Publishing prison or ‘anti-establishment’ literature exposes the publisher and the author to risk.
It creates a powerful, invisible enemy that is a constant nightmare in the lives of these two players.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, once considered an enemy of the State, while John Kiriamiti, was then a hardcore criminal, serving his sentence at G.K. Naivasha Maximum Security Prison.
Imagine you are a publisher. You receive a manuscript from a prospective author that shows great promise. You quickly move ahead and decide to publish it. Before long, the book rolls off the mill and, as soon as the copies hit the market, your sales team reports very good sales, daily. Any time the phone rings it delivers good news — more and more sales.
Then one day the same phone rings. You receive the call. Hello, you say. No one answers. You listen and wait, as you can hear voices in the background. Hello, you repeat; there is no answer. You end the call. The phone rings again. You receive it and the cycle of ominous silence continues.
One evening, you leave the office and get into your car, as usual, to drive home. On your way, you realise you are being trailed by unknown people. Later, strange people assail you. You struggle with them as they try to kidnap you. The only thing that saves you is the reverse gear of the vehicle which snaps. You narrowly escape with your life, bleeding from the deep cuts on your body.
Your assailants call later to ask if you have learnt a lesson. As if fate has conspired against you, your books are removed from the official government reading list and, out of nowhere, there are constant threats of litigation by members of the public who feel libelled by your author. You live in perpetual fear, wondering in whose crosshairs you are. And now you wonder if it was worth accepting that manuscript.
There are many reasons a publisher accepts a manuscript from a prospective author. If it is creative work, the publisher will look at the development of characters, plot, the language used vis-à-vis the target audience, and stylistics and literary techniques, among other considerations.
My Life in Crime, which was then called Lost in Crime, arrived at East African Educational Publishers Ltd (EAEP) on toilet paper. Prison authorities, then, provided prisoners with very hard toilet paper, but, unknown to them, this made for good writing material for those prisoners who wanted to write.
This manuscript, therefore, had to be typed out. From the outset, this manuscript ticked all the boxes, and even the typesetter loved it. Anyone who came in contact with it noted how well the author had developed his characters and how easily this gripping story flowed due to the well-developed plot.
The author had given so much detail that the editorial team was impressed. Would he be a one-novel wonder? Clearly, this manuscript had to be published. The only question was, which category it would fit, and that is how EAEP developed the Spear Books category, a bridge between the Pathfinders — novellas read at Class 8, Form 1 and 2, as class readers, after approval by KICD — and the Peak Library, novels at the set book level.
All was set, but there was an elephant in the room — the author, John Kiriamiti, was then a hardcore criminal, serving his sentence at G.K. Naivasha Maximum Security Prison. Regardless, the editorial team decided to go ahead and publish the book.
This decision to publish My Life in Crime opened a floodgate of manuscripts of all sorts from criminals, each of whom had a story to tell. To them, EAEP was a partner who ‘understood’ them. After all, EAEP had embraced one of their own! A few diamonds were found in the rough and they were published, but many were equally rejected.
On the other hand, public perception came into play with the recruitment of these criminal authors. Indeed, some of the partners may have had a decision to make — do we still work with this entity that is ‘sympathetic’ of criminals or not? The only redeeming factor was the quality of the work by these new authors. For instance, My Life in Crime was a bestseller. The reading public embraced it the way drought-hit soil sucks in rainwater. It was on the lips of everyone and the copies were exchanged rapidly. When My Life with a Criminal came, the readers were eagerly waiting.