Hey friends. I recently had the opportunity to interview Kenyan author, editor, and self-publishing expert Alexander Nderitu. He shared his perspective on a number of topics related to the literary game. Read on for the full transcript of our conversation.
Interview with Alexander Nderitu
- You were Africa’s first e-novelist. What made you have the foresight to embrace eBooks when readers throughout the entire world still strongly favored print?
It wasn’t really foresight, it was a convergence of factors; a perfect storm. It was the beginning of this century and the Internet was just starting to take hold in Africa. Back then we people used to go to cyber cafés to check if they had Yahoo! Mail the way you go to a post office! I had studied IT in college and relocated to Nairobi to find a job –and pursue my dream of being a writer. I already had a manuscript for a crime novel, titled When the Whirlwind Passes. I checked the Yellow Pages for contacts of publishers, but there were just about five of them and I recognized them as school textbook manufacturers. They occasionally released a novel but their target demographic was, and still is, schoolchildren. Having grown up reading the likes of Frederick Forsyth, Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Agatha Christie, Jeffery Archer, Mary Higgins Clarke, and Robert Ludlum, I doubted the textbook people would be interested in my fast-paced crime novel inspired by a real-life high-society murder case in Italy. From UK writing magazines I had subscribed to, I learned about the then emerging e-book trend. There seemed to be a lot of excitement around it. Every other ad in the magazine was offering “e-book conversion services” or e-book software and devices. Novelist Stephen King experimentally wrote a series of short stories, titled Riding the Bullet, specifically designed for the e-book market. An e-novel titled The Angels of Russia was nominated for the Booker Prize which was a first for a virtual book. I began to wonder why no one in Africa – where it’s harder to get published than the West – was experimenting with e-publishing. And then I realized that they weren’t aware of the technology and weren’t technologists like me. I decided to pave the way. I converted my manuscript to e-book format and uploaded it on several platforms including eBookMall.com. I then promoted it myself, which is an important component of self-publishing. In November 2002, When the Whirlwind Passes was favorably reviewed in the Daily Nation’s Saturday magazine. The reviewer, Wayua Muli, ended the piece by saying, “If you can access the book, please do. It will be worth the energy.”
- How did you feel when a man as controversial as David Icke quoted your poem The Moon is Made of Green Cheese?
I didn’t mind it at all. I like David Icke. He’s a freethinker and so am I. I recently watched his documentary, Renegade. In it, Alice Walker, another freethinker and writer, praises him highly. I think some of Icke’s theories are outrageous but on the other hand, he’s been almost prophetic about some world events. I am an official of PEN International’s Kenya Centre and we believe in freedom of speech worldwide. Incidentally, the poem of mine that he shared on his website is not even controversial – it’s a love poem! I’ve been writing for a while so my poems have been published in numerous places including the East African Standard, the World Poetry Almanac, and the World Poetry Yearbook. Another of my love poems, Someone in Africa Loves You, was published on Commonwealth Poetry Postcards in the UK. It has since been translated into several languages. The most recent version is in Dholuo, courtesy of poet Griffins Ndhine. David Risher, co-founder of the Worldreader organization, once read out my poem Rhythm of Life, about Kenya’s famous marathon runners, at the opening of a Worldreader Summit in Nairobi. I was very flattered. I feel honoured every time someone shares or publishes my poetry.
- What do you think are some of the most significant challenges Kenyan authors face today?
If we were doing this interview in Kiswahili, I would have said: “Changa moto chungu nzima! Maswala kibao!” We face so many challenges. The most significant one is lack of finances. It takes a long time to write a book. A lot goes into it. There’s pre-writing, writing, and post-writing. So how do you pay the rent and provide your upkeep when you’re spending hundreds or thousands of hours on a project with no quick returns? Where will the self-publishing money come from? Besides that, we have a poor reading culture in the country, compared to the so-called 1st and 2nd World nations. We also have few trade books publishers, literary agents, book fairs, libraries, distribution channels, prizes, scholarships, fellowships, writer’s associations, and little gov’t support. Publishers say book piracy costs them millions of shillings every year, but most aspiring authors can’t even get published in the first place – they have nothing to be pirated!
