Publishers face lean times as competition and government cutbacks eat into their returns

Shopping for books. KIE fears that  digitising books might escalate  piracy and other forms of copyright infringement.  CHRIS  OJOW
Shopping for books. KIE fears that digitising books might escalate piracy and other forms of copyright infringement. CHRIS OJOW 

Last December Macmillan Kenya, a local publishing house, launched its first autobiography of Benjamin Kipkorir titled Descent from Cherang’any Hills: Memoirs of a Reluctant Academic.

It is not Macmillan’s norm to print memoirs. “We have to diversify to survive, competition is tough when it comes to textbooks,” says Mr James Mwazemba, the publishing manager. Macmillan is known for publishing textbooks but the firm has lately shown interest in trade books, e-books, and even early childhood books. As with Macmillan, most publishers are changing tack to survive in a competitive field.
Apart from competition, a leading publishers’ top customer — the government — has been cutting back on textbook buying. Since the introduction of the Free Primary Education (FPE) programme in 2003, the government has been the lifeline of the Sh5 billion industry, accounting for 50 per cent of sales. The government has been spending Sh650 per child on learning materials yearly, including textbooks for the eight million children enrolled under FPE. The amount has been reduced to Sh400.

“We are facing a bleak future because business is going down,” says Ms Nancy Karimi, the chairperson of the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA).

She says in future the government will only be looking to replace torn or lost books. When the government started spending heavily on textbooks, publishers abandoned their main customers — parents.
“We moved from there because the government was a safe market,” says Mr James Ogolla, the business and development manager at Oxford University Press.

The local industry’s concentration on textbooks is not an isolated case. According to the African Publishers Network (APNET), 95 per cent of all books published on the continent are textbooks.

Change tack

However, to grow their pie publishers have to change tack. “They are looking for alternatives hence the sharp rise in autobiographies. They are also looking into markets that have been ignored, like children’s books,” says Mr Lawrence Njagi, the managing director of Mountain Top Publishers which specialises in early childhood books. The house target is pre-primary going children.

In the past, publishers have focused on primary and secondary school text books, cashing in on the government’s heavy spending on reading materials following the overhauling of the syllabus between 2002 and 2005. The move also brought in many new players, with Kenya Publishers Association’s membership swelling to 53 registered members. As established publishing houses continued to put most of their effort in educational publishing during the “good times”, smaller entrants in the business bought rights of popular international authors’ works, mostly trade books.

Local writers

The genre now accounts for about 15 per cent of the industry. Evangel Publishers has bought rights for Become a Better You by Joel Osteen. Kwani Trust? has published the two award winning novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and continues to publish local authors. Storymoja has focused on local writers.

“Building a back list for any publishing house can take a long time and is capital intensive,” says Mr David Waweru, the CEO of Word Alive Publishers.

The house bought rights to publish John Maxwell and John Mason’s books. India’s book industry has adopted the same strategy, which makes the books more accessible to the mass because publishing them locally makes them cheaper.

The most recent trend in the industry is the introduction of e-books. Recently, Kenya Literature Bureau launched e-books in an effort to expand their product portfolio. Oxford University Press has followed suit with five e-books. The company says digitisation will become a big market in future.

The Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) has encouraged the trend, hesitantly. KIE fears that digitising books might escalate piracy and other forms of copyright infringement. The vice is already denying authors and publishers over Sh1 billion annually.

Publishers seem to agree that the future of the local publishing industry is in books for the general public, as opposed to school based. As they build titles they are also wooing parents to be their leading clients, once again.