Braving the world of self-publishing

This week’s newsletter is continuing the tradition of inviting members of our community to write From The Curator’s Desk, and for this edition, I’m happy to hand it over to Keith Kinambuga, who is the founder of the Kenya Scriptwriters Guild, a former engineer, and taxi driver. He has self-published four novels and written screenplays for award-winning television shows.

Please send your guest writing pitches for this section to rose@barazalab.com if you’re interested in writing this section and you have something of interest to share to our community — a trend you’ve noticed or something you’d like us to think about. (Baraza Curator Christine Mungai is away on extended leave).

~ The Baraza Team

By Keith Kinambuga

 

In 2015, I was eager to write a story – a high-end action thriller about an elite Kenyan crew assigned to fight corruption cartels. I could have written it as a skinny screenplay for film as I had done many times before but why cut out the juicy fat?

Writing for film requires compromise; you watch as your draft is shredded around logistics, budget, time constraints, egos, and sometimes censored to fit regulations. The end-product is a distant cousin of your original. Some stories work well and even improve under these limits. Not this one. I wanted to take my audience through all of the blistering action I saw in my mind and strip the crime to its stark-naked end.

I’d also heard that finding a publisher for a first-time novel was not easy.

So I self-published my novel – and a few others after it. Four novels later, was it worth it?

Oh, I could write a book on the topic of marketing alone. The blueprint for marketing my first book came from rummaging around the Internet. I learnt everything about the black and white from that blueprint but had to figure out vast grey areas myself. I had one thing working for me – the email list that I had painstakingly grown through my interaction with friends, filmmakers and writers. It wasn’t a large list. I could not even comfortably use the word modest to describe it. And, I didn’t have a website, so I could not use regular email marketing software without facing rejection, accusations of spamming and possible blacklisting of my email address by Gmail.

Everything had to be done manually, inputting and sending over 100 email addresses one by one. I found workarounds using Excel and developed a couple of hacks to fool the system by limiting the number of recipients and emails I sent each day. It was hellish but it worked. A Godly nudge sent me towards a friend who frowned at the first encounter with the book and gave the cover a free redesign.

Next, I braved Facebook and her siblings, Twitter and Instagram. Social media marketing is hazy. I didn’t and still don’t have influencer numbers. I spent a few coins on Facebook advertising, the cheapest of the advertising platforms. I learnt that likes don’t translate to sales, and I still can’t tell you whether 10 likes or 1000 likes translated to even one sale. I got two hundred likes from people with strange names without making a single sale.

Then came distribution. I learned how to convert my book into multiple digital formats shunning print because of logistics and financial implications. I simply did not know enough about the print business and, as an indie publisher, I wasn’t willing to take that punch until I was on solid ground with the knowledge.

But how to get the book to the reader? I searched for local websites that accepted and sold e-books. I found a few that were either badly designed or only pushed school books and exam papers. Fiction was ignored. I fell back on my email list and took orders via email.

I put the book on Amazon and thought this would automatically translate to dollars. I was wrong! Amazon marked me as a new author as I set up my account and – with well-meaning intent – offered its own templates that I had to use for my book. Everything that I thought would take a day seemed to take at least a week but once I mastered it.

I was offered the option of print-on-demand, perfect for my bibliophiles and diaspora fans, and all without spending an additional cent to print.

On  occasion, as I was posting a book promo to a social media book club, somebody commented along the lines: “I enjoyed your other book more…” I was 100 percent sure I hadn’t emailed any book to this new fan and he didn’t buy it from Amazon; my sales on that platform are dismal and easily tracked. I tried to figure out how he got his pirated copy, but he deleted his account and disappeared into the Internet. If one reader had illegal copies there were probably many more.

It is only with the release of my third novel, The Rebirth of Syokimau that I have started to see money trickle in, but there is a positive side to it all so I don’t dwell on the challenges.

Having my book on Amazon, an international brand, has added some level of seriousness to my being an author. I might be one of many millions but isn’t that exactly the point? “Writer” is now an integral part of my bio. I am comfortable in my writing skin.

I also found my voice.

What made me write my first novel was my commitment to tell the story a certain way. No compromise. I found my second novel had a very distinctive (and better) flow to it. I played with grammatical rules. By the time I wrote my third novel, which is only available locally as a limited-edition paperback, I was confident in every sentence I wrote. Each word had reason. I gave priority to the message and the story, battling with my characters, questioning my theme and manipulating my plot with no one breathing down my neck.

Above all, I own my work. Ownership is more than just authorship. I have creative, distribution and fiscal control. Ownership is about doing whatever I want with my novels. I determine how my work is presented and it gives me room to flex. Anything I give up will either be at the right price or to a buyer I deem suitable.

So back to my original question, is self-publishing worth it? Oh, yes. The experience not only improved my business acumen, but it has also turned me into a driven writer.

In the meantime, here’s:

What We’re Reading: Uganda-Tanzania oil pipeline sparks climate row: Tanzania and Uganda face harsh criticism as they prepare to build an massive oil pipeline despite calls to put climate change concerns first. The recurring question – Is it always a simple toss up between economic survival and sustainable development as this special report from the BBC suggests?  

What We’re Watching: The emotional toll of investigative journalism: Journalism has a personal cost that often remains unexplored and invisible to the world. John-Allen Namu – a long-time friend and community member of Baraza Media Lab – recently spoke to fellow journalist Mitali Mukherjee for the Reuters Institute. He spoke about the impact that investigative journalism has had on his life and his family and explained why he made the difficult decision to leave the mainstream media in Kenya and chart a separate road. 

 What We’re Listening To:  Sani Abacha: Nigeria’s most corrupt ruler: In his own words. The international non-governmental organization, Transparency International, ranks Sani Abacha as the 4th most corrupt ruler worldwide and estimates that the former Nigerian military ruler stole as much as $5bn of Nigerian public money during his five-year rule from 1993 until he died in 1998. Hindsight’s continuing series of podcasts on the world’s most infamous people imagine what his version of the story would be.

As always, 

Christine Mungai 

Curator | Baraza Media Lab


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