Dealing with the British
Henry Chakava is Managing Director, East African Educational Publishers Ltd, Mpaka Road/Woodvale Grove, P.O.
Box 45314, Nairobi, Kenya. Tel. +254 2 444700, fax +254 2 448753, e-mail:
Having worked with British publishers since
I joined the book business in 1972, I can call myself a modest expert
on African/British relations, but I am not sure I understand them or
that they understand me. My experiences have run the gamut, if not from
love to hate, at least from friendship and partnership to mutual rejection.
One of the low points was when I was invited in 1982, as Chairman of
the Kenya Publishers Association, to speak to the members of the British
Book Development Council. After speaking, I was asked from the floor:
`What plans do you have for strengthening British publishing interests
in Kenya?' `None,' I said. `Then why did you come here?'
Many of my experiences revolve round acting as
an import agent, which in retrospect I see was a no-win situation. When
sales were poor, I was upbraided. When sales were good, the publisher
decided he could make more money by selling direct.
Of course, it is not possible to generalise about
British publishers, particularly over the last quarter of this century,
when the ownership and style of British publishing have changed radically.
British publishers in my experience fall into three groups: the good,
who are sensitive to political change and sympathetic to conditions
in developing economies; the bad, who attempt to continue a relationship
of colonial privilege long after history has passed them by; and the
ugly, whose motivations are entirely commercial. Sometimes one can find
all three attitudes in the same company. My questioner at the Book Development
Council meeting obviously falls into the second category.
In the first category, the late Alan Hill of Heinemann
Educational Books is enshrined. In his autobiography, he reported that
my 'anti-colonial attitudes were as pronounced as those of the strongest
African nationalist', and he was concerned that I 'might alienate the
local white community'. This first interview, as Alan related, did not
go well. 'Henry didn't seem to care whether he got the job or not.'
Andrew Gurr, my professor of English, suggested a second interview,
this time out of the office and over a glass of beer. Of this interview,
Alan Hill wrote: 'Henry put up a stunning performance, and walked away
with the job.' Nine months later, I found myself working at Heinemann's
Head Office in the heart of Mayfair.
On my return to Kenya at the end of 1973, I attended
a Commonwealth Writers Conference in Kampala, Uganda. There I established
relations with Chinua Achebe and many other African writers. I already
had extensive connections from my university days with Kenyan writers
so on taking over as publishing manager of HEB East Africa in 1974 I
had no difficulty recruiting new authors for the African Writers Series.
The years from 1976 to 1985 were a halcyon period, when I enjoyed harmonious
working relationships with Alan Hill and his band of bright young men.
Things changed when Thomas Tilling, the company
that owned Heinemann, was bought by British Tyre and Rubber (BTR), who
stripped Heinemann and sold it to Paul Hamlyn, who subsequently sold
his empire to Reed International.
These distant events were manifested in Nairobi
with requests for weekly reports of profit and loss. Lacking enthusiasm
for these, not to mention manpower and communication facilities, I asked
if we could become a locally-owned company. Thus was born East African
Educational Publishers, with the UK parent company's share reduced to
40 per cent.
Unfortunately, Heinemann's 40 per cent ownership
of the company was not reflected in a cash injection. Its equity was
created by capitalising some potentially bad debts and questionable
items on the current account. Short of working capital, the company
had to announce a rights issue, in which Heinemann did not participate.
A further rights issue reduced Heinemann's share to 26 per cent, although
they were sceptical about my ability to raise funds. This autonomy did
not please the new Heinemann management, who advised my African colleagues
in other countries not to emulate my example. 'Henry is beyond the pale,
literally mad,' it was said. 'His company is on the brink of bankruptcy.'
Relations remained uneasy until 1995 when HEB
asked if East African Educational Publishers would once again represent
them in Kenya. I agreed immediately, on condition that we resolved the
issues that divided us - issues mostly concerning money. I sent my accountant
to the HEB office in Oxford for a week and thought most of the problems
were ironed out. Then, to my astonishment, they cancelled the agency
in mid-stream (1997), asked me to ignore the six months' notice, and
gave the agency to a small non-educational company operating in Kenya.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the
larger a publishing house, the more difficult a partnership becomes.
My relations with small, independent British publishers have always
been excellent. James Currey and I have worked harmoniously together
since we became colleagues in 1972. We have been mutual agents since
he started his own company in 1986. He and other independents, such
as Christopher Hurst and Roger van Zwanenberg, both at Zed Press and
Pluto, have always been positive collaborators.
I know from my colleagues in other African countries
that they have had parallel experiences. We can attribute these to times
of change on both sides. East African Educational Publishers is now
an independent publishing house which has increased its turnover six-fold
since becoming a local majority company in 1985. We have offices in
Uganda and Tanzania and are one of the largest indigenous commercial
publishers in Africa, outside of South Africa. On the British side,
the old family houses which were strongly entrenched in Africa in colonial
days have one by one become divisions of multinational corporations,
to whom Africa has ceased to be an area of interest, because the financial
returns are neither quick nor substantial.
To improve relations in the future, both sides
will have to work hard and exercise goodwill. There is a looming danger
that Africa will become a battlefield over copyright. Piracy is already
extensive in the two most highly developed African publishing countries
- Nigeria and South Africa - and this is a grim foreboding. British
publishers are naturally offended by piracy. Yet there is no country
in the world which has developed its own literature and a publishing
industry without extensive 'borrowing' during its early stages of development.
Examples include Japan in the 1950s, Taiwan and Korea in the 1960s,
China until very recently - and the United States in the nineteenth
century. Now, in an age of privatisation, globalisation, market-driven
economies and easy reprography, African countries may well claim that
they have an historic right to repeat the experience of other continents.
How can such a battle be avoided? My dream is
that the giants of the British publishing industry will change their
attitude and start to work positively with African governments and publishers.
This means ceding reprint, translation and adaptation rights on terms
corresponding to the purchasing power of African economies. British
publishers now have the opportunity to prove in Africa that they are
not only fair-weather friends. I pray for genuine partnerships, which
inherently recognise that the future of publishing in Africa is African.
Only in this way can the mutual distrust and disillusionment of the
past 25 years be reversed.
A longer version of this article first appeared
in Logos vol. 10 no. 1. Reprinted with permission. Subscriptions from
Whurr Publishers Ltd, 19b Compton Terrace, London N1 2UN, England, or
from Whurr Publishers Ltd, Thomas Slatner & Co, 1127 Kennedy Boulevard
(near 12th Street), North Bergen, New Jersey 07047-1839 USA. [end] [BPN,
no 25, 1999, p 15.]
to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 25, 1999>>