Moving African Content: Rights Trading Perspectives and Personal Reflections
October 27, 2023
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Source: Originally posted by African Writers Trust on October 26th 2023 -

By Goretti Kyomuhendo

At the end of last month, I participated in the 24th edition of the Nairobi International Book Fair (NIBF), which was conducted from September 27th to October 1st 2023, at the Sarit Centre Expo Hall, Westlands, Nairobi. Jointly organised by Kenya Publishers Association and African Publishers Network, in collaboration with eKitabu, a digital platform based in Nairobi, the Fair’s theme was ‘Nurturing Talent Through Publishing.’

I had been awarded the inaugural Professional Fellowship Ambassadorship, alongside 11 other publishing professionals comprising publishers, booksellers, journalists, translators and literary agents from the U.S., the Netherlands, the U.K., Ghana, Germany, Nigeria, Malawi, Rwanda, France and Italy. Our overall mandate was to use our experiences, expertise and knowledge in the book sector to contribute to the growth of a vibrant, sustainable publishing business in Africa. We were scheduled to participate in various activities including business meetings for buying and selling rights at the ‘Rights Café’, networking with key sector players throughout the book fair, and speed dating sessions with publishers and authors wishing to negotiate the sale of rights; or pitch their books for international publishing. As the dedicated space for rights selling and buying, the ‘Rights Café’ was a new addition to the NIBF, and the first rights initiative in the east African sub-region.

Having newly-republished my novel, Whispers from Vera the previous month in August, I was participating both as an author and publisher; which was immensely important and exciting for me. I was eager to explore the Kenyan book market, understand their reading habits, connect with new audiences; but also, engage with the international book fair guests and fellow Ambassadors. A lot of questions swirled in my mind as I prepared for my role as Ambassador, and the activities which I had lined up to promote Whispers from Vera in Nairobi:

‘Was it true Kenyans don’t read?’ You know how it is said that ‘Africans don’t read.’

‘Would I be able to interest them in my new book?’

‘Would I sell rights to Kenyan publishers? My main interest was distribution and translation rights to Whispers from Vera.’

When I arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International airport, an official asked what I was carrying in my second suitcase.

               ‘Books. I’m coming to participate in the book fair and …’

               ‘Please open the suitcase. Oh! These are very many books. I’m sure you’re going to sell them and make a lot of money! You have to pay tax to bring books into Kenya.’

I had inquired from the organisers; they had assured me that Kenya does not levy tax on importing books into the country, unlike Uganda.

               ‘You have to pay tax,’ the official insisted. ‘Let’s see, how many books are these? What is their value?’

               ‘I wasn’t aware,’ I tried the classic excuse. ‘I’m not even going to sell them; you see, I’m the author …’

               ‘Oh! You wrote these books?’ The official’s attitude suddenly changed. He asked to see my passport, to verify that the name on the passport matched that on the books. Once he had confirmed, he said he would let me go.

               ‘But …’

I braced myself, expecting he was going to demand for the usual, ‘kitu – kidogo’; but I was wrong. Instead, he asked for a copy of my book. Surprised, I asked him to choose. He picked Whispers from Vera.

               ‘I like the cover,’ he explained. ‘Thank you so much. You can now leave.’

As I zipped my suitcase, I could see he was already reading the blurb. A true reader, I concluded. Always begin with the summary, to know what the story is about.  I quickly walked through the sliding doors, eager to secure my freedom.

‘Asante,’ I heard him say before I reached the exist.

‘Karibu’, I responded, glancing back at him. He was serving the next passenger, his copy secured under his armpit, like he was worried someone might snatch it.  

The following morning, the Ambassadors assembled in the Rights Café. After my experience at the airport, I was feeling more confident and optimistic as we began our sessions. If an airport official could be that interested in reading, surely … Nairobi was the right place on the continent to introduce trading in rights.

Rights selling and buying is an area that many African book professionals don’t commonly engage in. Yet, for a continent, where moving content is hindered by a myriad of restrictions and limitations, rights selling and buying could be our only solution. Trading in rights would help ease some of the factors that hinder the physical movement of books from one location to another, such as trade barriers, like taxation levied on importation of books and a lack of common currency between African countries; lack of transport infrastructure, lack of a common language, which continues to fragment the continent.

