Interview by Bill Crawford
NAIROBI: David Waweru is the CEO of WordAlive Publishers, an independent publishing house that he founded in Nairobi, Kenya in 2001 to focus on providing inspirational titles for African readers. A longtime advocate for East African publishing, David also serves as the treasurer of the Kenya Publishers Association and chairman of the Nairobi International Book Fair.
David, as a former Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing Champion, which do you find more difficult, boxing or being an independent publisher in Africa?
Being an independent trade publisher in Africa.
First, as an amateur boxer, I knew I’d fight three fierce rounds of three minutes each. Even when you’ve been pounded heavily, or you know you’re running out of steam, there’s always the anticipation that the bell will ring at three minutes, if you survive a knockout, that is. The one-minute rest interval gives temporary relief. Trade publishing in Africa, on the other hand, can be like fighting an endless round, with the same intensity, and yet you must still know how to pace yourself in order to go the distance.
Second, in boxing, you’re up against just one opponent. You can learn their strengths and weaknesses fairly quickly. For publishing in Africa, you have to contend with multiple moving targets in a constrained but still fast-changing environment where rules, if they exist, don’t hold much.
And third, you become a boxing champ by the number of opponents you outpunch or knock out. In boxing, the only person you need to please is yourself. In publishing, you win by how well you target people’s constantly changing preferences, that is, how well you attract and keep expanding your “fan” (read customer) base — a function of how well you meet their needs (and wants).
How’s the independent publishing business in Kenya doing?
Well, it’s like anywhere in the world, I guess. It’s pretty tough right now. In Kenya, the publishing industry is estimated to be about 12 billion Kenyan shillings a year (US $150 million) but 95% of that comes from the sales of textbooks. The sales of trade books has not been growing that quickly, I am afraid, but we are trying to change that. And bookstore sales are down as well. But as a small publisher, we have to respond to the market. We have published more than 80 titles, 70 of which are still active, and we are always looking for new opportunities. We have just published The Rugendo Rhinos Series, a mystery series for 10 to 12 year olds that has just been approved for use in primary schools. So we’re also getting into the schools market, though in a very small way.
The plan to turn Kenya into a middle-income country by 2030 is on course, and as more people’s discretionary income increases, I expect that sales of trade books will increase.
This seems to go along with the vision you have for the company, transformed African societies one person at a time.
That’s true. People sometimes say that Africa has a poor reading culture, but we have to expand the horizons and give people what they want to read. When I began WordAlive Publishers eleven years ago, I wanted to create a new kind of publishing, one that would unlock and unleash the enormous human potential in Africa. I began by buying rights to some of the most inspiring authors from the west such as John C. Maxwell, John M. Mason and Zig Ziglar, and publishing them under license for defined markets in Africa. I found that African readers were hungry for books that would help them grow as individuals, especially books with a Christian perspective. At the same time, we realized that our readers wanted training in skills that would help their careers. And with Kenya is experiencing an economic boom, coupled with a readership that is keen to learn leadership and management skills, we began to publish local thought leaders, most of who had not been published before. Today, titles in the personal development category contribute 27% of our revenues.
Are there any African authors who are writing inspirational books?
There certainly are. We have just published Big Dreams for Ordinary People by Fred Geke. Fred is a prominent speaker and pastor, he has written a number of books on personal growth. We have also published Wisdom for Abundant Living by Eric Kimani. Eric is an accountant by training, a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, and is also an advocate to the high court. Some of our other African authors include Kivutha Kibwana, a respected professor of constitutional law and former cabinet minister in Kenya, Justice James Ogoola, who just retired as the Principal Judge of the high court in Uganda and is now serving as head of the country’s Judicial Service Commission, and Ken Monyoncho, a personal finance consultant and trainer. Ken is sort of Nairobi’s answer to Dave Ramsey, but more focused on investing. Here in Nairobi it is tough to get capital. We don’t have the financial infrastructure necessary for the demand, and Ken’s books offer many good ideas for Kenyan entrepreneurs. We are proud to work with such quality authors, and we feel that they have a very powerful message for readers everywhere, not just in Africa. We also offer titles in marriage and relationships, theology, fiction, and a variety of other categories.
We try to publish about eight titles per year, and two universities have adopted our titles as text books, which is great for sales, for the other reasons that I mentioned earlier.
What has been your most successful title?
The most successful title to date has been Africa Bible Commentary (ABC). We first published the ABC in 2006 and it is now in its eighth printing with more than 100,000 copies sold. This one-volume commentary, a contribution of 70 African scholars and theologians, has been hailed as one of the greatest works of Christian scholarship to come out of Africa in recent years. As a result of the commentary’s success, we launched HippoBooks, a shared imprint among several African publishers and partners with the vision of stimulating spiritual and intellectual growth in the African church by developing books by African authors who address African realities.
Have you tried publishing fiction?
