The adoption of self-publishing is on the rise. The era of independence from institutionalised publishing houses is very much upon us. However, change is always met with a bit of resistance by internalised norms. Authors (myself included) often view the benchmark of success as being traditionally published. This is what we are here to debunk. There is a lot to self-publishing that newbies are not necessarily privy to. Of course, on this journey, you need a guide. Who would be a better fit than Ciku Kimani Mwaniki, aka Empress? Ciku is a Kenyan writer and author of the Cocktail series, which includes Cocktail from the Savannah, Immigrant Cocktail, and Nairobi Cocktail. Each is a self-published product. In this interview, she talks about her journey with self-publishing.
What is your general feeling about publishing in Africa?
You know, the funny thing is that it is not that Africans prefer the traditional way of publishing. It is more like it is imposed on them. In the same way that we do not talk about sex and homosexuality, we do not talk about things like that. We do not talk about them because we have internalised that it is against African tradition, which is untrue. There is a market for such topics in books out there. I think it is upon us to “unimpose” these ideologies.
Yeah, most authors do view success in terms of traditional publication. But that is what they think, but they do not see that many people do not really make it to the “Moran” scene (Moran Publishers is an example of the big publishing houses in the game). If we get to it, I do not think half an hour will be enough to cover it all.
We have not moulded our people to read for pleasure unless they are reading Robert Ludlum and all those other western writers. We have normalised reading African literature only as a set book. This is the same reason not many Africans venture into sports. We use it as a form of punishment. You know, like when you come to school late and are told to run around the field. Of course, you will never like running. It is the same thing. We read African literature when it is a set book. This makes us view it in that light. So you see, when you ask people what you think about Kenyan writers, the usual response is usually that Kenyan writers are boring. Then you ask them who they have read, and it is the same names you see on the covers of secondary school set books. The books are good but do not resonate with today’s youth. We are stuck in our old ways, if you may.
Getting people to write books about the things modern youths want to read about—the “unconventional” things—will take a lot. Traditional publishers do not want that. They are too lazy (and you can quote me on this). They are absolutely lazy in marketing. They do not have the time or the desire to consider other writing styles because it does not pay much yet. They play it safe by going for books that KICD (Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development) will approve because they can bank on the profits. They are sure to sell a million copies a month, but when you publish Ciku’s book, it just clogs their system. They are not with us. We are on our own… but tutang’ang’ana (we will strive). We have to. Somebody has to. After ignoring us, we looked for alternatives. Hence, self-publishing. Traditional publishers push many authors to do this, and they will be caught pants down.
What would you say self-publication is? What is it not?
Self-publishing simply means that you are in charge of your book. This is from writing to design to everything involved. It means that you are going to pay from your pocket. Of course, the brain is yours for the story, but you have to pay for the editor, designer, and printing. It is up to you to do your marketing, to make your sales, to tally your returns, and, you know, to get your book out there. You are totally, totally in charge of your work. This is not so when you go to a publisher because, with them, all you have to do most of the time is just write.
Self-publication means putting in about 2500 USD – 3000 USD to publish my book, printing 500 copies of books depending on a lot of stuff, and selling them for about 10 USD each. I carry my books when going to the market or going to church. I make posts on Facebook. Sell about 30 copies and break even. Remember when I told you that traditional publishers are lazy? Here it is. So, once the writer has broken even and gotten an audience for themselves, the publishers now want you. They want you to do the work, and then, once you are “solid,” they swamp in for the reaping. They tell you they will do that for you and then take 90% of your money. They will say they finance the book (fair enough) and market it (not true because, remember you went to church and the market, coming in with your traffic). They will take you to Mombasa and book you a five-star hotel (I do not need to stay in a five star, I am happy to stay in an Airbnb because I am hardly there anyway). They justify the 90% in the most inhumane way.
You realise that we may not sell 1000 or 3000 copies, but after I sell my 300 copies, I get to keep all my money.
Self-publishing means you are 100% in charge of everything that happens in the book: investments and risks.
Why did you choose to be self-published? Is it finance, the themes in the book, or mere preference?
I did not have any views about it before. I went to about four traditional publishers, who turned me down. They did it with the whole, “we’ll get back to you” and “we have a waiting list of about a year”. You know, the usual narrative.
I looked into self-publishing then. It was more to prove a point than anything else. Ni kichwa ngumu tu (I was just hard headed). I didn’t do it because I thought it would work or that I would make money. No, no, no, no. I just did it. I was like, “Okay, you do not want to publish my book, but do you think I can’t?”
As for finance, unless you are sure that KICD will pick your book (do not forget that these people have thousands and thousands of books, and you not only have to be excellent but lucky), self-publishing is the way to go. So I would say if you have a few thousand dollars, just go for self-publishing. First, it is instant gratification. You sell your book for 10 USD. It all goes into your pocket. You also learn more because you interact directly with your readers. But most of us eat all the money when we sell our first books. You are totally excited, and your financial discipline is out the door. You will be shocked when there is a need to do a second edition or print out more copies. Overall, once you get the hang of things, I would advise you to go for self-publication.
What do you regret about being self-published? What problems did you decide to bring upon yourself by jumping on the self-publication train?
I have no regrets at all. But, of course, there are things I learned along the way as well.
Sometimes you try to save money, so you skip out on some of the steps, like including an editor. Like, I remember my first book was so badly done. I did not get an editor, and the worst thing you can ever do as a writer is to try to edit your own work. Because the devil is who he is, you only get to see the errors after the book is out, and you are like, “Oh my God! How did I even miss that? It is right there in my face”. We try to save money, so you cannot blame us.
There is also the audience bit. If you do not have a good following on social media networks such as Facebook, you might have a harder time accumulating a market. I already had a name by the time I published my first book. It was a bit easier to break into the market. So you see, you have about 500 copies of books, and you sold about 50 to relatives, and then you are like, okay, what do I do with the 450? It breaks your heart. It is character development. It is just how it is though. Sometimes your books do not move as fast as you think they should. It should not kill your desire to write.
With my first book, someone got a hold of my book and started selling the counterfeit version. But then, come to think of it, on these streets, you can find Michelle Obama’s book on these streets, and you are very sure it is not from the original publisher. So this is not a problem unique to just self-publishing.
What creative freedoms do you experience as your own publisher that you think would be revoked if you were traditionally published?
This actually came later on as a realisation. Traditional publishers censor your language a lot. They do not allow me to use words like I would like to. I, personally, am a user of curse words. I want my characters to say words like “fuck you.” I want to write the whole word and not put asterisks. I want to describe a man and use the word “penis” instead of “privates.” I do not think people should be ashamed of saying these things. They are just body parts, like the nose. We had discussed the African thing—Tunajifanyanga like these conservatives (we pretend to be these conservatives), which is not true.
I like my style of writing. I want to write about things that happen in society. I will write about philanderers, homosexuals, lesbians, and prostitutes. These characters are pretty much ignored because no one wants to be seen as someone who writes about ”dirty” things. Most people will tend to look at it like I am encouraging their children to emulate these people, but again, freedom of expression. I wanted that freedom, and I have it through self-publishing.
After this, I am ready to get as creative and liberal as I want in my next manuscript. I hope this helps any aspiring author to look into the option of self-publishing. As I said, we’ve got ourselves a trusty guide for navigating the self-publication sphere. Her books are proof of the creative licence she enjoyed being her own boss.