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Society & Success

Why I gave away my second novel free online

Wanjiru Waithaka, author of “The Unbroken
Wanjiru Waithaka, author of “The Unbroken Spirit” and “Duel in the Savanna”. PHOTO | COURTESY 

I recently posted my second novel Duel in the Savanna on my blog for people to read free of charge. Fans of my first novel The Unbroken Spirit were thrilled that I had something new. Other writers thought it was a marketing gimmick until they saw the entire book online, all 250 pages.

Two writers called to ask if I had lost the plot. “You don’t spend seven months writing a novel and then just give it away. How will you make money?” one asked in disbelief.

The explanation is quite simple actually. The publishing industry broke me. After more than a decade of butting heads with publishers and their gatekeepers, I’d had enough and just wanted a break from it all.

It didn’t start out this way. When I completed The Unbroken Spirit in October 2003, I had no intentions of publishing it. I was just glad to have finally finished a novel after many false starts during which I shredded the manuscripts midway, certain they were rubbish.

Duncan Okello, a good friend, persuaded me to let him read the manuscript. He passed it on to Kwamchetsi Makokha, a newspaper editor who had previously worked with East African Educational Publishers (Eaep). Mr Makokha read the manuscript and told me it had potential, helped me polish it and sent the revised script to Eaep who published it in October 2005.

Two years later, The Unbroken Spirit won third prize in the adult fiction category of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature after Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s A Farm Called Kishinev and the late Margaret Ogola’s Place of Destiny, which incidentally is my favourite book by her. Imagine my shock and delight to be placed in the same club as these two illustrious writers. I was over the moon.

My second book, A Profile of Kenyan Entrepreneurs (2012), co-authored with Evans Majeni, was a different experience. It took four years to be published, never mind that the publisher (Eaep) commissioned the book. The only explanation we got for the delay was “economic circumstances had changed and the timing wasn’t right”.

The third book was an even stranger experience. We went through two publishers for Tenacious Courage, the autobiography of S.K.

Macharia, founder and chairman of Royal Media Services. The publisher first demanded too many changes that would have watered down the book completely. It was eventually published in December 2012 by Moran (E.A.) Publishers Ltd but was never released due to family issues and politics.

I started Duel in the Savanna in 2006 but made little progress. Last year I made up my mind to finish it. I sent the manuscript to three literary agents. Two rejected it. The other, as well as two prominent Kenyan writers, never gave me feedback.

I approached two local publishers. One said they only do novellas (150 pages or less) and the other didn’t respond. I started getting a bad feeling of déjà vu.

Ironically, my publisher came back with a positive review. But I wasn’t happy with their treatment of my first two books. Rewarding them with a third book didn’t make sense. Then one day it hit me. Why not go straight to the readers? I had the perfect platform – my blog, wanjiruwaithaka.wordpress.com, which I rarely used anyway.

Duel in the Savanna is set in the African country of Bancushi. It tells the story of a bitter fight between Lucas Dwanje, the president, and Bola Karenga, a business tycoon.

Most people think Dwanje is fighting Bola because the latter is one of a clique of wealthy entrepreneurs bankrolling the opposition.

But the enmity between the two men is personal and has its roots in a family secret buried so deep that only a handful of people know about it.

The battle drags in family, friends, business associates and political allies of the two men and does not spare the love affair between Tony Karenga, rich spoilt son of the patriarch, and Sophie Gitwana, a girl from the other side of the tracks – daughter of a dirt poor single mother.

Enemies of the Karengas resort to kidnapping and murder to wrest control of the family businesses and Sophie is caught in the crossfire.

I’ve been getting positive reactions from readers. One tweeted to say she stayed up till 3am to finish the book. Another almost missed a flight because he was so engrossed in it.

Why not self publish or do an e-book, some writers asked. I’m not yet completely sold on self publishing as a viable alternative to traditional publishing, especially for novels. Self publishing works better for non-fiction. Plus, the market for e-books in Kenya and Africa is still tiny.

I don’t regret my decision. It’s a relief not to have to chase royalty statements for months on end or worry about the twin monsters called marketing and distribution, which are the bane of all writers and even more so for self published authors. Anyone with a mobile phone and Internet connection can access this book. I’m just happy that it’s being read.

I will keep writing fiction. I love it too much to ever give it up. I will definitely publish my next novel. I don’t know yet whether I will stick to traditional publishing or opt for self publishing. Time will tell.

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