Books in the printed form come fifth in the list of most consumed media in Kenya. This is according to a Statista Global Consumer Survey conducted in Kenya in 2021.
This may come as a surprise to many who believe that Kenyans are incapable of consuming anything in print form, from newspapers to books, to how-to manuals. The common narrative is that Kenyans barely spend on books.
Even more surprising is the finding that during the pandemic lockdown period, bookshop owners recorded an upsurge in sales of books in their stores further distorting the narrative that Kenyans make poor readers of print material.
I sought to have a sit down with a young writer who has been in the industry to hear her experience authoring books, self-publishing, the potential of earning a decent income and the ups and downs of the book business.
Meet Eunniah Mbabazi.
Eunniah is a brand of many products, a mind of layered gifts, a writer of unnerved emotions, a Rupi Kaur of our own. She writes with a distinctive style, one of words etched in raw ink and with a deeply emotive font. She is a maze of smooth turns and sharp corners, dizzying bends and levelled gravel. And while at it, she makes a voracious reader, a mean writer and a fine journalist with a wicked pen.
And yet she wasn’t always a writer; in fact, she is a trained electrical engineer who despite getting exciting opportunities while on campus, would ditch what many would have considered a bright future for something she considered a calling, writing.
In her undergraduate studies, she already had a brief programming stint with Microsoft-Intel, and barely through her 5th year on campus, she was one of the five people selected from her school to work at the San Marco Space Project.
This experience in the remote Malindi village where the project was located; the odd shifts and the struggles of a field dominated by men would propel her into the world of letters - she desperately needed a way out to vent which birthed her first book; Breaking Down.
Down the boots, and helmets, up the pen and paper.
What led you into writing? Describe your journey in a nutshell.
I grew up in a home full of books. My father was, and still teaches Fasihi in high school. So our house had a constant supply of books; novels, short stories, plays, etc. I do not remember a time in my childhood where I sat in front of the TV; I was always just reading, mostly because I wanted to impress my father, but unknowingly, building the drive within me.
My transition to high school, however, is what birthed my writing. I always felt confined, not able to speak about anything, so slowly, I started writing poetry, and by the time I was in Form 4, I was writing poems for music festival competitions.
Tell me about your new book
The Unbirthed Souls is a collection of eight short stories, clouded in grief, loss, pain, despair, hope, and sadness. The stories, written in letter form, seek to peek into the darkness in our hearts, and just how heavy the burdens we carry in secret take a toll on our souls, that no matter how heavy your burden is, how dark your secret is, you are not the only one. It is okay not to be okay. You are broken in the most beautiful way.
When will it be launched?
The Unbirthed Souls, launches on June 4, 2022 at the Kenya National Library, Upperhill, from 1.30pm. The launch as well as the book are personal, clouded in darkness, the burden of loss, the darkness that envelopes you in the onset of grief. It is also a reflection of how my writing helps in shouldering the burden of loss and grief, and how much our hearts heal when we let our words speak to us
Do you look at writing as a craft or as a business?
For me, it is both. It is a craft that is fundamentally fulfilling. It is something that gives me strength and grace to go through life.
I cannot survive without writing.
It is also a business that pays my bills. I am toiling, staying up late, churning copies, but it shouldn’t be for nothing. I am doing this to make money out of it. No one wants to be the greatest writer on earth, but cannot afford rent, food, and other needs and wants.
My writing has to make money for me; not just because it is writing, but because it is something I am good at, and I know whoever consumes my content, does not feel the pinch about spending on it.
How many books have you written so far? Tell me about them?
My name appears on the covers of 5 books, 3 of which I have authored myself and 2 which I have co-authored with other writers.
My first book, Breaking Down, is a collection of eleven short stories. Written and published in 2019, it is the book which was borne in solitude, written within a 3 month period and yet still with the farthest reach.