Ever since I first started this company, I wanted to publish fiction, but it took me eight years to finally publish our first fiction title, Eyo, by Abidemi Sanusi. It is the story of an illiterate 10 year-old girl who is trafficked to the UK with promises of a better life. She ends up as a domestic servant and later a sex slave. When, eventually she’s rescued, she realizes that even in freedom, society demands an exacting price from those it should protect. Eyo was a finalist for the 2010 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for the Best Book Africa. It was even discussed in the Kenyan parliament in a debate on the problem of sexual abuse and child sex slavery.
I look forward to publishing other novels. I really enjoy reading fiction, in fact, I was punished in primary school for reading a novel in class.
So you have been a reader from a young age?
Yes, and I still am. My mother’s younger sisters read big tomes voraciously, and I also saw them as really cool. I think they lent me the first book that stoked my curiosity, Jeffrey Archer’s Shall We Tell the President? So I started reading everything I could get my hands on, which was sometimes difficult since we didn’t have the money to buy books, and the libraries weren’t so well stocked. Looking back, I realize I grew up reading western authors for fun and African authors in the classroom. I still read a lot, and now I can afford to buy a lot of books.
How did you come to start WordAlive?
I always dreamed of being a catalyst for change in Africa. I figured out how I’d make my contribution while working as a science editor at the University of Nairobi Press, an academic publishing house. I’d start a publishing house that would develop transformational content after honing my skills and gaining the requisite experience necessary for such a major undertaking. So after ten years of employment, I quit my second job, where I was a senior manager in charge of an Africa-wide publishing program, to pursue my dream.
I knew I wanted to start my own publishing firm, but I also knew that I didn’t have the capital I would need to start it. Since publishing is capital intensive and returns are slow especially in the formative years, I decided to establish a service firm first — Impact Media Limited — so as to generate the cash needed to fund the publishing company until it breaks even, which I estimated would be five years. That wound up doing quite well. We designed a lot of corporate annual reports, magazines, promotional materials, and publications for NGOs. When I made enough money, I began the publishing firm. I devoted less and less time to the advertising work, until I found myself working as an independent publisher. Many of my friends thought I was crazy to give up a successful design company go into publishing in such a hostile environment. They told me that it could not survive. We have had a couple of close calls, but the company is still in business. They probably still think I’m crazy.
How do you market your titles?
We have tried to use the Random House model of creating specific imprints for niche markets. WordAlive is our line for spiritual books. We want to develop a line for business books, one for fiction as well.
We have found that author events work well here. In other markets, such events may not get much press, but here we are able to get wide media coverage. We have tried to organize readings, one called BookTalkAFrica featured was held here in Nairobi and in Kampala, Uganda and it drew a good crowd. It’s all about having a love affair with books and a great author.
With Eyo, for example, I mentioned that the book actually sparked a debate in the Kenyan parliament and in Uganda, the revenue authority sponsored a corporate social responsibility week and launch around the theme of “Break the silence: fight against child sexual abuse and human trafficking.” The Ugandan First Lady, who is also a cabinet minister, and the inspector general of police, were the main discussants during the launch. It is crucial that you package the message properly and make sure your message gets across. No one is going to do that work for you.
I am also working with other players in the book market, through the Kenyan Publishers Association, to promote books in other ways. For example we hold the Nairobi International Book Fair every fourth week of September, and at least one regional book fair, which rotates annually around the counties.
Do you sell ebooks?
Yes. However, ebooks have not taken off in Kenya. Most people can’t afford the ereader and they don’t have the credit card they need to pay for the books. About 99% of all the ebooks we have sold so far were bought by people from overseas.
Are there any other independent publishers in Kenya doing what you do?
We all like to feel that we are unique, but there are a few others who are pursuing this same niche. What may be different is each publisher’s sense making of future trends, and the individual publisher’s response to perceived probable needs. For example: we recognized the challenges of distribution in Africa and the fact that no African Christian publisher can currently invest enough to successfully engage in niche publishing, or to distribute books effectively throughout Africa. So three publishers representing specific regions of the continent came together to create a virtual imprint, HippoBooks, mentioned earlier, and incorporated a western publisher, Zondervan, to handle distribution in North America. This collaborative effort strengthens the lists of individual members by creating key resources that they might struggle to develop on their own and that can be sources of sustainable cash flow. It also guarantees wide distribution across the continent and abroad. In only 3 years, several titles have been published, including African Christian Ethics by Samuel Waje Kunhiyop, a title that has been adopted by several universities as a textbook for courses in ethics.
And for the future?
I’m quite excited about some new titles I the pipeline. One such title is We the People by Dr. Timothy Njoya, one of the most influential and active advocates for change, justice, and human rights in Kenya. The book argues that Africa, so rich and yet so poor, can have a new order in which enlightened citizens, in their diversity, can unite into viable nations capable of upholding their humanity, dignity, liberty, selfhood and livelihood. He has a compelling message on sovereignty, without which states are just markets, and humans commodities whose value is determined by those higher up in the pecking order.
Beyond that, I plan to just keep publishing more books that will benefit and interest African readers, God willing.