- You’re the Deputy Secretary-General of the Kenyan branch of PEN. What are some of the benefits authors receive when they join PEN?
First off, PEN International is the oldest and largest literary movement in the world. It mainly focuses on freedom of speech and the promotion of literature across borders. It’s also well known for coming to the defence of what they refer to as “Writers at Risk.” These are usually scribes and journos being harassed by repressive regimes and other dark forces. Locally, we have organized creative writing and human rights workshops, promoted individual writers via the media, organized book launches, connected writers with overseas travel opportunities, and participated in literary events and discourse.
- What made you decide to help authors self-publish their writing?
That’s a great question because this was never on my bucket list, but it’s now what I do for a living! Because I am too prolific to pursue local mainstream publishers, I often self-publish my own work, both online and offline. Over the years, some authors asked me to help them self-publish their own books due to the glacial speed of the mainstream and their preference for “curriculum material.” Initially, I used to turn them down or recommend other people because I felt that working on other people’s books would mean shelving my own career. About three years ago I had a change of heart, especially when I recommended a potential client to another self-publishing consultant and he let the author down badly. I started doing the self-publishing services myself and realized that I actually enjoyed it and, properly organized, it can be quite profitable. I have an illustrator, proofreaders, and associate editors to help me out.
- What do you believe are some of the major benefits of self-publishing?
It’s almost impossible for a first-time author to get mainstream published in this country. And even if one’s manuscript is accepted, it will take more than a year for it to appear in print. With self-publishing the author takes charge of the process and can get everything done much quicker. The author also retains full copyright ownership and responsibility for their work. It’s also more collaborative. The client gets to review the content as it is polished and weigh in on the cover, formatting and so on. Publishing houses deal with many books and issues at once. They don’t have time to keep e-mailing back and forth with individual authors. One major publisher I was on a panel with at Daystar University revealed that they usually contact their authors just once per year – when it’s time for the royalty payment. Self-publishing is more hands-on and cozy.
- What’s a better option for a new author: choosing to self-publish or seeking traditional publishing opportunities? Why?
First, I’d like to make it clear that this is by no means an indictment of mainstream publishing. I don’t call it “traditional publishing” because self-publishing is actually older, but that’s a story for another day. Whether to seek a publisher or go it alone is a personal choice that is informed by one’s own objective, resources, and options. For example, if you’ve written a YA novel that is targeted at school children and you’re hoping that it will one day become a “set book” or be considered for a Jomo Kenyatta Prize, then your best option is a mainstream publisher. That’s their domain. They serve the school market and their biggest client is the gov’t. It’s not a happy marriage, but again that’s a story for another day! However, if you have written a book of fiction or non-fiction that you feel is unlikely to be touched by major publishers then you may as well commit your own resources and invest in your own dream. Examples of why your book may not get past the “readers’”at publishing houses include adult themes, narrow target market, crude language, taboo topics, vernacular language, and author name holding no weight. Think of an ordinary 60-year-old businessman who has lived a normal but enriching life. He feels he wants to tell his life story and share the lessons he learnt along the way, for the benefit of the younger generation. If that man were to cobble together his memoir and send it off to publishers in East Africa for consideration, he would most likely die before the manuscript was even accepted, let alone published. I remember a mzee calling in to Kameme FM Book Club some years ago and whining that he had been looking for publisher for 20 years now!
- You also help authors market their books. If an author wants to work with you, what should they expect in terms of marketing efforts?
I have been in the book business for a long time and I have made many contacts and learnt many lessons. I use the contacts and expertise I have gathered to help or advise my clients. For example, I can coach them on “author branding,” help them get publicity, recommend them to festival organizers, create online and offline advertising campaigns, throw a book launch, and so on. You have to understand that there are very many books in the world as a whole. I don’t see the point of manufacturing a new book and then keeping quiet about it. One time, the PEN Kenya president and I were at a university function and a member of the faculty there approached us with copies of a novel she had self-published but never promoted. Even her colleagues didn’t know she was an author! That’s terrible.
