Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What Ails Kenyan Literature (Part 3) - Wrong / Lack of Author Branding

‘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 Childrenwrote 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 Dadthere’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 InterviewFor 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.’

Friday, August 31, 2012

What Ails Kenyan Literature (Part 2) - Intellectual Elitism

‘The novel, to me, is a demonstration of emotional and psychological truths, not an intellectual exercise. I don’t see myself as an intellectual…I think of myself as a craftsman.’ – Bestselling author John Irving (The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules)
I don’t want scientists. I don’t want academicians. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.’ - Bill Bernbach, legendary businessman (advertising field)

Let me ask you a question: Has anyone ever borrowed the literary page of your newspaper?

Admit it – people will ask if they can ‘see’ your Pulse, Zuqka, Eve, Saturday, Instinct, sports section and a few other entertaining pullouts/segments but no-one borrows your Literary/Books page. There’s a reason for that: It’s usually filled with academic/intellectual hogwash and is therefore boring to the man on the street. I am a writer and even I don’t read the literary columns any more (maybe the concerned columnists don’t care about that but they should – If
you were organizing a music awards ceremony and even the musicians were not interested, wouldn’t you be concerned?)

‘Intellectualising’ the literary scene is a step in the wrong direction and it is stifling the Kenyan mass market paperback industry. Do you see professors on the bestseller lists of Publishers Weekly, New York Times, USA Today and International Express? Even if a professor-written book does make the list (and that’s a big ‘if’), it will most likely be in the non-fiction category.

There is nothing elitist about literature. Literature was, in fact, the first form of mass communication. As Edgar V. Roberts observed, ‘Literature is the property of all.’ One of the things intellectual book reviewers like to do is dissect the past, like a medical student slicing open a corpse. And from the past, they dig out such hackneyed expressions as ‘East Africa is a literary desert.’ Professor Taban Lo Liyong (Another Nigger Dead, Culture is Rutan) made that (probably off-hand) comment in the 1970’s and since then it has dominated Kenyan
literary reviews. Taban Lo Liyong, a Sudanese national who has taught at Nairobi University, is probably amazed by how much ink his little remark has received. Intellectual reviewers love to squeeze it into their literary columns: ‘…perhaps this is the literary desert Taban Lo Liyong was referring to’, ‘…Taban Lo Liyong once described East Africa as a literary desert…’, ‘…this book is a flower in the literary desert…’ and so on and so forth. What’s so special about that expression, you ask? Nothing. It’s just that we have literary reviewers who can’t seem ‘to turn the page’; they discuss the same things year in and year out, world without end. Even if that sentiment was accurate (which it wasn’t), so much has changed in the literary landscape over the last thirty years that it has now been overtaken by events: Numerous fiction and non-fiction titles have
been published, publishing houses have multiplied, scores of authors have emerged, book clubs ave been formed, book festivals have been launched, literary awards have increased, literacy levels in the region have risen and so on. In recent times, Kenyan writers have won international accolades such as The Caine Prize for African Writing, the BBC playwriting contest and the Commonwealth Prize for Fiction. In 2010, Ngugi wa Thiong’o was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Personally, I can’t stand that expression! If I hear it one more time, I’m going to throw a fit! I think it should completely disappear from our literary radar because it does no good to the regional book market (it can only discourage investors and demoralize authors). First of all, East Africa is not, and has never been, a ‘literary desert’ (if anything, it’s an oasis). Second, the discussion of Taban Lo Liyong’s remarks have been done to death. That chapter is now closed. I have squashed that debate for all time.

Another expression that intellectuals love is ‘to sacrifice something on the alter of something something else.’ It used to be quite popular in the newspapers some years back and it is still sparingly used today. For example, in September 2011, somebody reacting to an article by veteran columnist Phillip Ochieng’ (I Accuse the Press), wrote: ‘…the Luo have sacrificed the community’s development at the alter of Mr. Raila Odinga’s political ambitions.’ I kind of like
that turn of phrase, to be honest, and since it is not negative, I will not condemn it – I will in fact find ways of incorporating it into my writings!
In his audio book, How to Argue and Win Every Time, lawyer Gene Geter (who has represented such high-profile clients as Imelda Marcos) talks about the numerous papers that lawyers prepare for judges. Gene states that those documents constitute ‘the most boring literature in the world’ and that he pities the judges/magistrates that have to plough through all that muck. Gene
wonders aloud where it is written that ‘lawyers should not be passionate about what they do.’

