David Waweru was told two things before he started a publishing house that dealt with trade books: That it would not survive for long and that Kenyans have a poor reading culture.
That was eight years ago.
Today, Mr Waweru’s Word Alive Publishers has 66 titles and 55 of those titles are active, Christian -inspired books.
He will early next year launch the publishing house’s first fiction book, Eyo, by Abidemi Sanusi — a new Nigerian author who tackles a dark story of human trafficking.
“People are willing to buy quality and want value for their money,” says Mr Waweru, who has worked in the book industry for 18 years, with eight of those spent building his dream.
He started Word Alive after doing a survey of about 40 to 50 local bookshops back in 2001.
The survey found that despite the assumption that Kenyans do not read, these bookshops were raking in profits although 99 per cent of their trade books were western literature.
These were not cheap books, by price or quality.
But Mr Waweru found that local publications were poorly packaged and sold cheaply.
He now wanted to penetrate this market, estimated to be worth Sh3.5 billion but mostly driven by textbook sales.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that textbooks account for 95 per cent of the books published in Africa, including Kenya.
“I realised that I grew up reading Western literature and that African writers were for the class room. They were not for leisure reading or entertainment,” says Mr Waweru.
In the West, publishing trade books is a commercially viable venture.
In the US, the book industry is worth $35 billion (Sh2.6 trillion) and the trade books account for 8.6 per cent or $151 million (Sh11.3 billion).
Armed with these facts, Mr Waweru carefully looked at what Kenyans were reading, and got his first business secret: Kenyans preferred well known authors because the content and packaging was well done.
This is also helped by aggressive marketing by the publishers— from television to reviews —and by the time the books hit the stores, there would be a rush for them.
“It was about having a love affair with a great author,” he says. That is why he can still remember his first book, Jeffery Archer’s Shall we tell the President?
Mr Waweru aggressively markets his authors.
Word Alive does big book launches and organises book signings.
Recently, it took seven authors to Uganda for a book signing and it is planning to do something similar in Tanzania in June, next year.
This is part of it programme called the “African Book Experience”.
Word Alive catalogue contains inspirational, leadership, personal growth, relationships, and theology books. Buyers can also order online.
It took him a long time to realise his dream.
He studied mathematics because boys did not do “soft stuff” like literature.
But when he left college, his first job was as an editor trainee at the University of Nairobi Press where he worked for 10 years.
He was also consulting for the NGOs when they were active in publishing.
Another reason for the delay to start was that publishing is capital intensive and the returns are slow.
Industry regulations demand that a publishing house secures about 70 to 100 titles to break even.
It can take up to seven or eight years to build up such a list.
“It took us eight years to launch the first fiction title,” he says.
He was ambitious and wanted to beat the industry standards in five years.
Since no bank could give a loan to publish books, he had to think of another business that is strong in cash flow.
This led to the birth of Impact Media Limited, a below the line advertising agency which is cash rich as clients have to pay down payment.
It is from here that he got capital to start the publishing business two months later.
Impact continued to support the publishing house until it was self sufficient.
The agency’s business was, however, soon closed and all the energy put into Word Alive.
First titles were well known international brand names like Jason Mason, John Maxwell which the publisher bought the rights to them— a strategy used largely by Indian publishers.
This kept the business going as it worked to build its own pool of local authors.
“It takes time and patience to build and nurture authors and we are courageous to take on first time authors,” he says.
The publishing house designs eye-catching covers and the print quality is good enough to rival those from US and Europe.
Mr Waweru knows that bookshops are in business and they will only be interested in books that will sell and that people are asking for.
The war between the bookshops and local publishers is on the discount rate and the lack of aggressive marketing by the publishers.
“It is not the bookshops’ job to do your marketing,” he says.
The issue of pricing is tricky and it was his first mistake.
In the first catalogue, he priced the books as Sh290 but after an informal survey after three years, he found that the top selling books were also the most expensive.
So, they repackaged the books and increased the price to right level while giving sufficient discount to the bookshops.
About 50 per cent of the printing is done abroad because there are few good local printing presses and even these are too busy.
He also says publishers in the Far East keep their deadlines and charge lower.
“We keep repackaging the books to keep them active in the market,” he says.
Word Alive Publishers has an office in Uganda and will soon be heading to Rwanda but Tanzania may be tricky because most of their books are in English.
But they are looking to translating more books into Kiswahili.