Rights Edition: Discussion, Meetings in Nairobi’s New Trading Center

In News by Olivia Snaije

The inaugural rights center at Nairobi International Book Fair featured B2B meetings and an issue-driven panel discussion.

In the Nairobi International Book Fair’s inaugural rights center, sponsored by eKitabu. Image: eKitabu

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

See also:
Nairobi International Book Fair: Publishers’ Viewpoints
Nairobi International Book Fair Introduces Rights Trading

Developing B2B Discussions
This year’s 24th edition of the Nairobi International Book Fair (September 27 to October 1) had something new in store for professionals, whether publishers or authors. A rights area for business was organized by the e-learning platform eKitabu in collaboration with the Kenya Publishers Association.

Goretti Kyomuhendo, a Ugandan author, publisher, and founder of the African Writers Trust, said it was the first time since she’d attended a book fair in Zimbabwe in the 1990s that she’d seen a rights section at a fair on the continent.

Kyomuhendo came to Nairobi as both a writer and a publisher and was looking to sell rights and find distribution for the 20th-anniversary edition of her novel Whispers From Vera.

She met with East African Educational Publishers, and said they were on the verge of signing a deal to distribute her book into a total of five countries including Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia. She also visited Nairobi booksellers and will be distributing her book in four bookshops, as well as doing readings in them.

Authors as well as publishers flocked to the rights area at the eKitabu stand where professionals from the African continent, Europe, and the United States, invited by eKitabu, had their own tables. Although encounters were often impromptu, and authors and publishers were not always familiar with those they were meeting, it showed the strong interest and desire that publishers had to develop B2B discussions and writers had to find publishers or agents’ representation.

Several literary agents were present, including Amsterdam-based Bieke van Aggelen of the African Literary Agency.

Van Aggelen  said she was impressed by the quality of the writers she met. “I was interested to meet authors,” she said, “and was pleasantly surprised. They were well-prepared and asked really pertinent questions. They might not know about all the clauses in a contract, but they knew exactly what they wanted.”

She said she found the publishers less interesting and informed and thought it would be interesting if they could diversify their business strategies from publishing just textbooks to include fiction, making an effort to reach out to local authors.

‘The Intricacies of Contracts’

At the 2023 Nairobi International Book Fair in October, from left, are  Sharon Wata; Kiarie Kamau; Samuel Kolawole; Mariana Pardini; and Raphael Thierry. Image: eKitabu

A panel session called “Moving African Content: Rights Trading Perspectives” included Nigeria’s University Press managing director Samuel Kolawole, as a savvy and confident moderator, French agent Raphaël Thierry of Ægitna Literary Agency; Kenya’s East African Educational Publishers CEO Kiarie Kamau, who is also chair of the Kenya Publishers Association; intellectual property lawyer Sharon Wata of the Kenya Copyright Board; and Mariana Yasmin Pardini, who heads cultural affairs at the Embassy of Argentina in Nairobi.

Thierry said he was very happy “as a Francophone to come to an Anglophone fair. It’s time for us to circulate differently. We Francophones lack a lot of connections with other languages in Africa.” Thierry represents French publisher Présence Africaine, which has published African authors since 1949. He announced that Présence Africaine would be publishing two works by the late Kenyan author Ken Walibora in translation from Swahili in a deal he made with Longhorn Publishers.

Thierry added that more exchanges between various book fairs on the continent would be helpful, while Kolawole acknowledged, “There is a divide between Francophone and Anglophone publishers in Africa; there’s a need to bridge that gap.

Kolawole—who trained as a lawyer—and attorney Sharon Wata stressed the importance of publishers using official contracts that cover all areas, and Wata said that the Kenya Copyright Board offers free webinars and workshops, but that publishers don’t attend.

Kamau said that as publishers, “We are keener to train our editors in editing, but we gloss over the intricacies of contracts.” Publishers, he said, often don’t exploit rights including those from film or theater out of fear of losing control to “rogue publishers.”

Trust is an essential part of rights, Kolawole said, which is why sales are not necessarily immediate at rights meetings. He said the African Publishers Network (APNET) is working on holding training sessions for publishers and providing a rights template.

‘You Can Take Your Books Farther’

Kenyan author Ciku Kimeria, and Valeria Paolini of Italy’s Horizons Project, talk in the rights center at the Nairobi International Book Fair. Image: eKitabu

Kolawole asked Mariana Pardini to talk about the translation support program the Argentinian embassy runs.

Pardini previously worked in Ethiopia and reported that thanks to the Argentinian translation program—in which publishers apply directly through the embassy for support to translate Argentinian books into their local languages—there are 12 books from Argentina published in Amharic. When she arrived in Kenya, she said, there were no Argentinian books translated into Swahili, but at the Nairobi fair it was announced that three books are now in the works.

Since the Argentinian government began the program in 2009, Pardini said, 1,655 books have been translated into 50 languages.

Kolawole said that many governments don’t realize you can reach into other countries and popularize your culture through books. “Governments need to fund translations,” he said, “but they don’t see the value of culture. They see publishing as a business. If we trade rights across borders in Africa, we get to understand ourselves better, besides understanding other continents. The more I read about Kenya, in Nigeria, the more I understand Kenyans and relate, and vice-versa.”

He said that a major issue on the continent, participants agreed, is that a good part of the publishing industry in Africa is focused on textbook publishing, “because that’s where the money is. These books don’t go far in other countries. Other countries want to read about your culture. You can take your books farther than you expect.”

Muthoni Garland, director of the Nairobi-based children’s publisher Storymoja, said she’d like to see 1,000 African books translated into foreign languages. “The translation programs of embassies exist to sell their books into our lands,” she said. “How can we make the experience open to all?”

Making sure that publishers are properly informed and knowledgeable about contracts was an important point that came out of the discussion, along with the point that rights programs across Africa are necessary to encourage more cross-continent deals.

In one happy outcome of the fair, Mutesi Gasana of Unbuntu Publishers in Rwanda said that she and Ghanaian publisher Asare Yamoah of Adaex Educational Publications were concluding a rights agreement about a coming-of-age memoir Gasana is selling called Light in the Dark which–should the contract be signed–may be appearing in bookstores in Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and other West African countries.

Publishers said they were happy to see the rights initiative at the Nairobi International Book Fair and they suggested that APNET could play an important role in reproducing rights programs across the continent.

Will Clurman, co-founder of eKitabu, said that the company will put together statistics about the rights deals that are in progress or that closed following meetings at the Nairobi fair. As he put remarked, “It’s opening everything up and about moving content across the continent.”

Stefanie Hirsbrunner of Germany’s InterKontinental, left, talks with Wendy Njoroge of Nairobi’s Somanami Bookstore, in the Nairobi International Book Fair rights center. Image: eKitabu

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.