A literary contribution to healing

Saturday August 23 2008

By JOSEPH NGUNJIRI [email protected]

The eleventh edition of the Nairobi International Book Fair (NIBF) takes place at a time when the literary arena seems to be a undergoing a renaissance of sorts.

Literary space is expanding and today, not a week passes without a literary event taking place in and around Nairobi.

Going by the theme “Celebrating Diversity”, organizers of this year’s fair, which takes place between September 24 and 28, aim to contribute to national healing, following the violence that rocked the country after the divisive 2007 General Election.

Today, it is not uncommon to find Nairobi residents gathered at an entertainment spot listening to poetry recitals, story telling and prose-reading sessions.

Ironically though, none of these increasingly popular events are spearheaded by established publishing houses. This refreshing literary experience is the brainchild of Kwani Trust and Storymoja, relatively young entrants to the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) fold, which organises NIBF.

Whereas past book fairs were largely a closed system run by conservative establishment types, the situation is slowly changing with new, younger entrants increasingly finding their voices in the scheme of things.

There seems to be a new-found synergy between the young and the old, and this is a big plus for the national book industry.

Mr Lawrence Njagi, is among the new entrants breathing fresh air in the literary field. He is the current chairperson of the NIBF sub-committee whose mandate is to ensure the smooth running of the fair.

“My committee is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that more Kenyans are aware of the book fair and that they do eventually come to see what is on offer,” he told Lifestyle adding that it is also within the sub-committee’s mandate to root for a vibrant reading culture among Kenyans.

Mr Njagi, who is the CEO of Mountain Top Publishers - a publishing house specialising in early childhood learning materials - is upbeat that the new-found synergy between new and established publishers will be reflected at this year’s fair.

“We want to prove that the old and the new can work together for the development of the book industry in the country,” he said.

Things have not always been that rosy, and there are lingering doubts that established publishers will be willing to cede space to newcomers.

This is partly informed by the fact that the lucrative textbook publishing is still dominated by the bigger, established publishing houses.

For a long time now, NIBF has come to be viewed as an exclusive textbook affair, with general publishing taking the back seat. This in effect means that lovers of general readership books feel left out.

Perhaps this is reflected by the traffic at the fair, which mainly consists school parties and parents. For giving too much preference to textbook publishing, at the expense of general publishing, established publishers have been accused of contributing to a poor reading culture in the country.

Mr Njagi however defended them with the argument that as business entities, publishers exist to make profits. “We cannot ignore the fact that children need to go to school and that they require learning materials,” he explained.

He is however quick to add that with the windfall that has been brought about by the Free Primary Education, publishers now have money to spare and that is being channelled to books for general readership.

“There is added variety in general readership and this is going to be reflected at the Nairobi International Book Fair,” said Mr Njagi, who is also a member of the KPA council.

With the textbook publishing market already crowded, the option for new entrants is to venture in the more challenging, though untapped, field of general publishing. And judging by their performance thus far, their efforts are not in vain.

Mr David Waweru, the CEO of WordAlive, a Christian-cum-motivational publishing house, is among the few daring publishers who have embraced general publishing.

Mr Waweru, who will be making his fifth appearance at the NIBF, is not daunted by the obvious domination of textbook publishers at the fair. “We cannot always complain about a poor reading culture,” he said. “It is up to us to expand the horizons and give people what they want to read.”

He adds that it is due to the positive response of Kenyans that seven years down the line, WordAlive is growing from strength to strength.

“I am convinced that Kenyans do read. If you give them good value for their money, they are willing to spend it. And that is the value we will be giving them at this year’s book fair,” he said.

Mr Murori Kiunga is another publisher who will take advantage of this year’s fair to prove that there is more to publishing than just textbooks.

Mr Kiunga, who runs Queenex Publishers, which mostly deals with motivational and financial books, says their products are popular with readers as they are a true reflection of the society.

“Just as textbooks are a reflection of what takes place in the classroom, successful general readership books must reflect what is taking place in the larger society,” he explained.

He gave an example of one of his books, The Winning Character, which he says is doing very well in the market.

“This book guides readers on how they can be successful in their day to day lives. It has so far sold over 15,000 copies,” he explained.

His other successful titles deal with topics ranging from starting successful businesses, to good parenting, to preparing for retirement, to getting out of debt. These topics, he says, are the ones preoccupying the minds of Kenyans hence the popularity of his books.

Inner circle

Though a member of the publishers’ inner circle, Mr Njagi is still very much an outsider.

Since early childhood learning materials are not part of the costs to be covered under the Free Primary Education programme, he has to market his books directly to parents.

This explains why Mountain Top has placed itself strategically in leading supermarkets with satisfactory results.

Storymoja is the other new entrant, in the market, that has caused quite a stir in literary circles. They will be adding variety to the NBF by organising debates and story-telling sessions, which have become their stock-in-trade.

Muthoni Garland, the managing director of Storymoja Publishers, has been co-opted in one of the many committees of the National Book Development Council of Kenya (NBDCK).

“Through NBDCK, we will be launching a short story writing award during the book fair,” she said. “We are in the process of shopping around for sponsors as we want the winner to take home good prize money, like Sh100,000.” The prize will however be awarded in December.

The fair will also see the awarding of the second edition of the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize. This is in addition to the numerous books which will be launched by different publishers.