Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Thing With Publishers

‘Kenyan publishers are not that bad: at least when they reject your manuscript, they write the rejection (note) personally.’ - Alexander Nderitu

‘Publishing must tread the tightrope between art and commerce. Publishers want books they can publish with pride and with passion but to survive, they must publish books that sell.’ – Michael Larsen, American literary agent

I used to be very critical of publishers when I was younger but I have since mellowed. The thing with publishing is that it’s lucrative but risky, hence the much talked-bout ‘air of caution’ that blows throughout the business. Speaking on TV a few years back, a Macmillan Kenya Publishers[1] official said that to produce a quality book, from start to finish, costs about Kshs. 1 million. If that is the case, then obviously no publisher is rich enough to risk a cool million on every scribbler with a manuscript – hence rejection slips.

It’s true that Kenyan publishers have sacrificed many a good pop fiction novel on the alter of text-book manufacture (I told you I’d find use for that expression!) but it’s equally true that schools/schoolchildren are the biggest buyers of books. I got that information from a self-published novelist who realized that the copies he gave to bookshops would never move as fast as the copies he sold to schools. For one, a school would by several copies for its library while an individual would only buy a single copy. He now bypasses bookshops and chases headmasters all over the country with copies of his novel.

The most common reason for rejection slips is sending your manuscript to the wrong publisher eg. Mailing a novel manuscript to a textbook publisher, or a secular manuscript to a publisher who is only interested in Christian works. Even if it’s a good piece of fiction and the editor likes it, he still won’t forward it for further consideration since it falls out of the publisher’s sphere of interest.

The best way to choose a publisher is to analyze their current titles. The book reviews are a good place to start. If a book being reviewed is up your street, then you check out who the publisher is. Some publications even serialize works of fiction eg. for kids. Since the author and publisher are always credited, you can build your own list of publishers dealing in children’s fiction. For the record, those publishers include:

  • The Jomo Kenyatta Foundation
  • East African educational Publishers
  • Oxford University Press
  • Heinemann
  • Word Alive
  • Story Moja


Let me make it very clear that there is a big difference between publishers and commercial printers. Printers (the people who ‘do’ your business cards, letterheads, calendars etc) don’t publish anything. Neither does your computer, despite the misguided term ‘desktop publishing.’ That’s just ‘printing’. A real publisher does a lot more, including Editing, Cover Design, Illustrations, Handling Legal Issues, Marketing, Distribution etc. In fact, the word ‘publish’ actually comes from ‘publicize’/‘to make public’. If you distribute literature to the public, then that literature is said to be ‘published’. Now that we have the Internet, a document that is being viewed by a large number of people (like those Yahoo!, Daily Nation or e-zine articles) is ‘published’ (albeit ‘Internet published’). On that front, the best example I can think of is the Kenneth Starr Report.

Kenneth Starr was the man who tried to impeach US President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair. When all was said and done, Starr posted his entire report online for free. Such was the frenzy as millions scrambled for the report that it broke a world record for number of people accessing a single document at the same time. The Kenneth Starr report is therefore ‘published’ and was read by more people than would read your average best-selling novel. In contrast to Kenneth Starr, a person who is sitting on top of all 500 copies of his memoir that he had ‘pressed’ by a local printer is not ‘published’. At best, he’s ‘printed’ (or ‘printed and bound’) but he still has a long way to go. Here’s a final illustration, this time from The Holy Bible. On hearing that Saul and his sons have been massacred by the Philistine army, King David cries: ‘Tell it (the story of the tragedy) not in Gath, publish it not in Ashkelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice.’ (2 Samuel 1:20) As the Gutenberg Press had not been invented, he obviously did not mean: ‘Don’t let that story appear in the Daily Nation’ or ‘Don’t send the manuscript to Oxford University Press.’ He obviously meant: ‘Don’t relay the news (of the tragedy)’, or simply ‘Don’t publicize it’.


Every writer needs an editor. They are the unsung heroes of the book world. The reason why self-published books often come up short is because they’re not professionally edited. They usually have typos, logical errors (eg. A character driving a 2011 S-Class Mercedes in a story set in 2008) and weak points (that could have been improved on or done without). The good thing with traditional publishers is that they have editors who can help you prepare the manuscript for the next step. An editor explores issues of plot, theme, characterization and language. He notes the ‘strong points’ and the ‘weak points’ of the manuscript. Some publishers have what they call an ‘in-house style’. It basically means conforming to a certain standard but can involve such small details as the fonts used, single or double quotation marks and the level of detail they want in descriptions. Again, the Editor sees to it that the manuscripts conform.