I sometimes wonder the same thing when I read the professor-written literary reviews. It’s as if they’re afraid that if the article is remotely entertaining, it will not be taken seriously. They prefer to give ‘strong medicine’.

The truth of the matter is that even the most serious, sobering and weighty matters can still be written in such as way that they hold a reader’s interest. Like a lawyer introducing exhibits to a courtroom, allow me to introduce the works of Joe McGinniss. Joe McGinniss is an American writer whose forte is highly researched non-fiction. He is the author of the acclaimed true crime books Cruel Doubt, Blind Faith and Fatal Vision. At the age of only 26, his bestseller about then president Richard Nixon, The Selling of the President, appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List. During the O. J. Simpson trial, McGinniss was offered a $1 million advance by a publisher, to write a book on the case. Kenyan non-fiction writers (and jaded newspaper columnists) could learn a great deal from this McGinniss guy. Even when he is writing about dull politicians like Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey (The Selling of the
), McGinniss keeps you glued to the page. He is, apparently, incapable of writing a dull paragraph and its no wonder that he has made a home for himself on the New York Times Bestseller List.

To continue with the courtroom analogy, allow me to introduce several more closely-linked exhibits. As a writer, I keep a lot of old newspapers for research purposes and I will now reach randomly into the piles and show you what has become of Kenyan literature:

Book review for Sunday Nation, 23rd August 2009
Book: The Politics of School Texts in Kenya

With all due respect, that title alone nearly put me to sleep. The Politics of School Texts in Kenya? Isn’t that something school heads attending a conference in Mombasa would discuss? At best it sounds like the agenda of an early-morning meeting at the Ministry of Education, following complaints from publishers.
Let’s move on:

Book review for Sunday Nation, 2nd September 2007
Book: The Moi Presidency in Kenya: The Politics of Transition from Authoritarianism to Democracy, 1979 - 2002Author: Prof. William Ochieng’

Not bad. Moi’s presidency does deserve a major analysis. But the fact that the author is a professor is enough to put me off. I expect a dull work – even the title rambles for too long.

Book review for Sunday Nation, 1st March 2009
Book: Becoming an African University: Makerere 1922 – 2000
Author: Carol Sicherman

Perfect! This is the kind of stuff I’m complaining about. Picture this: It’s a glorious Sunday afternoon and you’re sitting in one of Nairobi’s many entertainment joints, sipping a drink while you wait for your ka-kilo of goat meat to be roasted. All around you are bustling Nairobians, drinking and feasting on nyama choma. You reach for your Sunday Nation and turn to
the literary page only to discover a review of a book about the history of Makerere University from 1922 to 2000. What do you care about its history? It’s not even in Kenya! Would you even be interested in a review of a book about the history of Nairobi University? What does it have to do with the price of eggs? One would have to be an investor in tertiary education institutions to care. (I doubt that even a lecturer there would give two pins about the distant history of the place. His/her eye is on the monthly paycheck).

And now you know why nobody borrows the literary page of your Sunday paper. I often smile when, at the end of a book review, I see the words, ‘The writer teaches literature at such and such university.’ That’s well and good but as the saying goes: ‘You don’t need to be a cook to criticize the cooking.’

I don’t know whose bright idea it was to have university professors do the
book reviews but I don’t think it has done Kenyan literature any favours. (You don’t see movie reviews being done by lecturers from Kenya Institute of Mass Communication or Multimedia University, do you?) In fact, the injection of intellectualism may have isolated ordinary people who have no wish to delve deep into things like ‘Merits and Demerits of Oral Literature’, ‘Early African writing and writers (1950’s and 1960’s)’ and so on. And this is universal. To illustrate: When world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking set out to write A Brief History of Time (for laymen), his publisher warned him that any mathematical equation he put in the book would half the sales.

