Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 25, July 1999 


Dealing with the British

Henry Chakava
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.]

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