In Summary
  • I am aware that publishing houses receive many unsolicited manuscripts monthly, but I fail to understand why, in this electronic age, it should take a year or more to respond to a submitted manuscript.

  • If you run a publishing house, surely someone should be employed to read manuscripts and say ‘aye’ or ‘maybe’ to a manuscript within three months (which, by the way, is the industry standard to manuscript response worldwide?).

I love reading much more than I love writing. I suspect if I did not like reading, I would not be a writer.

The well-written books inspire me to be a better writer. The badly written books teach me how not to write.

Kenyan publishers are, sadly, not doing much to ensure that other readers and I get more of the former and less of the latter.

Their inability to respond to submissions timeously; poor editing; unfavourable contracts; and poor marketing are but some of the problems beleaguering the publishing industry.

Response to Submissions

I am aware that publishing houses receive many unsolicited manuscripts monthly, but I fail to understand why, in this electronic age, it should take a year or more to respond to a submitted manuscript.

If you run a publishing house, surely someone should be employed to read manuscripts and say ‘aye’ or ‘maybe’ to a manuscript within three months (which, by the way, is the industry standard to manuscript response worldwide?).

If a nay, then someone knows and goes back to the drawing board. If ‘maybe’ then the publisher can send the manuscript to an independent committee of three (a literature lecturer, a literary critic, a published writer may be a possible team)and pay them a small amount each to send their recommendations and one-page readers’ reports to the publisher, who would then decide whether the work in question is something they would like to publish and how much work must be put in.

By far the most important work on a manuscript after it has been accepted for publication is editing.

Editing

I don’t care how brilliant a writer one is, no one can do without editing (as the sub-editor of this piece will prove). I fail to understand why, in one of Africa’s most literate nations, publishers have decided they cannot find good editors.

It is worrying when I pay Sh1,500 for a book and while reading, a character initially called Wambui becomes Wangui in the next chapter. And oversights where a book starts with a child being 12 and ends with the child still 12, but the mother of that child has had two more children and the book is not science fiction or magical realism.

Or a man leaves his pregnant girlfriend to go to another country and when he returns six years later the child is still three years old.

It’s disturbing that the most brilliant contemporary Kenyan literature has been edited beyond these borders.

Are publishers in this country truly saying there are no editors worth their salt with the red ink or are they unwilling to pay them enough to make it worth their while?

And if the manuscript is not well-edited but the writer claims fatigue or tries to rush to put it out, the publishing house reserves the right to refuse to publish.

Badly edited books seriously disrespect the market of readers that is there and do neither the writer nor the publishing house any favours.

Contracts

The standard Kenyan royalty fee is eight to 15 per cent. While not as high as some South African publishers who give as much as 22 per cent, or as low as some Nigerian publishers at six per cent minimum, this is a competitive fee on the continent.

That said, perhaps the royalty percentage would be even better if Kenyan publishers actually stuck to contractual obligations and paid on time.

Late last year I got an email from a Zambian writer friend who stays in England. I have permission to reproduce the email here so I do, without naming either her or her publisher.

“Hi Zuks, I hope all is well. I need your advice. In 2008_______ Publishers in Kenya published one of my children’s books.

They went quiet on me so this year I decided to chase for royalties and they are messing me about. After many excuses and apologies (‘we have a few cash-flow issues’), they have now stopped replying my e-mails. I e-mailed their MD the other day and even he didn’t reply. Any advice on what I should do? Have you ever been in a similar situation? Any news in Kenya about them?”

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