Left to their own devices, academics love to review books by fellow professors, like Professor Francis Imbuga, Professor Taban Lo Liyong, Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o and so on. They write articles with such uninspiring titles as ‘Dons track progress in popularizing oral literature’ (Sunday Nation, May 23, 2004) and mention things like ‘the post-colonial vortex’. I have a fairly high IQ and I have authored several books and even I don’t know what the Post-Colonial Vortex is, or was. I wouldn’t know it even if it jumped up and bit me. Which begs the question: Who are these intellectuals writing for? It sure as hell isn’t Joe/Jane Citizen on the street.

‘Literature is the property of all; its appeal is to all. But literature is an art, it employs techniques…’ - Edgar V. Roberts

I know that newspaper columnists have to kowtow to certain editorial policies ‘from above’ but I sincerely doubt that, as in the case of the Sunday Nation, the Aga Khan and other shareholders ever got together and went: ‘Hmm….Let’s make the Books section as boring as possible so that butcheries and kiosks can have a part of the newspaper that they can use to wrap their stuff with.’ (Yes, I know – I’m a funny guy. I even had some more jokes to insert here but they were swallowed by the Post-Colonial Vortex.)
Bestselling author Sidney Sheldon didn’t seem to have a high opinion of university literary courses, either. During an interview, he told a story about Pulitzer Prize winner Sinclair Lewis who was much sought after by universities. The universities wanted him to speak to their writing classes but he kept
turning them down. Finally, Harvard University convinced him to give a talk to
their aspiring writers. The famous author looked at the assembled young faces and simply said, ‘Why aren’t you home writing?’ and walked off the stage. ‘There’s never been better advice for a writer,’ Sidney Sheldon concluded. ‘Don’t talk about it - do it.’

A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows and rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.’ - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Not only is the crafting of novels, plays and poetry not the preserve of scholars but some of the best writers were either poorly educated or dropped out of school. Sidney Sheldon dropped out of college after only six months. Paulo Coelho, who has sold more than 100 million books in over 150 countries, dropped out of law school after only one year. Frédéric Dard, a French
novelist whose thrillers sold over 100 million copies, was a school dropout. (He authored over three hundred novels, including over one hundred in the ‘San Antonio’ series.) British-born Jackie Collins dropped out of school at age 15 and joined her actor sister, Joan, in Hollywood. ‘Even then, I knew I wanted to write and that year gave me insight into the movie business,’ says the talkative writer whose voluminous novels based on Hollywood stars have sold millions
of copies in forty countries.

Of course, many literary professors/lecturers will not agree with the foregoing sentiments, but that’s OK. As Bill Bernbach observed, such people may do the ‘right things’ (teach the authorized syllabus, write a newspaper column within the editorial guidelines etc) but they can never do ‘inspiring things.’ They don’t motivate or entertain. Everything is coloured grey. I pity their students. In such a fast-paced world, my advice for the disciples of such un-evolving teachers is:

‘Don’t let school interfere with your education. It is well known that universities kill by degrees.’

Friday, August 17, 2012

What Ails Kenyan Literature? (Part 1) - Poor Marketing

‘Without promotion, something terrible happens…nothing!’ – P.T. Barnum

ʹYou can have the greatest product or service in the world but if nobody knows about it, your business won’t last very long. Whatever market you’re selling to is likely full of competitors. Even if you have a better quality product or service, your competition can get more business than you if they promote themselves properly.ʹ - Evan Carmichael, business guru

