Nairobi International Book Fair: Publishers’ Viewpoints

In News by Olivia Snaije

African publishers at Nairobi International Book Fair look at market challenges: the desire to produce fiction and local-language literature.

At the 2023 Nairobi International Book Fair. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

‘To Promote the Reading Level’
When the 24th Nairobi International Book Fair (NIBF) opened late last month, local publishers said they were feeling hopeful.

After a difficult period during the COVID-19 pandemic, the current government, elected in 2022, has maintained a favorable policy toward education. What’s more, the advent of a new professional rights trading initiative organized by the Kenyan learning platform, eKitabu, was a first stepping stone toward buying and selling rights to other African countries and beyond the continent.

As Publishing Perspectives spoke to publishers in Nairobi, several trends emerged.

In Kenya, where a large majority of publishers produces educational or children’s books, the numbers of fiction writers and readers are increasing, but despite the demand, few traditional publishers see fiction as being financially viable without government partnerships. All publishers agree that government policy and support is also essential to foster a reading culture.

A number of publishers say they’re increasingly concerned with producing material in local languages so that Kenyans can preserve the linguistic richness of their society—this in a country where the writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o once was jailed in the 1970s by the post-colonial government for co-writing a play in his mother tongue, Gikuyu.

And lastly, piracy continues to be a debilitating problem for publishers, having expanded into the digital domain beyond print.

Agatha Karani: ‘There’s a Need for Fiction’

Bookmark Africa’s Agatha Karani and son Erastus. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Olivia Snaije

Kenya Publishers Association council member Agatha Karani took over running the educational publisher Bookmark Africa, which was founded by her late husband Solomon Kakai Karani, a former general manager at Longman Kenya. Bookmark Africa began by publishing children’s books in Swahili and English, then educational books, moving on to adult and children’s fiction.

Karani says that educational books support what they would like to publish more—fiction—but that for the moment, beside five novels, they only have manuscripts in digital form. Business has been tough, she says, and until recently she has been struggling to stabilize the company her husband left her, now with the help of one of her sons, Erastus.

“There’s a need for fiction,” Karani says, “and we’re trying to bring in government officials so they support us to grow the reading culture. It’s part of an ecosystem, and we want to encourage reading instead of people spending time on social media.” She says she’s looking into developing a platform on which writers can share digital content, and adds that she wants to begin a writing program as well.

Lawrence Njagi: ‘A Lot We Need To Write About’

Mountain Top Educational Publishers and APNET’s Lawrence Njagi at the Nairobi International Book Fair. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Olivia Snaije

Lawrence Njagi, managing director of Mountain Top Educational Publishers and chairman of the African Publishers Network (APNET) says that the demand for fiction is there, but that he would not develop in that direction.

“It would require a different market approach and refocusing the whole team,” Njagi says. “It’s not viable in print form. In digital form perhaps, but publishers must be prepared to invest in the digital costs, and you still have to market the books.” When authors approach Mountain Top with manuscripts, he advises them to self-publish.

Developing early childhood educational books “took a lot of energy from me,” he says. But one day, “someone else, not me, will start a fully-fledged fiction house, working closely with authors who are their own best salespeople. As publishers, we’ve been publishing ‘safe fiction’ and there’s a lot that we need to write about.” If he were running a fiction imprint, he says he’d publish books about everyday life with lots of intrigue, and would have sales points in a variety of outlets including supermarkets.

Mary Maina: ‘We Need To Move Together’

East African Educational Publishers’ Kiarie Kamau and Moran Publishers’ Mary Maina at Nairobi International Book Fair. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Olivia Snaije

Mary Maina, managing director of Moran Publishers and chair of the Kenya Publishers Association’s committee for the Nairobi fair, mainly publishes school textbooks but also publishes fiction for children and adults.

“A successful publishing house can be proud of publishing fiction,” she says, but making it financially viable is not easy. Her educational books fund her fiction, but it’s not enough. She says that developing fiction goes hand-in-hand with encouraging a reading culture.

