David Waweru had just resigned from his well-paying job as a manager at an international publishing firm to establish his own, and he was pretty upbeat about it. But that was before some of his friends and colleagues got wind of his move.
While some expressed genuine reservations about his chances of surviving the rough and tumble of the publishing business, others were less diplomatic.
“An acquaintance stopped me in the streets and told me to my face that I could not have made a worse mistake,” Mr Waweru said. “And for good measure, he added that the business model I had in mind had never succeeded in the country.”
That comment, coming from a senior and respected person in the industry, made him think long and hard about his new venture.
Against the tide
However, he decided to swim against the tide. While most publishing houses in Kenya focus on textbooks, Mr Waweru, opted to go into general publishing. That was in 2001.
Today, he is the CEO of WordAlive Publishers, a successful and influential Christian-cum-motivational publishing house. His success has made other publishing houses realise there is a large market in non-textbook publishing.
Before Mr Waweru’s entry into the market, few local publishers were involved in general readership books, with most publishers citing Kenyans’ poor reading habits and poverty as the reasons they did not invest in this field.
But Mr Waweru had noticed that imported Christian, self-help and motivational books were flying off the shelves despite their relatively high prices; this was enough to keep his dream alive.
“True, there is money in textbook publishing, but I consider this to be short-term, as one is held captive by the forces at the ministry of Education,” he said to explain why he did not venture into textbook publishing.
When he joined the International Bible Society (IBS) as a publications manager in 1995, Mr Waweru made up his mind it would be his last job. “Even as they were hiring me, I made it clear that I would only work for five years,” he said.
Before the five years were up, he had been promoted to publishing manager in charge of the African region and the pay was good. He was comfortable and the temptation to linger a while longer was strong. “I had to shake off this temptation and make good my vow, if only to myself,” he said.
When Mr Waweru was researching to start his own firm in 2001, general publishing was unfamiliar territory for him and the economy was shaky, but he was prepared to ride out the storm.
And he was aware of the challenges of non-texbook publishing. “To break even in such a venture, you need to have around 70 to 100 titles, and this is a process that normally takes five to 10 years,” he said.
To keep afloat while building WordAlive, he created Impact Media, a company that provided publishing support services for businesses, including designing and editing newsletters and annual reports. By the fifth year, WordAlive had broken even with 36 titles, and he wound up Impact Media.
“From the word go, we wanted to identify and nurture local authors who would meet the needs of our readers,” he said.
“An overwhelming majority of our authors are first timers, and this goes to show how much untapped potential we have in our midst.”
Citing the example of Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad, Mr Waweru said books on how to achieve financial success are in great demand, even though many Western books are not sensitive to local realities.
So he commissioned financial expert Ken Monyoncho to write a book on personal finance. The result was How to Save Money for Investment that was released in November last year.
“Today the book is in its third reprint, having sold close to 6,000 copies,” he said.
“This is a 96-page pocket-sized book retailing at Sh500. We feared that readers would shun it due to the price, but its performance put our fears to rest.”
He said 40 per cent of their sales are made in areas outside Kenya’s major towns, “yet these are considered poor areas by Kenyan standards.
This rubbishes the notion that low economic status prevents Kenyans from investing in books”.
“The lesson here is that as long as the product is right, Kenyans are willing to spend their hard-earned money,” he said.
“We invest in the best talent in terms of design and editing, and as for printing, we do not hesitate to stop press when the quality does not meet our standards. The same goes for marketing, which we kick off with high-powered launches,” Mr Waweru, aged 43, revealed.
And since WordAlive Publishers deals mainly in motivational books, they have made licensing arrangements with internationally recognised authors, which has cut down marketing costs.
“We then market these internationally recognised brands alongside our first-time authors to boost them,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest coup for WordAlive was winning the bid to publish the African Bible Commentary (ABC), a collective effort of 70 Biblical scholars from across Africa who sought to make the Bible relevant to the African situation. They have sold more than 20,000 copies across Africa.
“We are currently working with Kiswahili scholars from Kenyatta University and Tanzania to have the ABC translated into Kiswahili,” Mr Waweru said.