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An Interview with Alexander Nderitu: African eBook Pioneer and Self-Publishing Expert

Introduction

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

Alexander Nderitu at a publishing summit

 

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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

  1. 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.

Interested in Being Interviewed?

The Literary Game is looking to interview authors. If you’d like to be interviewed, simply send us an email with a cover letter telling us a bit about your writing and background. We’ll get in touch if there’s a fit.

Specifically, we’re looking to feature writers who satisfy one or more of the following criteria:

  • Writers who have overcome significant hardship to achieve success.
  • Writers who have a unique life story.
  • Writers who have controversial or unorthodox opinions about writing and publishing.
  • Writers who have made a difference in the world.
  • English-language writers based in Africa, Asia, The Middle East, Eastern Europe, Italy, and Latin America.

Apply today by clicking here.

My 50 Favorite Novels

Introduction

I thought I’d have a little fun today and compile a list of my 50 favorite novels.

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First off, the rules.

I didn’t include any short stories, short story collections, poetry collections, screenplays, plays, nonfiction (creative or otherwise), or graphic novels. Every book on this list is a novel (well, there is one novella).

Also, this is a list of my 50 favorite novels, not a list of the 50 best novels in terms of literary merit. Nostalgia, my own personal taste, and the fact that I’ve only read a smidgen of the novels that have been written limit this to a very arbitrary list.

Without further ado, the list!

My 50 Favorite Novels

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  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  2. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  3. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  4. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  6. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  7. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
  8. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
  9. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
  10. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  11. Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale by Chuck Kinder
  12. Skagboys by Irvine Welsh
  13. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
  14. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  15. Native Son by Richard Wright
  16. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
  17. Women by Charles Bukowski
  18. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  19. 1984 by George Orwell
  20. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  21. The Plague by Albert Camus
  22. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  23. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  24. The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
  25. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
  26. The Group by Mary McCarthy
  27. Drop City by T.C. Boyle
  28. The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight
  29. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
  30. Junky by William S. Burroughs
  31. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
  32. Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley
  33. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  34. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
  35. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  36. NW by Zadie Smith
  37. The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini
  38. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  39. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  40. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  41. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
  42. The Fall by Albert Camus
  43. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  44. The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis
  45. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  46. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
  47. Plainsong by Kent Haruf
  48. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  49. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  50. Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Feedback

Now, here’s where I turn it back to you with a few questions:

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How many of these novels have you read?

Do you hate any of the books on this list? Why?

What’s on your list of 50 favorite books?

Comments and feedback are always appreciated!

Fighting the good fight with you,
Alfonso

Your Protagonist Is The Alpha

In literature, when writing your protagonist make sure that they are “active.”

What do I mean by active? I mean that your protagonist, whatever situations s/he may be facing, must take action to attempt to solve them. Your main character cannot be a passive onlooker. Be they of heroic, antiheroic, or villainous qualities, the character who is the primary focus of your book needs to move things forward through aggressive actions.

I want to get into a bit of an aside…in April 2013, I quit my job as an educator at Monroe College. I loved working at Monroe. I had a great rapport with students and colleagues alike. The administration was quite high on me, wanting to promote me. I enjoyed the culture of the institution. However, I was determined to make it as a writer and when the initial catalyst arrived—my first publication in a literary journal—I set out on a new path, taking action to get my writing published and delving into the worlds of acting, filmmaking, and entrepreneurship. I have faced many challenges along the way, but regardless, I continue to push forward on my path until I have achieved everything I set out to do.

Now if someone someday might view me as an inspiration for the lead character in their book, I can work as a protagonist because I always have a bias towards action in my own life, working to move things forward through all obstacles. Your protagonist needs to do the same.

Of course, there are exceptions. You can choose to write a book about a character paralyzed by inaction; however, most writers write active protagonists and should remember to make sure that their lead character is always pushing the plot forward through their actions.

The takeaway: Make sure that your protagonist is a doer. S/he is not someone merely acted on by others. S/he is the one leading through their actions.

30 Books You Must Read If You Want To Become A Literary Badass

In The Literary Game, I repeatedly mention the simple three-step process necessary for success in the literary world:

  1. Get to writing.
  2. Have your work edited.
  3. Find appropriate places to publish.

However, in truth, no matter how excellent an editor or publishing consultant you choose to work with, all your efforts will probably be for naught if you are not well-read.

Reading more is one of the most critical things that you can do to become a successful writer. Without a truly voracious love for the written word, your work will likely be stale and not publishable. There are exceptions, but they are VERY rare, and you are probably NOT the exception.

Personally, as an author, I take it as an affront when writers do not read at all. I view those individuals as carpetbaggers. While some writers read more than others, as dependent on their lifestyle and other factors, it is important that all writers actually read, both to improve their own work and to support the profession as a whole.

My own writing tends to bridge the gap between literary fiction and alternative literature. If you write in either genre, getting familiar with a few of these books is essential. Also, if you write in a different genre, but just want a good read, consider the following:

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil – This isn’t a novel, but rather a recollection of the original 70s punk scene from the figures who lived it.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – Four outsiders in a small southern U.S. town search for acceptance and a reprieve from their alienation.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor – Like all of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories/novellas, this one is dark and saturated with religious themes.

Cathedral by Raymond Carver – In my opinion, this is the best collection of Raymond Carver’s short fiction.

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson – A young American journalist goes to Puerto Rico, makes a barebones salary, gets drunk, gets laid, and tries to avoid being killed by the locals.

Women by Charles BukowskiThe red pill of male-female interactions told only as Bukowski could.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis – “I had to stop reading this because I started seeing people as meat.” – My friend Ben. That about says it all.

NW by Zadie Smith Two best friends navigate cross-cultural issues in modern day England.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz – The best prose writer alive.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shtenygart – For those sad bastard moments.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth – Neurosis encapsulated.

Taipei by Tao Lin – Hipster life in the 21st century.

Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale by Chuck Kinder – The story of two hard-partying, life-wrecking buffoons who eventually make it as successful writers.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – Perhaps the best book written in the 21st century.

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem – From outcast white kid in a slowly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood to liberal arts college party boy to young professional. No, I cannot relate to this story in any way!

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight – An entire movement was born out of this book (Islamic punk).

Demonology by Rick Moody – An incredibly sharp collection of short fiction.

Junky by William S. Burroughs – Easily William S. Burroughs’ most accessible work.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov – Satan comes to Moscow. Not going to make a Putin joke.

A Crackup at the Race Riots by Harmony Korine – This is postmodern writing done by the director of Gummo and Spring Breakers.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole – One of the funniest books I have ever read.

Skagboys by Irvine Welsh – Explore how the lads of Trainspotting became junkies.

Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley – An interesting fictional look into the world of tobacco lobbying.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – A Greek-American family’s story as told through several generations, including through the life of a hermaphrodite.

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon – Within 24 hours, your wife divorces you and you’re fired. What else can you do but drive across America talking to people? The finest travel writing I have ever read and a personal inspiration to me as both a writer and free spirit.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn – Carnies are people too.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf – If you like sparse prose, Haruf was the master.

Black Hole by Charles Burns – In this graphic novel, a weird sexually transmitted disease is spread in suburban Seattle in the 1970s.

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney – Writing in the 2nd person that is actually good!

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes – A quote from the character Enid Coleslaw: “These stupid girls think they’re so hip, but they’re just a bunch of trendy stuck-up prep-school bitches who think they’re ‘cutting edge’ because they know who ‘Sonic Youth’ is!”

In success,
Alfonso Colasuonno
Publisher, The Literary Game