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


  1. Hi. I am actually so excited I didn't get to read everything you've writen. I am JACOB WAHOME former high school classmate. We should meet some time...

  2. This is a clear writing and very satisfied to find this site. I will surely be back again to look at some other significant posts that you have in future.

    Self Book Publisher Blog

    1. Thanks, Sifat, for your lovely comments. By the way, you can download the entire document from which this post was extracted for free on my website The title of the document is 'Changing kenya's Literary Landscape'