It has been said that a local editor has about six manuscripts on his desk at any one time. I tend to think that it’s ten or more. It appears that they are usually swamped and that’s why they take so long to get back to you on your manuscript. Some publishers are now hiring ‘readers’, the way Hollywood movie studios used to. This helps the publishers move faster through the ‘slush pile’ looking for publishable material. When Yusuf K. Dawood won the 2011 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature for his book The Eye of the Storm, his publisher came under fire for having ‘sat’ on the manuscript for years. In a swift rejoinder, through the press, another writer defended the publisher, East African Educational Publishers, saying that the win was actually proof of EAEP’s professionalism in not ‘rushing’ the book (but doing a good job of developing it instead). EAEP has a long history of winning prizes. The inaugural Wahome Mutahi Prize for Literature, for example, went to Onduko Bw’Atebe for Verdict of Death (EAEP, 2006). The secret to their success, according to EAEP’s head of publishing, is in ‘manuscript selection and editing.’

All editors are not created equal. Take magazine editor Wayua Muli, for example. She helmed the ground-breaking Saturday magazine pullout in the Daily Nation. It was definitely a game-changer with its spicy stories, lots of colour and layer of glamour. When she left, the magazine changed (for worse). It later morphed into a woman’s magazine. But if you could get your hands on one of the original issues, you would see the difference. Ms. Muli was also initially at the helm of the E. A. Standard’s youth entertainment magazine Pulse. When she left, there was a noticeable change. She has since taken her magic touch to glossy magazines such as Eve Girl and others. It reminds me of movie director Stephen Spielberg (Jaws, E.T., Schlindler’s List, Jurassic Park, The Lost Word). While the scripts/stories are written by others (Jaws was based on the novel by Peter Benchley; Jurassic Park and The Lost World were novels by Michael Crichton) and acted out by some of the biggest actors in Hollywood, there’s no denying that Spielberg makes every film his own. The effect can’t be defined; it’s just some kind of ‘Spielberg magic’.


A lot has been said about self-publishing. Most people self-publish their books when they can’t get a publisher or they have a book that is unlikely to appeal to a mass audience, like a memoir. Many Kenyans have gone the self-publishing route, which is encouraging because, as we shall see, self-publishing will be much more affordable in future. Kenyans who have no regrets about self-publishing include Anthony Gitonga (For This Cause, Made For Greatness) who mainly writes motivational material.

There’s what is commonly referred to as ‘vanity publishing’ or the ‘vanity press’. This is a situation where a person has a manuscript (probably not publishable material) and simply pays a printing press to produce a certain number of copies. The problem with these invoice-the-author vanity presses is that they offer no ‘book development’. It’s all mechanical. They may as well be pressing restaurant menus or next year’s calendars. Once the author gets his copies, he realizes that the hard work is only beginning: he now has to seek his own publicity; approach bookshops, schools and libraries; handle arising issues (like poorly bound copies being returned); do his own sales tracking and so on. If only he had a publisher!
There’s another more professional approach to self-publishing:

The author approaches a self-publishing firm that charges more but offers further ‘author services’ eg. Editing, Getting ISBN numbers and Marketing. Locally, such outfits include Big Books Ltd. In the digital age, these ‘author services’ firms can be found online and they offer a ‘menu’ in order to fit the author’s pocket. For example, an author may want 500 paperback books with an ISBN number but he can’t afford to take the Marketing option. The best known such company is iUniverse. Others include AuthorHouse, Infinity Publishing, Llumina Press and Aventine Press. If they handle all aspects of publishing, one might ask, then why aren’t they publishers? ‘Author services’ firms do exactly that – they offer services to authors. They don’t analyze/reject manuscripts, they don’t ‘sign you up’, they don’t promote you (eg. Submitting your book to award contests), they take no responsibility for your content, they don’t own any of the rights (you’re even free to engage other author services) and so on. A traditional publisher is more caring; they invest in your work and can be sued over the publication. Once they’re in, they’re in. You can’t order them to just print out a thousand copies and slap on an ISBN number and barcode. It has to be a committed relationship. And anyone else publishing the same book as the first publisher is a pirate and can be arrested. In addition, there are many websites where you can send a manuscript for review. These include BookConnector and Bookpleasures.com.

