Mercy Kirui’s experience at the London Book Fair
April 24, 2024
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Following the successful implementation of the first-ever Rights Café at last year’s Nairobi International Book Fair (NIBF), eKitabu, which was at the centre of it all, sent a representative to the London Book Fair to gain more insights, feedback and plan for scaling. Mercy Kirui, who is eKitabu’s senior manager in charge of content, was at the London Book Fair from March 12 to March 14, where she also chaired a panel on Publishing for Sustainable Development in Africa.   

For last year’s event, eKitabu had teamed up with the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) African Publishers Network (APNET) to host a full-fledged pavilion dedicated to buying and selling of rights. While trading in book rights has been a factor in previous fairs, they have largely been informal affairs. The Rights Café pavilion had foreign publishers and their agents, who negotiated Intellectual Property Rights, with local publishers and authors. The foreign publishers and agents known as NIBF ambassadors were drawn from different countries in Africa, Europe and America.

One of the local authors who benefitted from the rights deal was Scholastica Moraa, a self-published poet, who inked a deal with an Italian publisher, for her three poetry collections to be translated into Italian and sold in Italy. “Excited is an understatement,” says Moraa of the deal. “It was the most unexpected good news I've ever received in my life. When she received the contracts, Moraa, who turned 27 earlier this month, says she got so excited she could not sleep that night. “I kept reading the contract again and again,” she added.

Kiarie Kamau, the chairman of KPA said that the sale of rights is a business opportunity that for many years has not been exploited on the continent. “We are therefore allowing publishers to expand their revenue streams by way of selling rights and also serve as an opportunity to expose their publishing houses and authors to other parts of the world,” he added. Kirui explained that an almost similar set-up to the one they had at NIBF is replicated at major international book fairs, like the London Book Fair, only that it is done on a much wider scale. “The London Book Fair, as with other major international fairs, provides a trading platform, for publishers, editors, authors and literary agents, where they come to pitch their latest books as well as to be on the lookout for what they might purchase for their respective markets,” explains Kirui.

“Just like we did here at our Rights Café, whoever is doing the pitching, be it the publisher, editor or author, should deliver the most important information about the book they are selling within the first five minutes,” says Kirui. “The information involves the book’s title, name of the author, year of publication as well as the copyright holder. One should also be able to explain why that book is a good fit for the intended market.” If the other party likes the pitch, the two proceed to sign a rights agreement, which sometimes includes, among others, payment schedules for publishers who offer advance royalties. For one to strike a successful deal, she adds, the book’s general appearance, including design work must be eye-catching.

“At the London Book Fair, no sale of books takes place,” she explains. “Instead it is booksellers who come to sample book catalogues with a view to securing bulk orders of books to be delivered later and sold in their outlets.” Since the deals being signed are of an international nature, shipping agents are also present since the books, once sold, will require to be shipped to overseas destinations.

For one to have a rewarding experience at an international book event of the stature of the London Book Fair, one needs to plan well in advance. “Armed with their objectives, one needs to plan for their trip months in advance. The exhibitors are listed on their website and the App. The exhibitor's page has contacts and one can email to book appointments with the various exhibitors; without an appointment, you might find yourself doing no business at all,” adds Kirui.  As for eKitabu, Kirui needed to meet with publishers of books to be used in tertiary markets. “We supply ebooks to a number of universities in Kenya, so going by their orders I needed to meet with the publishers in order to secure the book,” she explained.

“We offer digital library solutions, where universities access their core textbooks, either by faculty of discipline,” she says. “We have distribution agreements with publishers of these books.” Ms. Kirui says that her favourite experience at the London Book Fair, as always, has been meeting with her publishing business contacts. “Meeting them and closing deals with a few of them was one of my objectives,” she explains. “Many people, especially the ladies, liked the small Kenyan gifts. I believe that meeting them usually sparks relationships and makes it simpler to communicate after the fair.”

Her second favourite moment was chairing the panel discussion. “I can't deny that I was nervous from the moment I found out I'd be chairing a panel at LBF,” Ms. Kirui. “However, with the assistance of the team, I was able to sufficiently prepare, and the panel went smoothly.” As the panellists delved into the role of African publishers in publishing for sustainable development, it became increasingly clear to her that publishers have an important role to play. “In their quest to publish high-quality, visually appealing books, the twin issues of cost and affordability issues arose,” she said. “While it is difficult for publishers to pause and think about this; if they want their books to reach a wide range of people, they must make them affordable.”

Networking and building relationships are key to success, she explained. “As I walked around LBF and met many people, Ratan Tata’s quote “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. But if you want to walk far, walk together” kept ringing in my head. We need each other to succeed, we need to cultivate the relationship intentionally. This year’s London Book Fair, which attracted over 1,000 exhibitors and close to 30,000 visitors, is one of the biggest events on the international publishing calendar.

eKitabu delivers print and digital content and innovative programs for inclusive and equitable quality education. “We are a Kenyan, Rwandan, Malawian, and US company headquartered in Nairobi,” explains Kirui. Since its founding in 2012, eKitabu has supplied digital content, and has worked with children, teachers, people with disabilities, families, and communities, in more than 2,500 schools across 14 countries of Africa. “eKitabu works to build a sustainable ecosystem with people and organisations: government ministries, international development actors, technology firms, and local as well as global publishers,” adds Kirui.

Mbugua Ngunjiri is the curator of Maisha Yetu, an online media platform for books and the Arts.

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