Kiarie Kamau is the chairman of the Kenya Publishers Association and Chief Executive Officer of East African Educational Publishers (EAEP). He has presented Papers on Publishing and Literature in both local and international forums, some of which have been published in books and journals.
Q&A insights with KPA Chairman, Kiarie Kamau.
Being the Chairman of any organization is both exciting and challenging. At the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) the exciting bit mainly comes from being at that pedestal of freely interacting with fellow publishers, sharing experiences relating to the potential opportunities in the industry, the challenges impeding our growth, and brainstorming on possible strategies for surmounting them.
My typical day entails working with the KPA Governing Council to create harmony in the publishing industry; presiding over strategies for the growth of the industry; being the liaison party between the government and publishers; and charting the future of the industry. The bit about liaison with the government is very important. For many years, the relationship between publishers and the government was strained. Yet, for a country to realize its goals of education, it’s important to have a cordial working relationship between the Ministry of Education and publishers. Thankfully, the current situation is one informed by strong public-private partnership, which has resulted in tremendous benefits to the Kenyan child, the government, and publishers. The Council has a responsibility of ensuring that this is maintained.
Tremendous opportunities abound in the African book market. As book publishers, we have barely scratched the surface; and this applies to both print and digital book products. When I look at the print side of things, we still have many countries in Africa that do not have vibrant publishing industries. They still import books from the West and the East. So, opportunities abound in such countries in terms of school textbooks, general school reading materials aimed at promoting lifelong learning, and other books targeting the general reader who is not essentially in school or college. In the area of digital products, we are doing badly, except for say, Kenya and South Africa.
Therefore, as a lover of knowledge and also as a business person, I find this to be an exciting opportunity, especially for publishers in Kenya. There is a chance to positively impact the lives of millions of learners on the continent, through publishing of high-quality books, and of different categories. In addition, there is a great opportunity to tap into this business, hence create employment for a wide range of young people, as well as contribute to the growth of the country’s economy.
Partnerships and collaborations are driving other industries to great heights. We can scale the same heights in publishing if we engage in strategic partnerships and collaborations with other players in the rest of the world. In terms of content, the arena of Rights and Permissions still remains untapped on the continent. The same applies to translations. So, even before we think of publishing new works from other parts of the world, we need to consciously engage in the business of scouting for, and selling Rights for existing works. We need to identify content suitable for our environment, negotiate with the Rights owner, and buy and publish for our market. On the flipside, we need to aggressively showcase our content to the rest of the world, sell Rights for the same, and hence create another revenue stream. This should also be the case with translations.
In the area of marketing, African books are still not well-known beyond our borders. Participation in international book fairs such as the London International Book Fair, and Frankfurt Book Fair, among others, should help in showcasing new and existing content from Africa, with a view to creating a market for our books. And certainly, development of digital content, marketing and selling of the same on online platforms would realize tremendous growth through such strategic partnerships and collaborations.
My best advice for publishers participating in the Nairobi International Book Fair this year is to invest in passionate, committed, energetic, and knowledgeable marketing staff. The bane of most publishing houses that exhibit at book fairs is to have staff who barely know the products they are showcasing; run-of-the-mill marketers who do not demonstrate any iota of passion in the products they are supposed to promote; and most even disappear from stands, only to reappear during the evening.
I love reading biographies and autobiographies. I find them to be far much better ‘motivational’ books than what publicists have made many readers (in Africa and beyond) believe in. I am currently reading From Third World to First by Lee Kuan Yew. He transformed Singapore. And the whole world can see that. That’s the kind of chap to read, not imaginary Ferrari stuff! I’m also simultaneously reading Thomas Sankara Speaks. Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary and charismatic leader of Burkina Faso, could have easily turned this country into what Rwanda is today, and perhaps better. Again, this is much more fulfilling, than reading about how to become a millionaire in 30 days!
My favourite book fair is our own Nairobi International Book Fair which is growing fast, and attracting the attention of many regional and international exhibitors. I’m therefore always at home during the Fair in September, amazed at the variety of products showcased by my colleagues in Kenya and beyond, and meeting many international guests interested in the book market in Africa. The London International Book Fair is also the place to be, primarily due to its sheer size and variety of exhibitors and hence products. Yet, going by the support it enjoys right from the Ruler of Sharjah, the Sharjah International Book Fair is likely to edge out many other international fairs, and position itself at the apex, soon. Just like what Dubai mega city did, a few years ago.
If I meet a younger self at the beginning of your career, I would advise them to explore more avenues of knowledge. I sometimes feel that instead of doing a Master of Arts degree, I should have studied for a degree course in another area, say, Law, if only to gain wider knowledge and perspectives. But well, it’s never too late to be what one might have been. Watch this space!
If you are planning to attend the Nairobi International Book Fair From 27th September to 1st October 2023 at Sarit Center Expo Hall, Nairobi, be ready for pleasant surprises. Publishers have bounced back after the disruptions of Covid-19 and other local and global impediments to business. Expect more variety, world-class quality, and more opportunities from the local, regional, and international exhibitors.