E-publishing: a Whirlwind in Motion – Conversation with Alex Nderitu

Alex Nderitu prides himself as a pioneer in the epub industry in Africa. And it is for valid reason, having published his first book way back in 2001, to experiment with digital publishing that was picking up pace in the west. He writes as Alexander Nderitu. “The only reason I started using ‘Alexander’ was because it looked better on the first cover I designed. Alex was too short. Later I found out that in Europe ‘Alexander’ means ‘defends mankind’ so I fell in love with it. The problem is that some people put it on my cheques or certificates,” he says. I sought an interview with him, and this is how it went down.

You present yourself as a writer and a technologist, and you seem to have discovered digital or e-publication quite early. Several interviews you have done note that you were the first African novelist to go on epub! How has it turned out for you over the years, since your first publication in 2001?

 I studied IT in college but my childhood dream was to be a novelist like Ian Fleming or Frederick Forsyth. At the beginning of the millennium, technology had started changing the global literary landscape in a manner not seen since the invention of GutenbergAlexander Nderitu Press. I read about e-book technology in an international writers’ magazine I had subscribed to. Since there was a novel manuscript I had been working on, I decided to convert it into e-book format and release it on the Internet, experimentally. When the Whirlwind Passes became Africa’s first-ever ‘digital novel’. It was re-issued in 2016 with a new cover and some edits and is now available in print format via Print-On-demand (POD) technology.

You seem to be so fascinated with daring and exploring. When the Whirlwind Passes is a crime thriller. Kiss, Commander, Promise is a short story collection. And The Moon is Made of Green Cheese is a collection of poetry. You have also written some stage plays. Is this a deliberate effort to experiment as an author?

I have a very entrepreneurial spirit. I have never been afraid to fail. I love being a pioneer. I am also arguably the first Kenyan writer to be translated into Chinese. Four of my poems, including Someone in Africa Loves You, were translated into the world’s most-spoken language last year.

I genre-hop a lot but if you analyze my work, you will realize that what I really am is a storyteller. Even the poems are mostly in narrative form. When I was a child I loved to tell stories. I am at home with any kind of writing because to me writing is just a method of communication. I even write lyrics. I love to write. Kiss, Commander, Promise is special to me, though. It’s the basis for a series of short, Africa-based spy stories. I always wanted to write Cold War thrillers, but by the time I was an adult, the Cold War was over. In Kiss, Commander, Promise, I have created my own fictional Cold War that only takes place in Africa. The main characters are based on me and my childhood friends! If I didn’t like you in school, chances are you appear here as a villain.

You were recently honoured with a Business Daily Top 40 Under 40 Award. Tell us something about this honour.

 There are at least 20 million men in Kenya, so when you’re told that you are among the Top 40, it’s a great honour. It means you’re one in 5 million! And another reason I like this accolade is that it’s purely Kenyan. Locally organized and funded. There are some non-fiction papers that I occasionally write and the next one has a whole chapter on why foreign accolades are controversial. The Business Daily is of course mainly commerce-related so I was essentially representing ‘novelists, poets, and playwrights’. Amazing. I loved it. The ceremony was great and my co-winners are very inspirational guys.

 About the e-publishing platforms and the freedom it gives authors to get their work to the world, there has been an argument that most works that bypass traditional publishing do not have a certain kind of quality. What is your advice to those venturing into this new age form of publishing.

 The main problem with self-published works, online or otherwise, is lack of editing. Someone types up a book on their laptop and then posts it on some online platform. No editing. Nightmarish covers. No marketing plan. Mainstream publishers do a lot more than just print out a book and then distribute it to schools, bookstores and book reviewers. Even before Manuscript Editing, there is Manuscript Evaluation. Publishing is a process. The author submits a ‘manuscript’, not a book. This ‘material’ will undergo a certain process – and be baptized with an ISBN number – before we can call it a ‘book’. Several editors can work on a single manuscript, each looking at a different aspect. The author may be asked to rework some parts. There are even legal issues to be considered. Don’t get caught up in e-book hype. You need patience in this business, especially if you’re a new name. Online publishing may be faster than traditional publishing but reader, buyer and reviewer response still takes time.