But what is rights buying and selling, and what do we mean when we talk of trading in rights?

In general terms, book publishing rights can be divided into two broad types: Primary Rights – which entail the rights to publish a book in either print or electronic format. These are rights typically granted by the author to the publisher. The second type are the Subsidiary Rights. These are rights granted to the publisher to exploit additional sources of income from a literary work beyond the primary rights as described above. Examples of subsidiary rights include the rights to make adaptations of the book for film, television, radio, etcetera; the rights to translate the book into other languages, the rights to publish the book into other formats such audio and Epub versions, the rights to publish editions in different countries, the rights to distribute the book in different countries or regions, and others.

Orature Collective performed an excerpt from Whispers from Vera at the NIBF
Orature Collective performed an excerpt from Whispers from Vera at the NIBF

What are the advantages of trading in rights?

  • Additional income for any rights sold for your book: if you are a self-published author, the money will come to you directly; otherwise, it will be shared between your publisher, and other players.
  • Enabling the book to move to different audiences and markets beyond the ones where the book was originally published.
  • Gives the book a longer life span as it now exists in different formats.

Given these positives, therefore, what, then is limiting African publishing professionals from trading in rights? Some of the factors identified were:

  • Fear of piracy – this is a common phenomenon on the continent.
  • Fear of losing control: Many publishers and authors fear not knowing what will happen to their titles, once they are licensed to another publisher, in another part of the world.
  • Fear of not being able to monitor what the other publisher creates, for example, a different book cover, or even another book title.
  • Limited understanding and knowledge in the business of trading in rights.

How can we address some of these barriers?

  • Building trust between the rights sellers and buyers by enabling physical meetings between the two groups. ‘Seeing is believing,’ so goes an African proverb. It’s a challenge to trust a business partner you’ve only met over Zoom; but book fairs usually offer a ‘safe’ environment for like-minded people to interact and forge trustworthy partnerships. It’s crucial, therefore, to create opportunities for African publishing professionals to participate in book fairs within their capacities.
  • Training and skills development in rights trading is another aspect that requires action. Many African publishing professionals lack the prerequisite skills to conduct business in rights trading. Very often, training at publishing enterprises is focused on editorial and marketing skills; and not the conventions of rights selling and buying.
  • Strengthening the implementation and enforcement governing the existing intellectual property rights laws, which would guard against piracy, and some of the other fears expressed by publishers and authors.

As I departed for the airport, I was convinced that the rights initiative pioneered by NIBF was headed in the right direction. At a personal level, I was feeling optimistic about the promising conversation I had had with a leading Kenyan publishing house to acquire the distribution rights to Whispers from Vera. If the deal comes through, the novel will be distributed in six African countries; which I wouldn’t have been able to achieve on my own.

‘Hello, Goretti,’ the lady behind the check-in counter greeted me, ‘returning to Uganda?’


‘I hope you enjoyed your stay in Nairobi?’

‘Yes.’ I forced a smile, not feeling in the mood for a chit-chat.  It had been a roller-coaster of activities for the week I had been in Nairobi: Three public readings and talks on Whispers from Vera, in addition to the book fair activities. I was hoping my flight wouldn’t be delayed.

‘…may I please have your passport?’ The check-in lady was still talking to me.

‘You already have it.’ How else had she known my name, and the fact that I was returning to Uganda?

‘No. You have it in your hands,’ she smiled and pointed at the passport. ‘I was at your reading yesterday. I bought a copy of Whispers from Vera. I’m enjoying it. I’m already on page 100 …’

‘Ah, okay, I’m sorry …’ I fumbled to explain my terseness earlier. ‘So, is this your day job?’

‘Yes. But I love reading. In fact, I belong to a book club. We meet every last Saturday of the month.’

‘Wow! How many are you?’

‘About 45. We read a book every month. I have booked you a window seat,’ she added, ‘enjoy your flight.’


Thank you, Nairobians for your love for reading.  Thank you, NIBF for introducing Rights Trading to East Africa.

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