“Children have textbooks,” she says, “but they need fiction for leisure and for learning. There’s also that unfortunate feeling that what’s published in Canada or anywhere outside the continent is better than what local publishers have published.

“We need to move together to promote the reading level. We need government support to encourage a reading culture.”

Kiarie Kamau: ‘I Want To See Us Bounce Back’

Kiarie Kamau, CEO of East African Educational Publishers and the publishers association’s chair, publishes educational books but also continues in the vein of the original company which was the East African arm of Heinemann Educational Books, publishers of the African Writers Series that included authors Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Barbara Kimenye.

“As a publisher,” Kamau says, “I want to see us bounce back as a true publisher of general reading materials; books that are not just published for educational purposes but for people to gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Along those lines I’d want governments to enhance collaborations and partnerships that already exist to promote not just educational books but general books.”

By building on the fact that his company once published iconic African authors, Kamau says he’s working on introducing new and upcoming authors from all over the continent who write in English, most of them targeting the YA segment of the population which is Kenya’s largest, “so you’re assured greater sales.”

As chair of the publishers’ association, Kamau says he’d like to steer publishers into “realizing the value of developing general reading materials and receiving and soliciting manuscripts. Experience shows that some unsolicited manuscripts can become the most successful books.”

Local Languages

One of Njagi’s dreams, he says, is to revive Kenyan local languages. He uses his own family as an example. He speaks Meru and his wife speaks Gikuyu, along with Swahili and English, of course, but their three children don’t speak their parents’ local languages.

“The government of the 1970s to 2000,” he says, “forbade local languages. We lost them because the more English you could speak meant the more educated you were. But I feel I’m stronger because I can speak Meru, Gikuyu, Swahili, and English.”

Njagi began with a series of 26 children’s books in Maa, spoken by the Maasai community. “The children are so happy when they get the books in their own language, and I felt so much satisfaction.”

The venture, which Njagi thought of as charitable, had a nice ending: the Maasai county bought his books for their schools. (In Kenya each county decides which educational books to buy for their schools.) He’s now developing a series in Meru and then will move on to Gikuyu and Gusii.

Kamau also publishes in 10 local languages and wants to see these books and others distributed in libraries, a subject he says is essential. The Kenyan National Library has 64 branches throughout the country, he says, but he’d like to see more branches and “well-stocked with socially relevant books for children, YA, and adults.”

Moran Publishers also releases work in local languages—Luo, Kamba, Gikuyu, and Maa. If the government embraced local languages more, Maina says, she’d publish more.

As the organizer of the Kenya Publishers Association’s book fairs, Maina says she’s excited about this year’s fair, the quality of the exhibition stands, and is happy about eKitabu’s rights initiative.

The Nairobi fair is wholly sponsored by publishers, and Maina says that although private and public partnerships have progressed, “We’d love the government to support us more. As publishers we’ve done our job. We want to make this event even bigger than it is in the future.”


A programming note: On Frankfurt Wednesday at Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 18 to 22), our Publishing Perspectives Forum will feature a discussion with independent publishers, one of which is Kenya’s Sol Kids Africa. We’ll also hear from:

  • Sharky Chen, founder of Comma Books and president of the Indie Publishers Association of Taiwan
  • Tom Kraushaar, publishing director of Klett-Cotta in Germany
  • Sevani Matos, president of the Brazilian Book Chamber in Brazil and general director with VR Editora in Brazil

That’s at 11 a.m. on October 18, and as last year, the Publishing Perspectives Forum is set in the bright, tree-lined Room Spektrum on Level 2 of the Messe Frankfurt Congress Center. More on the Forum and its programming is here, with information on our speakers and their appearances.

More from Publishing Perspectives on publishing in Africa is here, more on the Kenyan market is here, more on international book fairs and trade shows is here, and more on rights trading in international publishing is here.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.