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Publishers, we need more cultural works

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Publishers, we need more cultural works by Kenyans247(1): Fri 25, December, 2020 10:21am
What you need to know:
Now, with schools shut for more than 10 months, the Covid-19 crisis should be the clearest warning yet that getting hooked on the government’s textbook budget is bad business.
Novels, plays and short stories, quite apart from expanding our economy, play a critical role in dissemination of knowledge.

Three years ago, we wrote here that Kenyan publishers need to look outside textbook publishing or perish.

The argument back then was, as the media houses learnt from the government’ s infamous stranglehold on advertising — and media freedom — you cannot peg the future of your business on assumed benevolence of the government.

Since around 2003, the mainstream publishing houses have largely been relying on the Ministry of Education to stay afloat. The government, through the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) — the technical arm of the Education ministry that formulates curricula for learning institutions — asks publishers to now and then prepare school reading materials.

The KICD, through expert panels, then evaluates the curriculum support materials submitted and prepares what is called the ‘Orange Book’, in which it lists books recommended for various levels in learning institutions.

Traditionally, the managers of learning institutions would be guided by the Orange Book in placing orders for books, but things changed three years ago when the government started buying school books directly from publishers, ostensibly to cut off cartels comprising rogue textbook sellers, school heads and other thieves in the book value chain.

Matiang’i instituted reforms
And while this strategy saved the government billions, at least according to Dr Fred Matiang’i, who instituted the reforms when he was the Education Cabinet Secretary, the unintended consequence was that it killed innovation in publishing, sounded the death-knell for creative works and reduced selection of school books to a rather simplistic identification of the lowest bidders, with atrocious effects on quality.

A year ago, a publisher reportedly quoted the price of a teacher’s guide at Sh1, hoping the low price would help them win tenders for related books.

Now, with schools shut for more than 10 months, the Covid-19 crisis should be the clearest warning yet that getting hooked on the government’s textbook budget is bad business.

True, nothing feels greater in the industry than having the government approve and order a million copies of your book. You just wake up a few days later and find millions in your bank account, without having to do any marketing.

And while there is no greater pain than slogging through the peripatetic schedule of producing books for submission for KICD — I was there for a decade and you now know why I look older than my 40 years — there are several reasons publishers should look beyond textbooks.

Autobiography
First, culture. Books such as (auto)biographies give us a more nuanced understanding of our history and journey as a country.

For instance, if Sir Charles Njonjo, a man who played a central role in the formation of our post-independence government, were to write a tell-all autobiography or memoirs exploring various events in his life in power politics, the country would be the richer for it.

Secondly, we hail from a storytelling past. Novels, plays and short stories, quite apart from expanding our economy, play a critical role in dissemination of knowledge.

Since most of the subjects in our education system are taught in English, a foreign language, exposing children to good storybooks at an early age would not only sharpen their command of the language and by extension their understanding of even the sciences, it could help us nurture a reading culture, further boosting our human resource base as a country. That, I need not say, further improves our competitiveness as a country in a world that is becoming smaller at an almost dizzying pace.

Back to the publishers. If they had published enough storybooks, class readers and other literary works and at a quality that draws public interest by the time schools were shut in March after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the country, they would not be going through a sales’ dry spell.

Sh150 million a year
To keep their children occupied at home, many parents would have bought these readers, if only to keep the kids from wandering around the villages and estates playing with their peers, a dangerous engagement in these coronavirus times.

Besides, people on leave, laid off from work or just bored at home would have found an alternative to the binge-drinking in house parties we saw when bars were closed earlier in the year.

That said, it is understandable why publishers don’t rush to publish cultural works. To attain any profit margins worth talking about, one has to sell more than 5,000 copies of a book in a year, as print run has a huge bearing on the unit cost, cover price and ultimately the profitability of a publication.

It is sad, however, that most non-textbooks do not sell more than 2,000 copies a year in Kenya, no matter how hard you market them. Of course a high school set book boosts your topline by upwards of Sh150 million a year, but these are few and far between.

It, therefore, would make sense to give incentives to publishers to produce cultural works for the enrichment of our society. The publishers themselves should do it, not just to give back to society. And as the Covid-19 crisis must have taught them, their future could be dependent on it.


Mr Munene is a quality control editor with Nation.Africa.hmunene@ke.nationmedia.com

https://nation.africa/kenya/blogs-opinion/opinion/publishers-we-need-more-cultural-works-3238774

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