I was hosting a series of Spoken Word Poetry sessions in a restaurant and I was very impressed by some of the original compositions that were recited. Most of the attendees were university students. One male student in particular seemed to have a natural talent for crafting poems, even on the spot. After one session, he told me that he had visited my website and downloaded some of the free sample poems from my book, The Moon is Made of Green Cheese. I told him I had more poems he could sample from my second poetry collection that was (and still is) in the works. As I transferred the poems from my computer to his flash disk, one of the poems, entitled Reading Robert Ludlum, caught his eye.
‘Who’s Robert Ludlum?’ he asked.
‘You know,’ I said. ‘Robert Ludlum. The guy who wrote all those thrillers.’
‘I’ve never heard of him.’
I nearly fell off my seat. When I was in school, we used to swap Ludlum novels around like pornography.
‘You’ve never heard of Robert Ludlum? You must be the only Kenyan boy that has never
heard of him!’
‘I only read poetry.’
‘But still…He was bloody famous…His books are full of action.’
‘How can a book be full of action?’
That threw me for a second and then I realized: If he only reads poetry then he might
genuinely not be aware of the joys of reading prose for leisure. And there lies the rub. In Kenya, (non-textbook) literary works are so poorly marketed that many would-be consumers are unaware of their benefits. For example, if you like watching TV comedies, then there are plenty of hilarious books that would serve the same purpose. If you love TV’s CSI investigations, then Patricia Cornwell’s Dr. Scarpetta series delivers the same thrills and in more detail (You can know what a character is thinking, how she feels about her colleagues etc.) If you love watching movies, then you should know that many movies are based on novels; especially the highly acclaimed ones like Slumdog Millionaire (based on the novel Q&A) and Eat, Pray, Love (based on the book of the same title). 

Even action-packed films are often based on descriptions in novels. For example, the ultraviolent Rambo: First Blood was based on the novel First Blood by David Morrell (The Brotherhood of the Rose, Double Image) and the bloody Spartan war movie, 300, was based on the graphic novel of the same title by Frank Miller. Often, the book is a far superior offering than its TV or celluloid version. This is certainly true for the recent Robert Ludlum film adaptations, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum starring Matt Damon as the swashbuckling amnesiac. Apparently, not even the entire crew and cast could match Robert Ludlum’s storytelling gift and I would
recommend the books over the movies without hesitation. Still, the Bourne movies were a huge box office success, prompting interest in the late Ludlum’s other works. MGM is
rumoured to be adapting The Matarese Circle, starring Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington, as well as The Matarese Countdown. Paramount is said to be developing The Chancellor Manuscript while director Jose Padilha is said to be working on The Sigma Protocol. Many years after he passed away, Robert Ludlum has become ‘Hollywood’s hottest writer’. That’s the power of intellectual property – people want to make deals on it even after the originator is gone.

Another example of the ‘the book being better than the movie’ is John le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama which was filmed starring Pierce Brosnan. An espionage tragi-comedy, the movie was ‘mildly amusing’ while the novel was hilarious. Spy writer le Carré visited Kenya in 1999, for research purposes, and met with some local writers like Marjorie Oludhe-Macgoye. He is probably best known here for his book, The Constant Gardner, whose film adaptation was partially shot in the sprawling Kibera slums.

We are so bad at marketing our literature that even when a door opens to other markets, we don’t dive through it. A case in point:

Just over a decade ago, the German Embassy let it be known that Kenya literature had been eliciting growing interest in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. There were more than fifteen translations of Kenyan books available in those countries, making Kenyan literature some of the most successful from Sub-Saharan Africa. The titles were mostly fiction, with Meja Mwangi’s novels being the most popular in the German-speaking market. The translations included Going Down River Road, The Last Plague and Carcass for Hounds by Meja Mwangi and Petals of Blood, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, Matigari and Moving the Centre by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. What did Kenyan book industry stakeholders do with this market intelligence? One would have expected them to woo this opening European market by inviting publishers and agents from those countries to seminars in Nairobi (for example, during the annual Book Fair) whereupon they would be introduced to the treasure trove of Kenyan literature, and deals (for translation, distribution, regional rights, film/TV rights etc) would be negotiated. Alternatively, Kenyan literary stakeholders could have borrowed a leaf from the tourism industry and sent delegations of publishers and authors to the expanding European market to lecture on the profitability of the Kenyan connection (and try to close some deals). I have no information on any of this being done. Our role model for multi-lingual marketing should be Wilbur Smith. Arguably Africa’s most commercially successful novelist, Wilbur Smith’s books have been translated into myriad languages and marketed to non-English speaking territories. The title of a Wilbur Smith novelwill even be changed to suit a particular market like the Spanish-speaking world. For your information, increased Germanic interest in African books is not limited to Kenya. In the 1990’s, the refreshingly original Ghanaian novella So Long a Letter by the late Mariam Ba, was translated into German and sold one hundred and fifty thousand copies!

