Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Kenne Mwikya
At the Louis Leakey Auditorium again, this the time crowd far sparser than earlier events. Is it because no one is interested in how we will read books in the future, how content will be presented for consumption and the opportunities/challenges this brings? I hope not, because narratives of presentation, technology and consumer habits along with how they intersect with literary culture have a larger bearing in Africa today than ever before.
The panel consisted of Billy Kahora, Laura Kabuitsule a published author based in Namibia, Lawrence Njagi of Kwani?, a moderator and what I must assume was representative from a local publishing or technology company. I was late, like John Kampfner, who was in the programme as a panellist but who just decided to sit it out inside the auditorium.
The first part of the session had the panellists discuss various aspects of their work. Lawrence Njagi entertained with anecdotes of having to lure potential readers to barbeques or book signings in the grocery section of the supermarket. Marketing featured heavily in the discussions as there are worries that readers aren’t interested in work being put out there by African writers and aren’t especially concerned about how, whom and under what conditions they’ll read in the future.
On technology, even though tentativeness was the mode of engagement, we had to concede, first of all, that technology aided rather than threatened the publishing industry in Africa. Laura was perhaps the biggest advocate and beneficiary of publishing content online and on e-books in the panel. Publishing online puts the author in touch with real time commentary from readers (e.g. a reader who commented online about a certain disturbing event in the book which she had gone through in real life), puts the author in firm control of publishing (they “didn’t want anything to do with her” after receiving her manuscripts) and perhaps the most important of all, lets the author partly determine the pricing of her work. Besides, technology such as tablets and digitizing textbooks made work far much cheaper to produce and disseminate, increasing access to larger swathes of people.
During question time, I asked how Africa was to engage with giant e-book publishers such as Amazon and Apple: large companies, with monopolising tendencies and shown to have terrifying effects on small scale publishers who could not put up a fight. Laura insisted that this was a win-win in Africa, where consumers were put off reading because of high paper book costs and where writers struggled to get published. With her as an example, writers could self publish, determine a price that could see to it that as many copies of books are sold and have readers’ comments steer process in a certain kind of way.
Billy Kahora had interesting thoughts on piracy, that it was a way of having content distributed to as many people with as low costs. This sympathetic view of something that is considered a moral vice or criminal activity is one that I agree with. Lawrence Njagi insisted that publishers, soon to be non-existent middlemen, should be creative in ways of gaining access to Kenyan readers. This is the only way to be sustainable, the only way to survive. Coupling the two thinkers together, one sees a favourable mediating role of technology but only if parties are prudent enough to ensure a symbiotic role between reader and writer.
I did not agree, however, with one of the panellist’s contention that writers start marketing themselves as opposed to their work. This thinking has currency in marketing discourse, currently gripping the innovation and creative “class” with a chokehold. The writer as brand removes focus from the work and encourages stardom (as we have witnessed in Western intellectualism and authorship) which is inimical to the point of all this: content and how we can get it to as many people as possible.