‘I am in the storytelling business.’ – John Le Carré (The Constant Gardener, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold)
‘I want to be remembered as a storyteller.’ – Sidney Sheldon
‘I’m not capable of winning literary prizes – not good enough. I’m a storyteller. That’s my strength. But a hundred million people read my books and I have been No.1 all over the world.’ – Bestselling British novelist Jeffery Archer
‘I was born to be a storyteller – even my dreams have a full cast of characters and a twist in the tail.’ – Alexander Nderitu
One of megastar Michael Jackson’s comeback attempts was an album called Ghosts. (Apparently an effort to re-create the astonishing success of Thriller.) In line with his epic blockbuster releases, the album came complete with an extended video featuring MJ’s singing and dance moves, all tied together by a storyline. To make Thriller, he had collaborated with John Landis, writer/director of An American Werewolf in London (hence MJ’s werewolf character and the ghostly laughter at the end). For Ghosts, MJ needed something similar – someone known the world over for ‘ghostly’ entertainments. He brought in American gothic/horror novelist Stephen
King (Danse Macabre, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption).
Had Stephen King turned down the role of writing the storyline, I bet MJ’s other options would have been Dean R. Koontz (Whispers, Fear Nothing), Ann Rice (Interview With the Vampire) and James Herbert (The Rats). Why? Because all those authors are known the world over for horror fiction. James Herbert, for instance, is Britain’s greatest horror writer. His novels, which include The Rats, Legion, The Magic Cottage, Haunted, The Spear and Portent, have sold thirty-seven million copies.
The point I’m trying to make is that the world’s bestselling authors are brands. In marketing, a ‘brand’ is ‘a set of promises’, a certain expectation (or set of expectations) from a product or name. Some authors have become so well-branded as to dominate certain niche markets – you see or hear their name and you associate them with a certain type of literature:
1) Tom Clancy – ‘Techno’ (high-tech) thrillers
2) Danielle Steel – Romantic fiction
3) Robert Ludlum – Violent super thrillers
4) Stephen King – Horror fiction
5) Dean R. Koontz – Horror fiction
6) John Grisham – Legal thrillers
7) Andy McNab – Special forces action
8) Patricia Cornwell – CSI-type murder investigations
….And so on.
And that’s why when Michael Jackson was making Ghosts, he didn’t reach out to Danielle Steel or John Grisham.
Branding is a very important part of sales and marketing. As said on TVs ‘Small Business Enterprise’, ‘It’s always easier to sell with a brand than without one.’ Even the font used for a major author’s name is usually unique and often consistent throughout his or her book covers. I’m talking about writers like Danielle Steel, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich, James Hadley Chase, Stephen King, Jeffery Deaver, Jonathan Kellerman, John Grisham and many others. The publishers want that name to catch your eye even when the book
is just one of many in a bookstore. The effect is especially clear when an author’s books are placed side by side.
Let’s delve further into the issue of branding and why it’s so important for the emerging crop of Kenyan literati:
A lesser known Danielle Steel, Mary Stewart wrote numerous romantic novels, some of them set in historical times. Her titles, which include Wildfire at Midnight, Thunder on the Right, Nine Coaches Waiting and This Rough Magic, were translated into 15 languages and sold over 7 million copies in Corgi alone. Commenting on Nine Coaches Waiting, a Daily Telegraph review said,
‘There are few to equal Mary Stewart as an entertainer.’ Note: It said ‘entertainer’ – not ‘writer’, not ‘novelist’, not ‘author’. Novelists are entertainers – just like musicians, actors, dancers and other artists. And that’s how most young Kenyan authors see themselves. Personally, I have never considered myself anything but an entertainer. Everything I write (novel, play etc) is meant to entertain an audience. Sometimes, I touch on heady issues like human genetic cloning (The Tomorrow Soldiers), post-Cold War espionage (Life as a Flower, Kiss Commander Promise™), the arms trade (The Patriots Club, Climate of Terror), genocide (Harvest of Blood) and so on but the overall objective is to elicit an emotional response, to entertain.
If I wanted to present bare facts, I would be a newspaper reporter.
To reinforce the idea of writers as mainstream entertainers, many new Kenyan authors also engage (or have been engaged) in other forms of entertainment. Examples: Caroline Nderitu (stage plays), Cajetan Boy (stage plays, movies), Joshua Mwai (stage plays, bass guitarist in a band), Tony Mochama (rock music, has mentioned being in a band called ‘Adam’s Apple’), Mildred Achoch (rock music promoter), my friends Dayan Masinde and Boniface Nyaga (R&B
music, both members of ‘Love Republic’ band) and of course there’s me and my experimental rock/alternative rap project (‘The Alexander Nderitu Overture’).
I don’t know what it is about rock music in particular that attracts novelists but the phenomenon seems to be universal:
- Jackie Collins wrote a book about rock n’ rollers entitled, Rock Star. The bestseller revolves around the lives of three different musicians. It is believed to have been inspired by such acts as Mick Jagger, Sting and Whitney Houston.