Here are good examples of two markets that are not currently been properly exploited:
‘The market is the real boss.’ – Roy Lawrence, Reuters CEO

1) Non-fiction Market: As Mass Communication students know, non-fictional books supplement news media by diving behind the headlines and giving more detailed accounts of news stories. Some of the pioneering works in this arena are Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a non-fiction story of two murderers who killed a Mid-western farm family, and investigative works like Bob Woodwards and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men (about the Watergate scandal) and David A. Yallop’s 5 million-copy bestseller, In God’s Name: An Investigation into The Murder of Pope John Paul 1 (which alleges that the death of Pope John Paul 1 was not due to natural causes, as reported). Other books in this
league are Charles Berlitz’s 5 million-copy superseller, The Bermuda Triangle, and its sequel, Without a Trace.
Closer home, we have The Animals Are Innocent by John Ward (which alleges that the
shocking death of his daughter, Julie Ward, in Kenya was a case of murder, not mauling
by wild animals), Master of Deceit by Eustace Gitonga and Martin Pickford (alleging
corruption at the national museum during the Richard Leakey administration), Absolute
Power: The Ouko Murder Mystery
(about the still-unresolved 1990’s killing of a high-ranking minister), The Lunatic Express by Charles Miller (about the building of the Kenya – Uganda railway), and James Fox’s famous White Mischief which gave a vivid and
powerful account of the 1940’s murder of Lord Errol, a socialite in the former ‘White
Highlands’ of Kenya.

2) Christian Fiction Market: Eighty per cent of Kenyans are Christians. And for them, there’s ‘Christian Fiction’. The best-placed book in this genre is probably John Bunyan’s
The Pilgrim’s Progress. It has sold millions of copies and dazzled (read frightened) people
around the world. The movie version also made the big time. Morris West’s The Shoes of
the Fisherman
and Shusaku Endo’s Silence are also notable works of Christian fiction in the same league as Pat Robertson’s The End of the Age (about the deterioration and destruction of human society after the earth gets hit by a meteor), Thomas Locke’s The Omega Network (about the criminal underworld), Frank Peretti’s 2-million-copy bestseller, This Present Darkness and The Oath, Virginia Owen’s whodunit, At Point Blank, and Pat Barker’s Regeneration. The bestselling novel Run Baby Run!, about a man who is recruited into an occult society but finally finds redemption, also falls in this category. Its faith-building sequel Devil on the Run continues the saga.

Closer home, there are such novels as Mwangi Ruheni’s The Minister’s Daughter, about a
young girl who can’t resist the magnetic pull of the big city and finds out the hard way
that in life no plan emerges unscarred from its clash with reality. In The River and the
, once a KCSE set-book, the heroine joins the Opus Dei congregation.

For inspiration, here are some examples of good marketers from within and without the literary world:

- A former junior copywriter at J. Walter Thompson, James Patterson (Hide and Seek, Kiss the Girls, Along Came a Spider) is intimately involved in cover designs and marketing for his own books. Harvard Business School taught a case study on Patterson’s marketing techniques! According to Forbes magazine online, one out of every 17 novels bought in the U.S. is authored by Patterson. Over the past two years his books have generated $500 million for his publisher, Hachette Book Group. Forbes online has described him as ‘part author, part marketer’.

- To publicize her latest novel, The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood went on a thirty-date, all-singing, all-dancing book tour. In the words of her publisher, she ‘reinvented the book launch’. The tour covered Britain, the US and Canada and performances were done by a renewable cast. Music composer Orville Stoeber was given a copy of the manuscript a year previously and set the bookʹs 14 sets of lyrics to music. The road show and actors taking the parts of the major characters in the novel consisted of a choir to fill out Atwoodʹs live narration. I first heard of the road show on the BBC, which illustrates the importance of author tours.