- Are you available to help authors self-publish and market their books regardless of the author’s geographic location?
Oh, yes! One of the manuscripts I am working on now was authored by a lady in West Africa and she was recommended to me by a client in South Africa. The world is flat, thanks to technology. The physical location is no hindrance at all. And as the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, many meetings can be held remotely.
- What were some of the biggest success stories you’ve seen as a self-publishing consultant?
Last year, I was invited to Turkana County where I conducted a literary workshop that gave birth to the first Turkana Creative Writers’ Association and the development of several books that are currently in the pipeline. One of the books is a very important and heavily researched non-fiction book authored by Titus Ekiru. It’s about the culture and history of the Turkana people and we will release it later in the year. I also helped banker and motivational speaker Oltesh Thobias bring his first book, From Campus to the Boardroom, to life and now we are working on another one. He’s already doing some online videos to promote the upcoming book. There are many clients’ projects that I am excited about. One thing that has surprised me is the diversity of the genres. I am working on everything from motivational books to YA literature to medical research methodology! And I haven’t even been doing this for long!
- How much do your services cost and can authors pick and choose which services they’d like to purchase?
Costs vary. For example, the COVID-19-induced recession has caused clients to understandably negotiate downwards. But the ideal cost is around Kshs 100,000, without including the printing costs. And yes, the quotation is like an à la carte menu. Some people choose to design their own covers or forego printing and just have an e-book. It’s all up to them. Regarding the cost of a book, I can recall watching an official of a major publishing house on TV explaining why publishers are so hesitant to take risks on every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a manuscript. He said that to develop one book properly – from beginning to end – costs about Kshs 1 million. I concur, although I’d say its slightly higher now due to inflation. If a client has that kind of a budget, they can expect an international-standard job, complete with a book launch and national distribution.
- What advice would you give to a new author who feels overwhelmed by the immense competition in the self-publishing world?
I wouldn’t say there’s much competition in the self-publishing world. Very few people in this part of the world have books under their belt. I run a Facebook group for writers that has 1.5k members but I’ve noticed that the majority of them are either writers bloggers or aspiring. Producing a book is not as easy as some might think. However, as I wrote in an article for Agbowó magazine, I have always felt that authors – especially self-published ones – need to do more to promote their own works. Books don’t sell themselves.
- Any personal projects you’re currently working on?
Yes, as always. One of them is not literary; it has to do with talent development in general. Another one that we will announce when the world regains a semblance of normality will showcase fresh literary voices in the entire East African region. For example, do you know any writers under 40 years old from South Sudan? What about Rwanda and Burundi? We’re going to make a difference. My partners include Joanna Cockerline, an award-winning writer and educator from Canada, and Munira Hussein, a sensational Kenyan poet. We are open to linking up with more partners, be they publishers, universities, book sellers, festival organizers, critics or other literature stakeholders. I think this project will be especially useful for university literature students. Anyone who wishes to come on board can contact me via my website: www.AlexanderNderitu.com
- Do you have any parting words for our audience?
Publishers are not the enemy. Editors are not the enemy. Literary critics are not the enemy. The enemies of writers include procrastination, stubbornness, plagiarism, lack of discipline, lack of business sense, and lack of tenacity. Nothing good comes easily, even if you switch careers. If you want to know who’s really keeping you from writing, look in the mirror. That’s the culprit!
Alexander Nderitu’s Biography
Alexander Nderitu is a Kenyan poet, playwright and novelist. His first book, ‘When the Whirlwind Passes’ has the distinction of being Africa’s first digital novel. Some of his writings have been translated into Swedish, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, and Swahili. In 2014, his poem ‘Someone in Africa Loves You‘ represented Kenyan literature on Poetry Postcards distributed during the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. His fiction is available worldwide via the Worldreader app and devices. In 2017, he was named by ‘Business Daily‘ newspaper as one of Kenya’s ‘Top 40 Under 40 Men’. Nderitu is also the Deputy Secretary-General of Kenyan PEN and the Kenyan Editor of the international theatre news portal, TheTheatreTimes.com.
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