Ng’ang’a Mbugua, author of the award winning Terrorists of the Aberdare, talks about his journey into self publishing after being let down by traditional publishers. He also sheds light on how self published authors in Kenya finance, promote and distribute their books.
Why did you opt to self publish?
Mbugua: I was not happy with the royalties I was earning from the readers I had published with various publishers. Two of the books were performing dismally while I was not receiving any royalties at all for one of the books. In 2009, one of the publishers sold 96 copies of one of my titles despite it being recommended for schools.
I thought I could do better, so I self-published Terrorists of the Aberdare in September of that year. I have sold more than 1,000 copies since and we reprinted the book after it was selected for study at Daystar University.
The second reason I found it difficult to publish Terrorists of the Aberdare with regular publishers is it did not fit into any class for the school market. One publisher thought the book was too small and wanted me to add more words but I felt that it had told the story that it needed to tell.
I was vindicated when the novella won the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize in 2010 and was first runner up for the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2011. The book is also popular with readers.
How many books have you published so far?
Mbugua: I have published seven books in all. The other books I have self-published are: Different Colours (a novel) published in 2011 and Reflections on the Wisdom of Steve Jobs (2012).
I have also published Neema Kinoti’s The Last Kiss (2010) and Charles Omondi’s Beating the Odds (2011). The first is a novella while the second is the story of how a small rural school that started under a tree has grown to produce leading professionals, footballers and diplomats.
My other books are: Kajuju and the Big Caterpillar (Phoenix 2000), Mwai Kibaki, Economist for Kenya (Sasa Sema, 2003), Susana The Brave (Focus, 2005), Catherine Ndereba, Marathon Queen (Sasa Sema, 2008), Kheri’s Goal (Phoenix, 2011).
Some of my poetry has also been published in four anthologies.
Cost of publishing your books?
Mbugua: The cost varies with the size and also with the team that I select to work with. For instance, I did my own editing for Terrorists of the Aberdare but I paid a friend Sh10,000 to edit Different Colours. The editing and proof reading of The Wisdom of Steve Jobs cost me Sh55,000 while the design cost less than Sh20,000.
The design for Different Colours was more than Sh30,000 because I had a different team working on the cover and another working on the inside pages. On average, however, editing costs between Sh20,000 and Sh30,000, while printing varies considerably depending on the printer, the quality of paper and the size of the book.
Printing is the biggest cost component for any self published work. One can get relatively cheap printing services but they do not always guarantee quality or integrity. The more expensive printers at least have relatively good quality and their integrity is not too bad.
However, there are big printers who have been blacklisted by publishers for pirating the books they were contracted to print on behalf of publishers.
How have you financed them?
Mbugua: I financed Terrorists of the Aberdare and Different Colours through Sacco loans. I had recouped my investment on the first book less than one year after publication and I have recovered my costs and made a profit on the second book, which was published in April 2011. I financed The Wisdom of Steve Jobs from my savings with the bulk of the money coming from earnings from sales of the first two books.
Do you do your own marketing and distribution? If so how?
Mbugua: I have sold the biggest bulk of the books directly to individual customers and also to institutions especially universities.
The books are also available in various bookshops in Nairobi, Nakuru and Eldoret but the sales from bookshops are very few and amount to less than 5 per cent of sales. I also sell Terrorists of the Aberdare through Rachel’s Bargain corner, an online bookshop whose sales are now beginning to pick up.
I have also signed a partnership with a company that will be a go-between between me and 27 global online bookshops including Amazon, Kobo and iTunes. Terrorists of the Aberdare and Different Colours are now available as e-books at Barnes and Noble. The former is retailing at $4.99.
What challenges have you faced when distributing your books?
Many bookshops are unwilling to stock books unless such books are recommended for the school market or they are written by well-known American authors.
Even those who stock my books do not record brisk sales because the books are usually kept out of sight and customers cannot get them unless they specifically ask for them. The advantage I gain from this is that I make more money through direct sales.
The other challenge I face is that I have a full time job which limits the amount of time I can spend on marketing. However, I usually take a stand at the Nairobi International Book Fair every year under my publishing company, Big Books Ltd, and I hire four people to do the marketing.
Most of my customers are repeat customers. If they buy one book, they always come back for more either for their friends or relatives. Many of them help me spread the word. Our sales remain modest but they offer huge potential for growth.
Once in a while, I am invited for interviews on radio and TV and this helps to create awareness, which increases sales in the short term. I also get invited to give talks in secondary schools and universities where I also get the chance to sell books.
When I get orders, I usually hire someone for the specific assignment, so I do not have permanent staff but I have a group of people on call at any given time.
In your opinion what impact has the Internet had on publishing? Has it spurred the growth of self publishing in Kenya?
Mbugua: One of the advantages of the Internet is that one can use it to promote one’s books either through Face-book, Twitter or emails. Kinyanjui Kombani, Enock Matundura, I and other writers are already doing this.
I also started a blog, which is helping to raise awareness about my books and literary activities. I believe the blog will come in handy now that I have started selling e-books. Many of the people who visit the site have iPads and this means they can buy the e-books.
There are many authors who have started their own blogs. Other writers are giving away their content because the traffic generated will help them make money from advertising. Wanjohi Kigogoine is one of them. Other authors like David Karanja and many others from Kenya have their self-published books on Amazon and they are selling them as e-books.
Thanks to sites like Amazon, borders do not have to limit self-published authors. Their books will be available in any corner of the world and because there is no printing cost, this could push up their earnings per copy and those who are lucky to sell many copies can grow rich.
Please comment on the publishing environment in Kenya. Does it encourage creative writers to write and publish?
Mbugua: Most publishers in Kenya focus only on the school market. This means that if the government does not recommend your book for the curriculum, publishers have no strategy for marketing it. This translates to poor sales for creative works.
Because our mainstream model of publishing does not encourage creative writers, many of them are opting to self-publish. Compared to what they earn in royalties, self-publishing is by far more lucrative.