Probably Canada’s best-known novelist, Atwood has had Nobel Prize buzz around her for some years now. Her novel Alias Grace was nominated for the1997 Booker Prize but lost out that year to Arudhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Atwood went on to win the Booker (and $29,980 in prize money) in 2000, for The Blind Assassin. She has authored thirty books.

- On October 29, 2002, American magician and endurance artist David Blaine (Fearless, David Blaine: Frozen in Time) released a book entitled Mysterious Stranger: A Book of Magic. The book came with a ‘$100,000 Challenge’ to find a treasure based on clues. He also gave a ‘standalone clue’ on The Larry King Show. On March 20, 2004 - sixteen months later - the Challenge was solved by Sherri Skanes from Ventura, California.

- In 2011, the Marketing Society of Kenya (MSK) feted Dr. Stanley Kamau Maina as a Marketing Warrior for championing the anti-jigger campaign in East Africa. Kamau is the
Founder and executive Director of Ahadi Kenya Trust. The organization was also awarded
for being top in social marketing. One of Kamau’s many marketing achievements was to get Samsung to sponsor a trip to Kenya by the Big Brother Africa housemates, in order to help remove jiggers from poor people. The arrival of BBA stars received a ton of free publicity and they even sat down for a press conference with the Prime Minister’s wife, Ida Odinga. Until the recent past, Stanley Kamau was a real estate agent in Nairobi. He pulled together with a couple of friends to found the Ahadi Kenya Trust. To generate public interest and attract corporate donations, he knew he would have to go high profile, to hold the kind of activities that the media would be interested in covering. He needed a celebrity, somebody the media was already interested in. He invited celebrities from all spheres of society to a lunch at Nairobi’s Mamba Village where he pitched his vision of a jigger-free Kenya to them. One major celebrity agreed to come aboard – Cecilia Mwangi (2005 Miss World-Kenya). She became the ‘Anti-jigger Campaign Ambassador’ and right from the first press conference was able to attract print and electronic media attention. The campaign went high profile and won many awards. Both Cecilia and Kamau were awarded Head of State Commendations by President Mwai Kibaki among other accolades.

- The death of pop star Michael Jackson sent ripples across the globe. The announcement
briefly knocked other news items off TV screens and was the most searched-for topic on the Internet for the next few days. MJ’s many recordings jumped back onto the music charts.Michael Jackson was a global icon. His surgically-enhanced face was at one time the most recognizable in the world, making it impossible for him to walk around in public. He
even hired a double (‘Navi’) to help distract hordes of fans who rushed his vehicle
everywhere he went.
What most people don’t know was that Michael Jackson was a relentless self-promoter. It
wasn’t his musical talent that ‘got him over’, as we say in the wrestling world. From a
young age, he learnt how to perform publicity stunts. He is said to have ‘leaked’ his own
images to the press (Most notably the sleeping-in-an-oxygen-chamber picture ‘leaked’ to
The National Inquirer). MJ even tried to obtain a knighthood from the Queen of England
in order to up his prestige. Motown Records founder, Berry Gordy:

‘He (Michael Jackson) was one of the great promoters. Not only was he a genius
in talent but he was a genius of promoting himself.

Without the proper marketing, MJ’s talents would not have been appreciated by so many
people – and he knew it. According to Wikipedia, MJ was ‘obsessed with P. T. Barnum and his freaks’. There’s certainly a lot of P.T. Barnum in the Michael Jackson phenomenon – the bizarre costumes (as in Thriller), strange behaviour (trying to buy the Elephant Man’s bones, wearing black surgical masks , making his children wear masks in public etc), publicity stunts (dangling his baby from a 4th floor hotel window etc), larger-than-life persona, greatest-show-on-earth-type events etc. In fact, the publicity poster for Michael Jackson’s record-breaking ‘Dangerous’ tour looks like a souped-up poster for one of P. T. Barnum circuses (wild animals and all)! It even includes a portrait of Barnum himself (with his midget General Tom Thumb standing atop his head).