Another option for the would-be author is the Print-On-Demand (POD) system that has been made possible by digital printing technology. Remember when if you needed to print something commercially, you had to order a certain minimum or incur losses? All that is gone. With POD (next-generation publishing) you can order one copy of anything! Welcome to the future.

POD (a branch of the larger Manufacture-On-Demand paradigm) is not another passing cloud. It’s a new economic model that helps eliminate waste (of money, resources, storage space etc). It’s especially good for specialized books that aren’t expected to sell very many copies eg. biographies, photo albums, books on gardening, interior design etc. Even traditional publishers can make their out-of-print titles available via POD.

Print-On-Demand does not refer to e-books. A POD book is a real book with glossy covers, printed pages and so on. The only difference is that a copy is produced only when a customer places an order. There’s no initial ‘print run’, no inventory.

I am deeply involved with POD systems. In my view, POD is the closest we have come to a ‘Promised Land’ for writers. Almost anyone sitting on a manuscript can now be published, as long as he or she is willing to do their own marketing. You can also buy ISBN numbers and barcodes which enable your book to enter the mainstream book market and may be made available at Amazon.com (by far the world’s biggest seller of e-books) and Barnesandnoble.com.

The first book I ever placed on a Print-on-Demand system was The Moon is Made of Green Cheese but there’s a story connected with how that came to be:

I am a prose writer but I’ve always loved poetry, especially the classics. Occasionally, I pen a poem, usually following a burst of inspiration (For example, I wrote Remember the Lions after watching the movie The Ghost and the Darkness). Since my job as Web Designer compels me to spend almost the entire day online, in the mid-2000’s, I started posting individual poems online to see what other people thought of them. After getting encouraging comments from such websites as Authorsden.com, I started thinking of looking for a publisher instead of posting for free. I downloaded the poems (14 at the time) and sent them to Sasa Sema Publications. I had seen the Sasa Sema founder, Lila Luce, (a wonderful, wonderful, lady) on TV some years earlier talking about her business and calling for manuscripts. Some time later, I received a letter informing me that they could not publish my manuscript. Not long afterwards, however, Lila (who I only recently discovered is the grand-daughter of Time magazine founder, Henry Luce) called me up and said that Sasa Sema would be interested in publishing the material. She liked the poems even the first time, she said, but back then they were not considering poetic works. I asked if I could write more poems so that they would be enough to make a book and she agreed. Alas, my poetry muse visits about as often as Haley’s Comet and I took too long to complete the manuscript. One night, I was watching the news when I learnt that Sasa Sema Publications was being absorbed by Longhorn Publishers. I knew that was bad news for me. I have a very experimental way of writing (‘Rules are what the artist breaks’ – Bill Bernbach) and I doubted that the larger publisher, which deals mainly in textbooks, would take to the poems. Lila forwarded my manuscript to Longhorn but, as expected, they did not proceed with publication.
With about 50 poems in my collection, I returned to the Internet to look for other publishing options and discovered Print-on-Demand for the first time. My poetry book, The Moon is Made of Green Cheese, is currently available on the POD website Lulu.com, both as an e-book (cheaper, faster to get) and a bound copy. Potential buyers can read the first ten pages for free. Free samples of the poems are also available on my official website,   www.alexandernderitu.com    

As of late 2011, The Moon is Made of Green Cheese is also available on the Amazon Kindle.

Lulu.com is a US-based company that provides a robust online sales and distribution platform for a wide variety of products, from photo albums to comic books. Once a buyer orders a book, Lulu prints, binds and ships the book in 4-6 days. US customers receive their orders faster since they’re in the same country as the publisher. In 2006, Lulu.com received a Web 2.0 Award for their Books category. In the Lulu system, the author sets the cover price, chooses the type of binding (stapled, perfect bound etc), designs his own covers (or chooses from group of templates) and retains all the intellectual property rights. You can even decide whether your book will be a hardback or a paperback.

[1] Now ‘Moran (E.A.) Publishers Ltd’

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