Posted in Conversations with artists

Why Lawrence Mute opted to self publish his poems

“I started writing poetry in my late teens. I have sent manuscripts to publishers for years and have never received a response. Over time I wondered: Is it that my writing is not good enough to get published? Or is it that they (publishers) don’t care to look at it?”

Wanjiru speaks to Lawrence Mute, about his journey to self publishing his collection of poems titled Under the Rubble Lies My Love.

Is this your first book?
Mute: It’s my first creative work but I have contributed poems to other anthologies- Melodies of the Motherland (2000), Counterpoint (2010), published by Claripress and Oxford University Press respectively.

Why self publish?
Mute: I have wanted to publish for the last 20 or more years. I started writing poetry in my late teens. By the time I was at the University of Nairobi studying for a law degree, I had this sense that I wanted to publish. I have sent manuscripts to publishers for years and have never received a response. Over time I wondered: Is it that my writing is not good enough to get published? Or is it that they (publishers) don’t care to look at it?

People kept telling me that Kenyans don’t read and in particular don’t read poetry. I was advised that if I want to be published I should write stuff that can be used in schools and my poetry didn’t fall into that category.

Despite these negative sentiments, I felt I had a message that I wanted to send out there. If publishers wouldn’t publish me for whatever reasons, then I would do it myself.

What do you write about?
Mute: I write about life. Under the Rubble Lies My Love could almost serve as my autobiography. I cannot say that every poem in the collection represents me at a particular point in time but collectively it describes who I am and what I’ve gone through. I write about my blindness for instance, ‘Angel on Tom Mboya Street’ which is about a girl I met while walking in town on my way to the office and she helped me to cross the street. I also write about politics and family. I query the realities around me.

Did being visually impaired cause you to write poetry or influence the kind of poetry you write?
Mute: Being blind meant that I didn’t get to do many of the things that other kids did. When I was in secondary school, we had a talent competition. I wasn’t reciting, in drama and neither was I into sports. At some point I asked myself ‘who am I, what am I about?’ I went back to class late in the evening and sat alone thinking for a long time. That’s when I wrote my first poem.

The blindness is certainly a factor because a lot of the time when I find myself with some idle time, say in someone’s office, I can’t pick up a magazine or newspaper to pass the time. So I begin thinking and lines of poetry begin popping in my head.

When I lived at home, walking to the market would take an hour. Even as I paid attention to the environment around me to ensure a car didn’t hit me, my mind would wander and I would write lines in my head, hoping that I would still remember them when I got back home so that I could jot them down.

What challenges did you encounter in self-publishing?
Mute: The first was to ensure quality, confirming and reaffirming that what I was going to publish was of a similar standard to what a traditional publisher would put out in the market. I had to find people who had published or who had experience in the industry, to read my poetry and make comments.

It wasn’t about them editing my poetry, but it was important that they give me their view on whether my poetry made sense. Sometimes they would suggest I remove a certain poem but the ultimate decision on whether to retain a poem was up to me.

I also had to find a good designer to create the cover, shop for a printer who wouldn’t rip me off and so on. The biggest challenge is of course distribution. I have this big pile of books that I need to sell.

What was the cost and how did you finance it?
Mute: I published 1,000 copies and including design and printing incurred a total cost of Sh160,000. The book is retailing at Sh300 per copy. I have already been advised that I can make a profit if I sell the book at Sh200 but I think that’s too little.

I used savings and had already warned my family that this wasn’t necessarily going to be a profitable venture. There is no guarantee that I will sell enough copies to recoup my investment but that is a risk I’m prepared to take. For me, the main goal was self fulfilment. Just being published was an important driver for me.

How will you distribute and market your book?
Mute: My plan is fairly ad hoc. I have spoken to a number of bookshops and in principle they are willing to stock my book. There are normally two approaches to this. The bookseller can take copies and pay after they have sold, or purchase your books outright.

Either way, they will only take a few copies at a time, asking for more after they sell. The problem with this approach is that it’s extremely labour intensive. There is a limit to how many bookshops I can personally visit.

I have been told that I need to be a little bit more tech savvy and have a Facebook page to market the book. There is also the option of direct marketing through email and text messages. A book launch has also been suggested but I’m not keen. What if people come and drink my wine and go away without buying the book? Launches make sense if you have a big powerful publisher behind you footing the bill.

In short, I will rely on word of mouth for marketing and approach individual outlets to stock my book.

I have a friend who went into self publishing and he made it big because he managed to cut out the bulk of middle men (publisher, agent). He has linkages with key distributors, which means that whatever percentages would have been eaten up by the publisher now come to him.

I believe that in self publishing, once you have name recognition, then you’ve made it. Several of his books were approved by the Ministry of Education for inclusion into the school curriculum and that definitely boosted sales of his books.

Have you thought of doing an audio version to help other visually impaired people access your poems easily?
Mute: I listen to lots of audio books; for instance I’ve listened to all the Dan Brown books, but unfortunately all the audio books I’ve listened to are produced in the West. I would love to find a Ngugi wa Thiong’o audio book and those of many other Kenyan authors. But African writers are not represented in audio books.

To do audio books locally, we need a certain basic infrastructure to guarantee quality CDs, MP3 or other digital formats. I honestly have not put my head around what this infrastructure would be. There is also the issue of whether there is a market for audio books. I could go and spend money on it but would people buy?

This morning I was asking myself whether I shouldn’t do some Braille copies of the book. There are people in Kenya who can produce professionally done Braille books.  I initially wanted to do a Braille cover (at least have the title written in Braille), but it wasn’t possible in the end.

Lawrence Mute is a former commissioner with the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR).

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