Yes, we are still in a celebratory mood. A Golden Jubilee is a significant epoch that should be marked with pomp and pageantry. In addition to this, we at EAEP are also celebrating our own 50th Anniversary… it’s a double celebration, so to speak. But back to your question on Ngugi, Gikuyu and Mau Mau.
I don’t look at it in terms of writing in ‘Gikuyu’; it’s writing in an African language. By writing in an African language, Ngugi has made a strong statement in regard to the centrality of language in culture; in enhancing the importance of that culture; and in demonstrating that an African language can be used, actually should be used in modern communication to convey messages that are conveyed using other languages that we use, like English and French.
On the Mau Mau, anybody who tries to see it as an obsession is trivialising the role of the movement.
Many people read different signals when Ngugi paid a courtesy call on President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House. Has he mellowed?
I don’t know the kind of signals that went out there. But Ngugi is a citizen of the world. Before he came for that specific visit, he had passed through France, Germany and Italy, on invitation. These were highly publicised visits in those countries.
On his visits to South Africa and Ghana a few years back, he was received by Presidents Thambo Mbeki and John Mahama, respectively. When he visited Uganda in 2013, he was accorded VIP treatment, complete with a motorcade and outriders.
So when he meets the President, the former Prime Minister or any other person in Kenya and elsewhere, let it be seen in this context…a world renowned scholar, a roving ambassador of goodwill, a Kenyan, reconnecting with his people.
You’ve just mentioned that EAEP is celebrating its Golden Jubilee. What are the milestones achieved so far?
Well, they are many. But I think the most significant are four. First, EAEP’s forte is in the area of strong creative works. Virtually every adult who has been to school in Africa has read one or all of these titles: Things Fall Apart, The River Between, Betrayal in the City, Mine Boy, Song of Lawino, My Life in Crime, just to mention but a few.
In the same vein, they must have interacted with names such as: Chinua Achebe, Grace Ogot, Peter Abrahams, Okot P’Bitek, Francis Imbuga, Austin Bukenya, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, and many other literary luminaries, all of whom have their pride of place in EAEP’s hall of fame. EAEP was the first to publish a primary school Kiswahili course, Masomo ya Msingi, even before the Ministry of Education had developed a syllabus for the subject.
That was in the 1970s. EAEP has been rather experimental in its publishing, and ventured into biographies way back in the early 1990s.
It also went regional quite early into the Ugandan and Tanzanian markets.
You recently took the helm as chief executive of EAEP. What can we expect from you in the short run?
I must say it’s both an exciting and challenging position. Exciting because I have a passion for publishing. But it’s also challenging, just like any other business.
The demand for a generous return on investment is there. The competition is stiff, and one must keep raising the bar in terms of strategy to perform better and better.
The balance between a ‘good book’ and a ‘profitable book’ is real.
What do you mean by a ‘good book’ and a ‘profitable book’?
What I mean is that there is that book that reads so well, has a strong message, and has an almost eternal shelf life. But it just doesn’t sell in huge quantities.
And those are not the tales you want to spin at an AGM. What the shareholder wants to hear about is the percentage of dividend that has been declared, and that’s only possible if you have a mass market product, bringing home a generous turnover. Often, that’s a textbook.
So are you saying your leadership at EAEP will focus on textbook publishing?
Not at all. The lifeline of EAEP has been in general publishing. And our venture into the region – Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, Malawi and beyond — has shown that our products are popular even there. The challenge will be to strike a strategic balance between general publishing and school publishing.
You are also coming in when the disruption of the digital age could not have been greater on publishing business.
We will overcome through more innovative products. There is nothing as important in business as responding to changing times in a timely manner. And we in the publishing industry have warmly welcomed the digital age. In fact, the theme of this year’s Nairobi International Book Fair is ‘Twende Digital’, which demonstrates that publishers recognise that the e-book is a reality.
Although digital products are rather expensive to develop, they are cheaper than the conventional hard copy book, more accessible to the user and more user-friendly.
We are already working on ensuring we offer innovative, creative and affordable book products to readers. However, this will take some time. Most people are still hooked to the traditional book. Even in the West.
Then there are the perils of piracy.
That’s real. Already we are losing tens of millions through piracy of the hard copy book, and given that it’s cheaper to reproduce a digital product, we know the danger is there.
However, we are working with IT professionals as well as with the Kenya Copyright Board and the Anti-counterfeit Agency to ensure security features are in place;
The cry out there from many writers is that authors die poor while publishers prosper. How is this?
Nothing could be further from the truth. In professional publishing, both parties are investors and hence both benefit, or in the worst case scenario, lose. The author invests in his intellectual property, and the publisher turns that intellectual property into publishable form to reach out to many.
If the book becomes a best seller, the author earns millions in royalties. And such authors are here in Kenya. Needless to mention, the publisher also gets a return on his investment.
It is not enough that you guys midwifed Ngugi. Who else have you produced?
It’s for readers to judge whether we have not produced other Ngugis. All I can say is that we have very powerful creative works that we are certain will travel far and wide. Authors like Peter Kimani, Kingwa Kamencu, Emmanuel Kariuki, Florence Mbaya, Onduko Bw’Atebe, Mukoma wa Ngugi, among others, have great potential.
As we continue to discover, develop, nurture and grow talent, more and better ‘Ngugis’ will emerge. Soon.