been a labour of love. You did not imagine writing a book could be this difficult. You send your manuscript to a publishing house for review. You bite your nails waiting on their response. They call you in for a meeting six months later.

You meet a junior from the publishing house in their musty boardroom. He holds your manuscript in his hands. Your palms are clammy. After some useless chatter about the weather, he tells you in a grandmotherly tone: “You have a wonderful story here, it has weight. But the execution falls short. You have a lot — a lot — of work to do in polishing up your writing. I’m sorry, we can’t take you on and publish your book.” He adds hastily when you slump: “Look, I’ve seen several people like you with brilliant stories hire a professional writer to write the book for them. Please consider it.”

You are as insecure and needy as the next writer is, so what you heard him say was: “My goodness, what a horrible book! It reads like a boring CV. You did the right thing bringing it here first because no one else should be punished to read it. Look, take your manuscript and fling it as far away as you can.”

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His criticism does not faze you. You believe in your story — and your writing — so you ignore him to publish your book yourself.

When you publish your book with a publishing house, they do all the heavy lifting: they oversee the editorial process, applying for the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) from the Kenya National Library, typesetting, artwork for the front and back cover, printing, storage, marketing on social media and through print ads, and distribution of the book through these marketing channels. You can get annual royalties of up to 20 per cent of book sales, depends on how you negotiate.

Sometimes you can sell the publishing house your book’s copyrights. In such cases, the publishing house pays you a lump sum cash advance for the copyrights’ and once they have gone to print, they give you a few copies for distribution. All sales proceeds from here on out are theirs to keep. If ever you want some copies yourself, you will have to buy them like everybody else.

When you self-publish your book, you do all the heavy lifting yourself. It sounds like a lot of work because it is a lot of work. It is also cash-intensive. You will settle from your pocket the professionals you contract, that is the editors and graphic designers. You will also have to source for book printers, negotiate printing rates, approve the dummy copy and keep the books … somewhere (maybe your living room? Your car boot?) when they leave the printers. Marketing is another headache all together. It helps if you already have a loyal community on social media. And in your church.

The beauty is, you are in complete control of the process. You know how many copies are printed, how many are sold and how the market is responding to your book. All sales proceeds go into your pocket. Your copyrights are yours. I want to say you will be laughing all the way to be bank but I am not into clichés.

I have seen several Kenyan authors in recent years walk down this path of self-publishing. You can easily point out those who skimped on editorial reviews, graphic designing or printing. Local bookshops are hesitant to stock self-published books mostly because of this skimping. International literary fiction awards lock out self-published authors.

Everyone has a book inside them, no doubt. But if you are not willing to put your money into telling your story in the right way, then let that book remain inside of you.

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