To self publish or not? Advice from a traditional publisher

John Mwazemba, former CEO of Phoenix Publishers Ltd argues that traditional publishing is still the best option for most writers. He offers tips on the best genres for self publishing for writers determined to go down this path.

Please compare traditional and self publishing
Mwazemba: with self publishing you are your own boss and set the publishing schedule. In traditional publishing a book goes through many gatekeepers before it’s out which can be a long process.

In self publishing you are in control of the content whereas in traditional publishing your work can end up very different from the original draft due to style changes, concerns about libel etc. Sometimes what comes out is not what you wanted to write.

The flip side is that most people don’t take self published works very seriously. This is partly because of quality issues. The steps that a manuscript goes through in traditional publishing (editing, proof reading, copy editing etc) help to catch errors. Self published books can have many mistakes and things like typos which tend to irritate readers.

I can’t talk of one self published author in Kenya who has been taken very seriously. Writers who’ve succeeded such as Kithaka wa Mberia first created a publishing company (in his case Marimba Publications Ltd) then used the company to publish their book.

Being published by a corporate entity therefore helps to build credibility. What also helped Kithaka is that his book was selected as a set book for schools which was in effect a stamp of approval on the quality of the work.

Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, author of The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born decided to self publish after that book came out and few people have heard of his other works. In the long run, unless it’s digital publishing (and the market for ebooks in this region is still very small), it’s good to get a traditional publisher for print books.

Self publishing has often been called vanity publishing. What is your take?
Mwazemba: All publishing is an ego thing because people who want to get published believe they have something important to tell the world. Self published authors have often knocked on many publishers’ doors only to be rebuffed but they are so determined to see themselves in print that they go ahead and self publish.

My advice to people who want to self publish – get a good editor. If you can produce a self published book that has been produced to the quality standard of traditional publishing then you can compete effectively in the marketplace.

What about marketing and distribution? A traditional publisher is equipped to do this but what of solo authors?
Mwazemba: This is a very big hurdle for self published authors. Motivational speakers can do very well in self publishing because most of the time they already have a ready market for their books. Every time they hold a talk they can sell to the audience afterwards. In fact a lot of the time their talks are based on the content of their books which makes it logical for their fans to procure their books.


Pastors also have this edge as they have congregations, often numbering in the thousands that they can market their books to. But I don’t think anyone should dare touch fiction when it comes to self publishing.

Most of the successful self-published books have been taken over by mainstream publishers. For instance, Pastor T.D. Jakes couldn’t get a publisher for his book Woman, Thou Art Loosed (1993). He self published and it eventually exploded into a national bestseller with over 1.5 million copies sold. Albury Publishing later picked it up.

When a book is already a hit with a ready market, the author is able to negotiate far more favourable terms than for an unpublished book. So in this sense self publishing can become a route to demonstrating saleability thereby attracting a big name publisher.

Cutting out the middle men is often the main motive for self publishing. Please comment.
Mwazemba: The average royalty to authors in Kenya is 10-15 per cent. That the publisher takes the lion’s share is a popular myth.

The printer takes 40 per cent, the retailer 35 per cent, the author 10 per cent. That leaves the publisher with just 15 per cent, sometimes less.

Retailers like Text Book Centre are powerful middlemen because they have a network of bookshops and also serve as wholesalers, supplying books to smaller outlets. Their ability to move volumes is what gives them leverage to demand one third of the retail price. Middle men everywhere are very powerful, not just in the book industry.

A major retailer will take 500 copies upfront from an established traditional publisher such as Phoenix but will only take 5 copies from a self published author. Distribution can therefore become a full time job for a self published author. Even then, his or her reach is limited.

Authors can only cut out the publisher, not the printer or retailer which only increases their share of revenues by 15 per cent. Plus they have to promote and distribute the book themselves which is an added cost. The question is: is it worth taking on the extra headache of being the editor/designer/marketer/salesman just for an extra 15 per cent?

Based on the volumes a traditional publisher can push, an author may be better off earning 10 per cent from significant volumes than 25 per cent of really small quantities. There are very many self published authors who have come back to mainstream publishing because of challenges in promoting and distributing their books.