My second book, If My Bones Could Speak, is a collection of 84 poems. It is one book I didn’t give much thought to before I wrote it. I woke up one morning in January 2020 and figured, “I write such beautiful poetry? Why am I tucking it in between the pages of my diary?” Which would explain why it sells itself.
My third book, The Unbirthed Souls, is also a collection of eight short stories. All the stories have been written as letters, because it is the one way I express myself wholly. It is a tribute to my late best friend, who passed on via a tragic road accident towards the end of December 2020. That said, all the stories revolve around love, loss, death, brokenness, despair, hurt, shame, and regret.
Kas Kazi is a novel I co-authored with other writers in 2018. It was published by Hekaya Arts Initiative in 2020.
When a Stranger Called is an anthology of short stories co-authored with other writers, also published in 2020.
I struggled with imposter syndrome. I was always afraid that I was not doing it the right way. That I was still ‘just a small thing’ in this industry. That there are other bigger and better writers out there. That no one would even give a second look at my work. That maybe this writing, my writing, was only meant to stay in between the pages of my diary. Then, one day, a close friend came across my diary and asked me to just try and post it on Facebook. That if it fails, we can always delete the post. Thereafter, I knew that I really could write, because the feedback was overwhelming.
After publishing, especially if you are self-published like myself, the main hurdle is marketing; translating your passion into sales. So of course, my first book struggled a little bit to get into people’s hands. But I am grateful for friends who took it upon themselves to ‘endorse’ me to their wide audiences.
Facebook has really been my marketplace. I have learnt to talk about my books over and over again, because this is how you get new readers interested in your work. The goal is to translate these Facebook ‘fans’ into actual buyers, and I can say, I am hacking it!
It is my greatest form of therapy, and the fact that it comes so easily to me makes it so fulfilling. All my writing contains bits and pieces of myself, or the people around me; only that the reader will never know which parts belong to me.
Of course, doing what I love and making money out of it is the ultimate joy.
Build your craft first. I know you will struggle with knowing when exactly you will have built it enough, but trust me, you will know it. Read more books. Read until you cannot read anymore. The most brilliant of writers are great readers. Reading shows you the ropes in writing. It teaches you ‘how’ to write, unknowingly.
Thereafter, make it a business. People will only spend money on your craft when they feel they are getting value for it.
Kenyans are avid readers. Kenyans are buyers. Kenyans spend money on books. You only need to let them know that you are offering something worth their money and time.
The books business is diverse, and so, just like any other business, what you make in a month on average is dependent on how much ‘noise’ you make about your product. How many people know you have a book you are selling? How does your writing speak to these people?
Your sales are almost always dependent on your marketing strength, and the buyers’ willingness to spend their money on you. You can go for a day without making any sales, but then the following day, you make 100 sales, or 50, or 10.
The secret is to keep talking about your work, your books. They may not buy it today, probably because they have no money, but if you keep talking about it, you are the first person they will think about when they get money.
I mostly sell via Facebook, Instagram, and word of mouth referrals. The thing with having good books is people will always tell others about it, which translates into sales. There are also libraries within Nairobi that buy the books and stock them for their readers.
I am yet to see a book agency/agent in Kenya. Maybe they are there; but personally, I have not come across them.
I would always go for self-publishing, because I am in full control of my business. I know which losses, if any, I am making. I know what to do to cut down the losses. I know which marketing tricks work for my business, and which don’t. I know exactly how much profit I am making. I am in direct contact with 90% of my buyers, so I get all the feedback that helps with improving the business. Of course, it is quite expensive in the start, because I shoulder all the production costs, but I would still choose it any day, every day.
The Unbirthed Souls is dedicated to my late best friend, Brenda Anyango, who passed on via a tragic road accident. Because her death was sudden, mourning her was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I even stopped writing, for some time, because I completely lost the will to live. But it kept haunting me because she was my number one supporter. She was among the first people to believe in my writing, so I told myself that I needed to keep her memory alive, forever.
If your heart beats for it, DO IT! It may not always be all rosy, but someday, it will make sense.