- It was the early 1980’s and wrestling promoter Vince Kennedy McMahon of the World
Wrestling Federation3 was about to change the face of professional wrestling forever. Vince Kennedy McMahon had grown up in the wrestling business, his father having been the original owner of the WWF (
now WWE). When the younger McMahon took over, he started a national expansion that irked the old-school promoters who operated under a ‘territory system’. Little did the old guard know how big Vince’s ambitions were. 

As a child, Vince McMahon had always loved wrestling. He admired the big, flamboyant and charismatic wrestlers he observed. He wanted to be a wrestler but his dad wouldn’t let him. When he finally bought his father out of the business, he injected new ideas into the then dank pro wresting scene. Vince knew that wrestling could appeal to a much larger section of the populace. It could be mainstream. Wrestlers could be movie stars.
And so in the early eighties he conceived an event that would be watched by millions around the US, just like the SuperBowl or the Olympics. The idea was to lure even viewers who were not fans of combat sports. Along with his associates, he came up with the name ‘WrestleMania’ (adapted from the ‘BeatleMania’ that ushered in the legendary ‘British Invasion’ of rock music in the US). To get non-wrestling viewers to watch ( and pay for ) the extravaganza, Vince would pay the biggest celebrities of the day – such as Liberace, Mohammed Ali, Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T – to participate and help garner publicity. Some of the other WWF officials were opposed to the hiring of the celebrities because of the cost. Liberace, for example, was the world’s most highly paid entertainer. ‘We will never get our money back,’ mourned one official. But Vince stuck to his guns. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘How are we going to grow if we don’t get more people to watch our product?’
And so he poured all his resources into the making of the first WrestleMania. The gamble
paid off! WrestleMania 1 was a massive success. It propelled pro wrestling into mainstream entertainment, making global stars of such performers as Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper. WrestleMania went on to become a world-famous annual event that often breaks attendance records in the arenas that host it. WrestleMania 3 broke an indoor attendance record when over 90,000 fans streamed into the Pontiac Silverdome to watch Hulk Hogan square off with André the Giant.
Vince continued his trend of hiring celebrities. To date, the stars that have graced his shows include Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mike Tyson, Snoop Dogg, Pee Wee Herman, Ozzy Osborne, Backstreet Boys, Mickey Rourke, Alan Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Cedric the Entertainer. During the 2008 US Elections, presidential hopefuls Barrack Obama, Hilary Clinton and John McCain all appeared on-screen during an episode of Monday Night RAW.

Vince K. McMahon, who was the P. T. Barnum of the 20th Century, currently has a
personal net worth of about $1 billion. His private jet is said to be worth $35 million.

The above marketing stories certainly provide food for thought for Kenyan book marketers. Sure, books are marketed throughout the country, usually by publishers, but are we doing enough?

Longhorn Publishers used to run a TV ad where someone would wake up in the night, go to the fridge – as if for a snack – and once he opened the fridge, we saw that there were books alongside the food. The tagline was ‘Feed your brain’. It was a good ad but it didn’t run for very long.
Some publishers give posters to bookshops when they deliver a new title, but what about
placing those posters on the many upmarket notice boards around town as well?

I love the StoryMoja initiative. Apparently founded by authors – such as Muthoni Garland – it is probably the best ‘camp’ for aspiring authors today. According to their website, for example, they give 20% in royalties to their authors – the highest percentage I have ever heard of for physical books. StoryMoja holds numerous events (such as the StoryMoja Nyama Choma Festival and StoryMoja Hay Festivals) including some targeted at kids (which is a very good marketing idea). They have also gone to great lengths to fly in renowned authors from around the world, such as Vikram Seth (A Suitable Boy, An Equal Music) as well as involving our own literary giants like Francis Imbuga (Betrayal in the City, Aminata). According to one newspaper, Muthoni Garland 'has hyped up reading and storytelling' through the StoryMoja Festivals, and 'pioneered the selling of affordable books in Kenya'.