Some young writers now pair up with an ‘accountability partner’ to keep them motivated and on track during the writing process. If you can’t afford an editor, then edit each other’s books and be professional about it. Give an evaluation report showing the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript, just like a traditional publisher would.

 You have some sort of fascination with William Shakespeare. Can I say you are almost idolizing him? But then, you are not alone. What impact does sharing a date with him have on you as a person, then as a creative? If you shared nothing with him, would you still be beholden to him as much?

 Ha ha! Maybe I am the African Shakespeare. We seem to have a metaphysical connection. Apart from being born on April 23rd, like The Bard, I also love word play, poetry, theatre, historical tales and great historical personalities. Interestingly, Shakespeare also died on April 23rd, so I have to be very careful on my birthday! April 23rd is also UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day. Incidentally, I baptized my Top 40 Under 40 trophy ‘Shake Spear’ because it’s a statuette of a Maasai moran holding a spear and the accolade was for my writing career. Also, in my poetry collection, The Moon is Made of Green Cheese, there is a poem titled The Dead Poets’ Society whereby the persona, a struggling poet, is mystically transported to an underworld realm where he meets Shakespeare along with other famous poets like Edgar Allan Poe, S. T. Coleridge, William Blake and Emily Dickinson, and they help him with his craft.

Would I be beholden to The Bard if we didn’t share a birthday? I believe so. At 9 or 10 years, I heard a story on KBC Radio that captivated me. It was about this kid called ‘Romeo’ and how a series of unfortunate events led to the deaths of both him and the girl he loved. I didn’t know anything about Shakespeare but that still remains my favourite play of all time. The radio show was called ‘Books & Bookmen’ and about 20 years later, I was interviewed on that same show (now renamed ‘Books Café’) about my own poetry book, The Moon is Made of Green Cheese.

Your work seems to have gained more ground abroad than in Kenya. (What are your sentiments about this?)

Compared to the rest of the world, Kenya is a tiny book market. Even in Africa, we lag far behind nations like Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa and Uganda. Nigeria is Africa’s cultural centre. Think of Nollywood. Think of Nigerian music stars like Burna Boy, Yemi Alade, Falz, Davido and Simi. Even in literature, there are so many literary events and exciting new writers coming out of Nigeria. We have been trying to uplift the local literary scene. We have some festivals like Storymoja and Kwani, some literary journals, some literary salons and ‘book swaps’ but in a country of over 40 million, the literary scene can be much larger and more vibrant. You can’t compare Kenyan publishing to, say, that of Germany, the UK, the US, Japan or China. Those are gigantic markets. I am happy every time my work is translated because that means more readers and access to other literary scenes. So far, I have been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Swedish, Arabic and Kiswahili.

If you look at the major writers in Kenya today, especially the younger ones, you will realize that their renown came as a result of a foreign award or overseas publication. A good example is Peter Kimani’s historical novel, Dance of the Jakaranda published in the US. And the same goes for our film scene. Think of the success of Lupita Nyong’o, Edi Gathegi and Wanuri Kahiu. Would anyone have known about Wanuri Kahiu’s latest film if it had not made the Cannes Festival?

What would you want to see in e-publishing in Kenya in the near future?

 An easier way for readers to purchase local e-books. Mainly through mobile cash but also through other online micro-payment systems like PayPal. We also need more reviewers/bloggers taking e-books seriously. And since Kenyans are very tech savvy and are wedded to their smartphones, I wish they knew that there is an app called WorldReader that can enable them to legally access free literature from Kenya and elsewhere. They can be reading ‘world literature’ of their choice in matatus, planes, trains, salons, waiting rooms, hospitals, schools and elsewhere on their mobile phones at any time at no extra cost.

Your poem, Someone in Africa Loves You! is one beautiful piece. It represented Africa at the 2014 Commonwealth Games on BBC Scotland. It’s too sentimental, someone might think ‘it truly came from the heart for someone specific …?’

The Someone in Africa Loves You that appeared on Commonwealth Postcards is actually a shortened version of the one in The Moon is Made of Green Cheese. But it is pure fiction, inspired by the general goings-on at the Coast. You know about beach boys. In the same book, there is a narrative poem titled Remember the Lions, about the man-eaters of Tsavo, which has a higher fidelity to actual facts, and Rhythm of Life which I wrote in defense of Kenya’s marathon runners who are now facing multiple allegations of doping.