Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 21, December 1997 


Talking Books: Henry Chakava in conversation with the Editor

Henry Chakava is one of Africa's foremost indigenous publishers, and former Treasurer of APNET. Address: 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:

KS. Did you grow up in a bookish household?

HC. I don't remember seeing many books in the home. But I went to a Friends' secondary school where we were given two or three novels to read a week and report on. I guess my interest in books started then. The Sherlock Holmes stories were really what hooked me. I did `A' level English and then a degree in philosophy and English at university.

KS. When did you first discover African literature?

HC. At secondary school, when the first African writings were coming out, like Amos Tutuola's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts then The Palm Wine Drinkard. Then I graduated to Achebe and Ngugi and so on. At that time I didn't see it as something that would influence my life. It was out of curiosity really.

KS. Did you have any concept of what publishing was before you joined Heinemann?

HC. Absolutely not. I thought it would be an opportunity to improve my writing skills and probably write one or two books. I very quickly discovered that that was not the case. I'd seen lots of Heinemann's books, and I applied for a job thinking it would be a big establishment. When I found it was just four or five people, there was initial disappointment.

KS. Chinua Achebe refers to Alan Hill [former Group Chairman, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd] as `one of the occasional mavericks' who in his case opened up publishing to some of today's key publishers in Africa. Is there an equivalent today? What's going to attract the new people into publishing of the calibre that's needed to develop the industry?

HC.It has to be a bit more structured now. For Alan Hill it was a question of building partners with whom he could do business. I don't think anybody in the north can carry that burden any more. The kind of intuition that Alan had belonged to a moment in time. Now we'll have to go through the process of training and developing people into publishers; it's a technical process.

KS.What do you see as the prerequisites for a successful African publisher?

HC. I think there are several factors. A love of books is there, and you need to make money. It needs a certain level of intelligence, and some training. But developing a business sense and building up a list is something you don't go to school to learn. Take our children's books. I tried several times to publish in that area. The thinking then was that we should move away from folktales and give our children something more contemporary. Then Achebe talked about folktales still being very important for Africa. So I thought, let me have another go. Now I have about 50 books which are all sorts of folktales, and they've succeeded so well.

There is something maverick about publishing, something intuitive, almost cavalier about it. Sometimes you can research and plan carefully, and you produce something after a lot of investment that doesn't work. Another time you say, let me try this one, without too much thinking, and it works.

For example, I noticed we were rejecting books about romance and crime for the Heinemann African Writers series. They were interesting but unsuitable for the classroom. They became our Spear books. We opened up a new market, and other publishers followed. Now we've started a similar series in Kiswahili. Surprisingly, although we started the series as an alternative to educational fiction, they are also quite widely read in schools.

KS.Could you talk about the transition from being a subsidiary of Heinemann UK to being independent?

HC. It's been a fairly continuous process. I do not remember a time when Heinemann got in the way. The problem was, and still is, really a problem of money, and that became more acute after we became an independent company. I can't tell you that I've enjoyed more freedom to choose and publish what I want as an indigenous company, I've always had that freedom.

I think the Heinemann/Alan Hill approach was different from other publishers. I came in on the publishing side, which wasn't the case in most companies in those days. Africans were being recruited to do the sales, the warehousing and so on. I was trained well, I spent some time in the UK attached to the UK company, and I was given responsibility: the minute I got back I was made publishing manager of Heinemann East Africa. We worked very well. The people I worked with in Heinemann, like James Currey, are still good friends of mine. When the new people were coming in, causing a lot of ripples even in the UK, that's when I was setting up on my own. So I've never really felt those tensions strongly.

KS. You seem to be saying that in the early days you had more freedom than you have now, because you're more financially constrained now.

HC. Yes. The constraints now are on sources of funding, I can't get as much money from our local sources as I was able to get under Heinemann.

KS. Supposing somebody came in now with half a million dollars to put into your company, what difference would it make, what would you do?