However, I have a critique. With uttermost respect, I believe that the festivals would be more successful if instead of (or in addition to) inviting prominent international authors, the organizers flew in literary agents, film and TV producers and other talent scouts. What writer wouldn’t want to come over and try to pitch a story or give a novel to a film/TV producer? What serious novelist wouldn’t want to chat with a UK literary agent? This would be a lot more beneficial to local scribes and the local literary business in general. Have you ever sat next to a film producer reading an interesting work or listening to an interesting verbal story? I have. And they usually go something like, ‘Hmm…Hmm…This would make a good film.’ It’s like a sculptor looking at a dead tree stump and going, ‘I can make something out of this…and that one, too.’
What Kenya needs is a WrestleMania-type book festival – one that brings together mainstream celebrities, authors and the public. We can call it ‘BookMania’ or something and it can come complete with clearance sales, publisher/bookseller stands, music shows, fashion shows, stage plays/skits, author signings, workshops for writers, spoken word/poetry slams, book launches, literary awards etc. This would make the Kenyan literary scene more vibrant. The celebrities are key, even if it means paying them to appear and talk about such things as their favourite authors, books that influenced them as children, what they’re currently reading etc. 
Why does a car manufacturer hire a skimpily clad female model to pose by his latest vehicle? – Because it gets people’s attention. It’s a marketing gimmick. Think of all the popular musicians/beauty queens/comedians/actors you see on billboards advertising skin lotions, condoms, beer or other products that have nothing to do with their respective professions. Why shouldn’t books be marketed the same way? Aren’t’ they consumer products?

‘Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark.
You know what you’re doing by nobody else does.’ -– Edgar Howe, American novelist and newspaper/magazine editor

Let me reiterate the words of Vince McMahon who one magazine described as a ‘fearless
marketer’: ‘How are we going to grow if we don’t get more people to watch our product?’

To some people, the suggestion that you need to replace accomplished writers with celebrities for a literary event may sound absurd. But it’s a crazy world! Even the music business is no longer about music. It’s not the person with better songs that gets ahead but the one who is better promoted. You know the world is upside down when Justin Bieber is outselling Jack Johnson. Like I say on my website:

ʹTalent is not enough...Dreams are not enough... You have to learn to market and sell your product, even if your ʺproductʺ is yourself.ʹ

Monday, July 9, 2012

Madagascar 3 Raises the Bar for Animated Movies

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted has so far grossed $376,596,522 in box office receipts worldwide. The animated flick stars Ben Stiller, Jada Pinkett Smith and Chris Rock and runs for one-and-a-half hours. In this instalment of the Madagascar franchise, characters Alex, Marty, Gloria and Melman are still trying to get back to their beloved Central Park zoo in New York, but first they need to find the penguins. When they travel to Monte Carlo, they attract the attention of Animal Control after gate crashing a party and are joined by the penguins, King Julian and Co., and the monkeys. Their attempts to get back to New York are consistently hampered by the Captain of Animal Control who wants to make Alex part of her collection…
Madagascar 3 opened in Kenya on June 22nd and was screened at Fox Theatres, Nyali Cinemax, Starflix, IMAX Theatre (20th Century Plaza) among others. The 3D movie cost an estimated $145,000,000 to make and consists of more than 120,000 individual computer-generated frames! One part – a flashback sequence - incorporated massive fire effects and highly detailed crowd close-up shots that took 2.8 million hours to render.

HP technology was used to help DreamWorks animators create the breath-taking scenes. Artists used more than 200 high performance HP workstations to help design everything in the film—from the Zooster characters to digital effects such as complex fire and highly detailed crowd close-ups. Advanced HP ProLiant BL460c blade technology, geographically dispersed in four server render farms across the United States and India, provided peak compute power at crucial stages of production. The blade servers powered an incredible 200 terabytes of data and more than 65 million render hours.

HP technology has previously been used in creating DreamWorks’ ground-breaking animated features, including the “Shrek” series, ”How to Train Your Dragon,” ”Kung Fu Panda,” ”Kung Fu Panda 2” and Puss in Boots.”