- In his old age, horror writer Stephen King formed a rock band with friends in order to ‘recapture a misspent youth.’
- Controversial Indian-born author Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses, Midnight’s Children) wrote a book on the sex-and-drugs world of Rock n’ Roll music. For research, he spent time with Irish rock band U2. ‘Rock stars should never let novelists on stage,’ Rushdie said. ‘They end up writing novels.’ Perhaps, Mr. Rushdie, but it cuts both ways – musicians have also been so inspired by literature that it gave them song ideas:
o The Beautiful South rock band has a wonderful song called Danielle Steel (The Enemy Within)
o Paul Simon & Garfunkel’s poetic, allegorical, song, The Dangling Conversation, was based on the novel The Dangling Man by Saul Bellow. Popular in its day, The Dangling Man centres on the thoughts of a man going through an entire year of idleness as he waits to be drafted into the army. Even the lyrics lend themselves to literature. Dig this:
‘And you read your Emily Dickinson / And I my Robert Frost / And we note our place
with bookmarkers / To measure what we’ve lost’
Paul Simon & Garfunkel must be a huge fans of English literature.
o Another music group with a taste for literature was The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Best known for their intriguing stage antics, the influential Scottish rockers incorporated literary and theatrical elements into their stage act. One particular number, The Man in the Jar, sounds less like a song and more like a detective novel audio book. Analyze this:
‘I got the call on a rainy Monday / Business was uneasy / So I flipped open a packet of cigarettes and considered the situation’
Later the same evening:
‘The fog drifted over the river / I turned up the collar of my coat / I’ve got to get over there
fast, fast / Call me a cab, call me a cab / I entered the study / Through the French windows / And there on the floor / Was all that was left of the man with no face’
o I would be remiss not to mention folk/rock singer Bob Dylan in this section of musicians inspired by literature. His very name is adapted from poet Dylan Thomas (Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman). His lyrical storytelling style changed song-writing forever, making him one of the most influential musicians of all time. Songs like Twitter and the Monkey Man, Tangled Up in Blue and Lily, Rosemary and The Jack of Hearts have been described as ‘perfect little novels’. In 2008, Bob Dylan was awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize.
- Before becoming a novelist, Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist), worked as a songwriter, composing lyrics for Elis Regina, Rita Lee, and Brazilian icon Raul Seixas.
- Noted Jamaican-born poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (better known as LKJ) combined his love for poetry and reggae music to become one of the pioneers of ‘Dub Poetry’. LKJ’s poetic hit songs include Want Fi Go Rave, Sonny’s Letter and Lincense Fi Kill. His music albums sold over 3 million copies but he always insisted that he was a poet (not a musician). During a performance in South Africa, he stopped the band so that he could recite his poem New World Order in its pure form. LKJ was allegedly the first Black man to have his poetry published by Penguin Classics.
- Another Jamaican reggae poet is Mutabaruka whose poem entitled Dis Poem took the world by storm and has been performed and referenced in Spoken Word sessions around the globe. Mutabaruka himself has recited Dis Poem on such platforms as America’s Def Poetry Jam. His reggae music is deeply poetic as evidenced by the hit song Dispel the Lie.
- In Kenya, artists performing ‘dub poetry’ include female reggae artist Mumbi.
- Ian Rankin was recently spotted DJ-ing!
- Margaret Atwood, launched her novel The Year of the Flood with an all-singing, all-dancing ‘world tour’
- Iain Sinclair is developing ‘a site-specific work for text and sound’
- Sidney Sheldon (The Other Side of Midnight, If Tomorrow Comes) was probably the best loved novelist in Kenya throughout the ‘90’s. Among the youth, even those who hadn’t read the bestsellers had at least heard of the author. Apart from his books being available countrywide, TV mini-series of some of his tales like Rage of Angels and If Tomorrow Comes were aired on local TV. What most Kenyans may not know is that the author (now deceased) didn’t start writing novels until he was in his 60s! He had previously written
songs, stage plays (Annie Get Your Gun), movie scripts (Easter Parade, The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer) and TV shows (I Dream of Jeannie, Hart to Hart). His own words:
‘I’m interested in everything. I’m interested in television, movies, books,
theatre…I want do all of that and as long as God let’s me live, I’ll keep doing
what I’m doing.’