HC.I would definitely improve the quality of my books, like the children's books. I'd probably also widen the range of my publishing. There are a lot of books where one has to take a long-term view. We tend to go for textbooks and revision books where we feel we'll get the money back in a year or two, rather than academic and general, and fiction, where sales are not so immediate.

KS. Which is the area that most interests you personally?

HC. I need to publish more in the textbook area to make a living, but my first love is fiction.

KS. Is there a novel inside you somewhere? Are you that kind of publisher?

HC. I did have very strong feelings about writing, fiction, literary criticism and so on. When I got into publishing I thought that was going to be my opportunity to write, particularly in the `70s. I saw myself more as an author than a publisher, but I see myself nowadays as more like a businessman.

KS. Do you think the business of books is the same as the business of shoes, or whatever, or is there a difference?

HC. There's a difference. There's intrinsic value to books, and I feel I have certain responsibilities towards society, I have a duty to contribute towards education, to culture, to serve the morals of the society, and I don't think that is what people who manufacture shoes and cement think. The skills are probably the same, but there's more responsibility to what we do. And almost everything we do in publishing has a personality of its own, every book is different, it's not just another bag of cement. You have to follow the product very closely, and sometimes what you get at the end of the day is not what you expected. That uniqueness keeps us very closely attached to our products.

KS. Are the brightest and best young brains are being attracted into publishing on the continent, in Kenya and elsewhere?

HC. In Kenya we have a school of publishing at Moi University. But even the students coming out of Moi are not filtering into the publishing industry. It's a very small industry, and if you have one good person they can churn out a lot of books. I'm not short of staff myself. It's all very well to go to school and learn about publishing, but´┐Ż I have somebody from Moi working for me, and others who have come in from other training backgrounds, and they do a very good job.

KS.Do you think that people working with you are potential publishers themselves?

HC. I hope so. Just like Alan Hill used to do, I give my staff a lot of freedom to make decisions, and to follow them right through. I try to encourage them to be independent, confident. Everyone has their own list, they take full responsibility for it, they introduce new writers when we meet every month at the editorial board meeting, and I keep telling them, if you feel very strongly about what you want to do, even if you are criticised, go ahead and do it, then we'll see. That makes them more responsible. What one needs is to develop independence of thought, feel strongly about what one wants to do, and get on and do it. That's why state publishing never works, because you can't have those qualities when you know you could be transferred to another department any time.

KS. What do you think about the role of the international agencies in Africa? How do they affect your publishing house?

HC. When we first started talking about liberalisation, privatisation, level playing field etc. we didn't realise what it was all about. The international dimension has become very clear now, this business of levelling the field is mainly for other people to play. We have to raise our product, otherwise everything is going to collapse. So all these ideas which we initially welcomed as being good for us are going to swamp us unless we are careful.

I don't believe we should be protectionist, but perhaps these international agencies should be sensitive to the fact that we want to develop an industry, and try and help us. The World Bank has a bidding structure which sometimes they restrict so that it operates only within a region; we should have a bit more of that.

KS. What would you like to see as the role of the multinationals?

HC. I'm a product of the multinationals. Many of the people who have had a good impact on publishing in Africa have also had that background, so it's really the kind of relationship one has with the multinationals that counts. If it's purely exploitative, then it doesn't work. But if there's some kind of partnership which involves transfer of skills, then that is something I would encourage. Unfortunately some multinationals don't think like that. But some do.

KS.Your involvement in APNET, the Bellagio Group and all the international activities, can you say they have helped in your own publishing?

HC.They have helped us open our eyes and see what we can do together. It's taken a lot of time out of the office, but in terms of broadening one's view and picking up ideas, it's an immense honour. Publishing ideas are not just developed anyhow. The meetings we have had have been very useful to me in terms of relating not only to my colleagues but also with like-minded outsiders.

KS. If you had your time over again, would you do it all again?

HC. Someone said to me that I write as though I regret not continuing with academic life. Probably there was some regret in the beginning, because I didn't really settle into my job until I became managing director. But since that time I've never looked back.

[end] [BPN, no 21, 1997, p. 14]

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