Kenya: Publishers Should Allow Young Achievers to Pen Their Memoirs


Once an author is done with the development of their manuscript, there is a bridge that they have to cross. They have to decide either to self-publish their book or have it published by a mainstream publisher. This decision is critical in the determination of the direction a book project takes.

Unfortunately, a number of first time authors cannot draw a clear line between self-publishing and mainstream publishing. There is a caveat here. Whichever route an author takes is undoubtedly lined with merits and demerits.

An author who opts for self-publishing will foot all editorial, production, sales and marketing bills. It will be up to such an author to shop around for the team that will help them turn their authorship dream into a reality. It is noteworthy that in this arrangement, the author has to pay through the nose for the best manuscript reviewer, editor, graphic designer, proofreader and printer.

It doesn’t end there. The author must roll up their sleeves and throw themselves into the trenches to put their book in the hands of their reader. In fact, it is when authors dodge the high price of self-publishing that mediocre books leak into the book market.

Why, then, in spite of all these, should an author consider self-publishing? The best news is that it will save them from what you’ll allow me call Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) literature. Prescriptive literature is what I have in mind. In such literature, the author’s creativity is inhibited, stifled and grossly curtailed. Yet, this is the kind of literature that mainstream publishing breeds.

Arm-twist an author

They are only euphemistic and gracious enough to call it commissioned literature! Self-publishing allows the author a free hand to create liberal characters. These are characters that are never excessively manipulated by the author. They live liberally and fearlessly speak their minds, their inadequacies notwithstanding. To get a drift of what I mean, sample the works of local pop fiction authors of the yesteryears.

In addition, there is no big hand in self-publishing that will arm-twist an author to address particular thematic concerns or fit their work into the frame of a particular literary theory.

Stories abound of authors who opted for mainstream publishing and had to endure long waits to have their books roll off the press. Such is not the case in self-publishing. When an author decides to self-publish, they’ll call the shots. The author and their team will have the book project run on a timeline that is agreeable to both parties.

Further, self-publishing can serve as an author’s illustration of how good they are at writing and book marketing. An author who writes a title after which every reader runs will easily catch the eye of mainstream publishers. And of course, it is needless to remind you that in self-publishing, the returns are way higher compared to mainstream publishing royalty rates. Enough of self-publishing.

Winning a publishing deal with a mainstream publisher is many an author’s dream. This is the easy way out. But how does an author get there? In most cases, mainstream publishers commission their projects. For a beginner, commissioning entails merit-based selection of an author who can undertake a literary project. The commencement of the project is preceded by a thorough brief of the author by the commissioning editor. In their brief, the editor spells project specifications and such details as timelines.

‘Hawking’ of manuscripts

Besides, the commissioning arrangement, there is room for ‘hawking’ of manuscripts. In this context, this refers to an author either walking into publishing houses and pitching for their manuscripts or doing so through emails.

Once a publisher accepts an author’s manuscript, they sign a binding contract. The publisher then funds the editorial preparation of the manuscript and its production. This is not all. The publisher also meets all the warehouse, sales and marketing costs. Out of such publishing deals, authors get two things – bragging rights and royalty cheques. In the Kenyan case, publishers run on 8 per cent to 12.5 per cent royalty rate range.

If one walked along the line between self and mainstream publishing to the end, then one will very likely bump into a disturbing question. Does an author’s age dictate the literary genre they can dabble with? For example, why have mainstream publishers ‘insisted’ over the years that the memoirs genre is a reserve of ‘elders’? In other words, must one have led a dramatic or illustrious public life to write a memoir? Are fame and retirement the qualifications for turning the story of one’s life into a book?

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