Publishers survive on backlists. For instance Phoenix has 200 titles. You don’t make too much money on each title (except perhaps for a textbook) but combined sales of the 200 titles are a significant amount at the end of the year. Publishers usually deal with several titles at the same time and benefit from economies of scale where printers give them big discounts for printing several titles together in pint runs of 3,000 copies. A self published author will most likely print at most 1,000 copies of a single book which is more expensive.

Contrary to popular myth, a writer can make money in traditional publishing. The richest author in Kenya is a Kiswahili text book writer and he gets on average Ksh10 million per annum.

The hybrid alternative
For authors determined to self publish, there is an alternative which eliminates the headache of promotion and distribution. An author with money can approach a publisher and ask to pay for production of the book (editing, proofreading design, layout, printing etc).

The author is assured that the book is of high quality because it has gone through the traditional publishing system. At the end of it the publisher gets the distribution rights for 40 per cent royalty while the author takes 60 per cent. In addition to getting the book out fast and not having to worry about marketing and distribution, the author gets credibility because a well known name in publishing is identified with production of the work.

Given this option, there is no reason why people should go for self publishing where they often lose money after being ripped off by printers who take advantage of their ignorance about production costs. Many Kenyan authors don’t know that this option even exists.

What impact has the Internet had on publishing in Kenya?
Mwazemba: First of all traditional publishing is not going to die. When we were in college there was a lot of hype about how the world would become paperless because of computers. Several years later, we’re producing more paper than ever because people want backups of everything.

I think publishing is going to change and adapt but it’s not going to die. We may have to have online versions of a book alongside the print versions. Sometimes technology can get in the way of a story. Some people don’t like the glare of a computer screen and prefer carrying a book. That market niche will still be there.


The major issue however, is that publishers and companies like Google, Facebook etc have different agendas. Google wants to provide everything including books for free, consumers also want free books but the publisher and author want to make money. At the end of the day someone has to pay for content that is produced otherwise pretty soon there will be no content to share.

Making all content free is tantamount to killing the golden goose. Consumers have to understand that authors and all creators of content need adequate compensation to keep doing it, otherwise what will motivate them? Nothing is free and even where consumers are getting free content; someone is paying for production of that content – usually advertisers.

The only model that works for me is the Amazon one. You pay for a digital version of a book using a credit card, Amazon routes that copy to your Kindle which does not allow you to print the book or transfer it to another gadget. The only way to share it is to let someone else read the book on your Kindle. There is no difference between that and traditional publishing except the format of the book- one is digital and the other print.

Kindle is also very convenient because it allows you to carry hundreds of books in one simple gadget. The author gets his or her royalty and the publisher also gets its cut. It has allowed books to become cheaper because the costs of printing and distribution which add significantly to the costs of books have been eliminated.

Right now there are many owners of digital platforms asking Kenyan publishers for content but we have to ask: How will the authors’ copyright be protected and how will the publishers benefit?

Mobile companies are really struggling to bring publishers on board because content on mobile phones can be easily shared and transferred to multiple devices. You just need to get one copy of a book and you can forward it to 20 million people. Amazon has cracked this problem.

If Google and mobile companies can crack it, they too will benefit, but mobile gadgets (phones, tablets, MP3s etc), and computers can’t work. We are so happy with Amazon that we’ve given them 20 of our titles to sell on their platform. Publishers get 70 per cent of the retail price to share with their authors.

If a self published author has to be on any platform, let it be Amazon because they will get 70 per cent royalties having eliminated the middleman (publisher) as well as printing and distribution costs.

Amazon and companies like it will in the future take over a big chunk of the self published authors. So far no one has managed to crack Amazon, but if you create a blog and try to sell your book online, it will be cracked within days and your book distributed for free by pirates.

Last word?
Mwazemba: I think digital publishing in Africa has a long way to go and publishers are being forced to look to the West and Amazon, which has so far provided a model that works for them. Owners of digital platforms in Kenya always talk about access, never about copyright. Surely it’s not in my interest as a publisher or that of my authors for my books to be accessed by all Kenyans unless they are paying for it.

Authors often spend years thinking about and writing books, putting a lot of sweat and pain into them. Imagine then within weeks of such books coming out and they are freely shared by email and as Pdfs while the author gets nothing. Not for my books.


One thought on “To self publish or not? Advice from a traditional publisher

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s