Far from being considered ‘entertainers’ and appearing where they belong in newspapers and magazines (along with other entertainers/celebrities), young Kenyan writers find themselves only flittingly mentioned in the (usually boring) books section. Ask a person on the street what he imagines a typical Kenyan author looks like and, pound to a penny, he’ll paint a picture of an
ageing professor whose best works were published in the ‘70’s or ‘80’s. This is serious because that’s not what the writer of today looks like. For one thing, those types of writers are a very small minority and allowing them to be the de facto face of Kenyan literature is a case of the tail wagging the dog. There is such a dichotomy between the types of literature tackled by the
‘entertainers’ and the works of ‘literary/serious/academic’ types that their books probably shouldn’t be sold side-by-side at the bookstore (the same as different products on a supermarket shelf). They’re completely different brands. Here’s an example - Imagine you were peeking into the Bookpoint window display and the following titles were side-by-side: My Life in Crime, Son of Woman, My Four Wives, How to Get Rich in Africa, Excuse Me Your Dream is Calling, Sunrise at Midnight and The Politics of School Texts in Kenya. Which one would you say is the odd one out? The last one of course! The title alone promises boredom. You have to keep in mind that when
you put out a book, even if it’s non-fiction, it will be competing with other books from all over the world, at the bookstore. Even if Politics of School Texts in Kenya is placed strictly among nonfiction books in a bookstore, it will still rub shoulders with such seductive titles as Pop Babylon (an exposé of the world of pop music) and The Accidental Billionaires (about the founding of
Facebook). Which of those three titles would you be least interested in browsing? A better title for The Politics of School Texts in Kenya would probably have been, Education Babylon: Who Decides What Your Children Read in School? If such tactics repulse you, then you’re exactly what I was ten years ago – a lousy marketer. Like most artists, I only cared about my art - putting out the best writings I possibly could. I had to find out the hard way that having great content is not enough. You need to be part businessman.
Or as Robert Kiyosaki argues in his 20-million-copy bestseller, Rich Dad Poor Dad, there’s a difference between a ‘best-selling author’ and a ‘best-writing author.’ A few years ago, I started writing less and learning more about marketing. As of right now, there are two local publishers (one of them quite prestigious) interested in my longer fiction; one Japanese publisher translating my short stories (including Rude Was the Shock, A Game for Heroes…If You Believe the Hype, Kiss Commander Promise™ and Hannah and the Angel) into Japanese, for print and electronic publication; and two unrelated filmmakers working on movies based on Kiss, Commander, Promise™ and The Stacy Walker Interview. For more on the importance of the ‘look’ of your book in bookstores, let’s get a word from American PR guru Steve Harrison who helped such books as Chicken Soup for the Soul and Rich Dad Poor Dad get publicity:
‘Another key thing is to think about your title. Your title is really key. People judge your book by the title. They also judge it by the cover. So it’s not a place that you’ll want to skip. You’re definitely going to want a professional graphic designer, not your other daughter who’s just learned this new software program. Actually get a professional person who is used to doing book covers so that your book looks like it belongs on the New York Times Bestseller List.'
A good example of titles and covers being used to great effect is in the marketing of the James Hadley Chase thrillers that ruled Kenyan bookshops in the nineties. They bore such titles as Tiger By the Tail, You’re Lonely When You’re Dead, You’re Dead Without Money, More Deadly Than The Male, Make The Corpse Walk and I Would Rather Stay Poor. The titles alone made you curious. The cover design inevitably featured a skimpily-clad, drop-dead gorgeous girl, usually holding a pistol. What’s interesting is that some of the 'dames' in the books, such as the lead females in No Orchids for Miss Blandish and Just A Matter of Time, were quite demure and never even touched guns in the actual stories! But the book covers sure caught your attention when you passed by a bookstore!
Kenyan literature does not fall under one brand. The ‘storytellers/entertainers’ need to market themselves separately from the scholars. For example, when emailing media releases, they should send them to the entertainment editors, not necessarily the literary commentators. They should also seek TV appearances. Appearances on TV talk shows are a popular way for authors
to market their books. Even mentions of authors or their works on the air can be a boost.
To illustrate my point, the first time I ever heard of novelist Ann Rice (Interview With the Vampire, Servant of the Bones, The Vampire Armad), it was on TV’s E! News Weekend – a show that covers entertainment news. According to E!, Ann Rice ‘has written more than twenty novels that have sold millions of copies’. Being a show that mainly covers film stars, it’s very likely that Hollywood heavyweights (producers, directors, star actors) watch that show and would, then, be in a position to learn about Ann Rice’s works (but it’s very unlikely that said heavyweights would be reading professor-written sleep-inducing literary columns). Indeed, Ann Rice has caught Hollywood’s eye in the past: Interview With the Vampire was turned into a movie starring
Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, no doubt further increasing the author’s bankability.
Let’s now hear the opinion of superselling American author Jackie Collins on the subject of ‘entertainers’ vs. ‘literary writers’:
‘I’m a storyteller. I have never pretended to be a great literary writer. I don’t want to be a literary writer and I probably couldn’t be a literally writer. But I love to tell stories.’
And here’s Stephen King’s opinion of his own works:
‘I am exporting little pieces of America. There is no more American writer than me. Hey, maybe I’m the literary equivalent of McDonald’s – a coke and fries and a Big Mac.’