Without writers, there are no publishers; without publishers there are no writers. Chicken and egg situation, for sure. From time to time Short Story Day Africa likes to look at the bloggers, the facilitators, the businessmen/women - the small but mighty links that hold African literature together. We sat down with Nyana Kakoma, whose go-getter attitude and ascendant career trajectory is something to behold. We spoke about her beginnings, her new publishing house and challenges facing the business end of African literature.
Nyana, I have watched you go from an intern at Modjaji Books, to a blog for short stories and poetry to now a publisher. Could you explain how each step pushed you to do more, get bigger and, perhaps, braver?
NYANA: It has really been a step-by-step journey. When I started my blog it was because I had always wanted to have a platform where Ugandan literature would be showcased. I did not know that the kind of platform I wanted was a blog until I quit my job to move back to Kampala (I used to work upcountry) and just started with what I had.
When I started the blog I realised that whereas I had experience as a non-fiction editor (I had worked as a sub-editor in one of our leading dailies) I did not have experience as a fiction editor. And I was getting a lot of fiction on the blog.
So I started teaching myself here and there but the editorial internship with Commonwealth Writers and African Writers Trust under the guidance of Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and Vimbai Shire was what really helped me understand what I was doing. I started to take myself more seriously as an editor and I sucked up as much knowledge as I could.
From that workshop came the internship with Modjaji which showed me how an independent press works. It showed me that you did not have to have big offices in a big building to have a publishing house. It taught me the practical process in publishing; talking to writers, talking to the web people, reading real manuscripts (which excited me a great deal), organising a book launch, talking to bookshop owners - you know everything I had learnt at the editorial workshop. I also saw from Colleen [Higgs] how far passion could take you and I needed to see that.
Modjaji made me want more and actually believe I could do more. And yet, I can’t say that when I was on the plane from Cape Town I believed I was coming back home to start a publishing house. Not even then. It was after I had gotten home that the desire to start a publishing house couldn’t be ignored anymore. And even then, I had a lot of self-doubt to overcome.
Sooo Many Stories, your press, has made the bold choice of publishing a collection of poetry, The Headline That Morning, as its first title. Why poetry? Also, why does Peter Kagayi's collection come with a CD?
NYANA: It was Peter Kagayi. His voice, his conviction. I believed straight away that what he was saying needed to be said and listened to. I had seen him perform but something else happened when I actually read the poems and I wanted to be a part of amplifying his voice. So for me it did not really matter what genre it was as long as the message got me.
Why the CD? Sooo Many Stories believes that stories should be accessible. I have seen a number of people shy away from reading poetry but you will see them at a recital. To them, the reading part may seem difficult because of an education system made a chore of reading and yet, they do enjoy performed poetry. So the CD is for those people. It’s in the hope that once they listen to the CD they will realise that it isn’t that hard and hopefully they will pick up the book. But also, Kagayi is great with performance (again, his conviction) and I thought it would be great for people to see that side of him as well.
What is Sooo Many Stories going to do differently when it comes to editing and marketing their titles?
NYANA: Those are actually the two areas I decided I would never skimp on. I decided that we would only work with people that understood what real editing is, not people that think that as long as you can construct an English sentence, you can edit (a common belief). I want to work with people that will bring out the best in our writing and people the writers will trust.
With marketing, I knew when I started that is not my strength so the first thing I did was read as much as I could (still do) on marketing and also hire someone that would help out. Vaola Amumpaire joined SmsUg sometime before we launched The Headline That Morning and she’s been great. We also did a market survey just before we started just so we could understand what we were getting into. Some of our marketing decisions have been based on the information we got. And so when I go out and people ask, “Why would you get into publishing when the poor reading culture is so evident?” I am actually aware of the numbers and the reasons why. For example one of the reasons people gave for not buying Ugandan books was that the ones they have bought are poorly edited and they do not look good. And those are some of the things we decided we would address with our books.
We are also trying to make the books as accessible as possible.
African literature struggles to distribute titles across the continent. Any ideas or goals of teaming up with other indie publishers in order to get works read beyond Uganda's boarders?
NYANA: We are talking to some people outside Uganda and people have been quite helpful and very willing to help. But co-publishing or just distributing has to make financial sense to them so we are waiting to see how that works out.
You are a writer, yourself. Are you having to set that part of yourself aside to bring the publishing self forward? Or are you managing to interweave your own pen while raising up the work of others?
NYANA: I am putting my writing to the side for a bit mostly because I haven’t yet figured out how to balance all my new responsibilities (being a mum to my 8 month old baby while running a new business and taking care of other aspects of my life).
On Nyana's Bedside
Rereading Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How To Tell Your Story In A Noisy World by Gary Vaynerchuk that talks about social media marketing. I am reading a lot of these types of books because I need to learn more about marketing and other aspects of running a business.
Nyana Kakoma is a Ugandan writer, editor, blogger and publisher. She created the online platform Sooo Many Stories to promote and showcase Ugandan literature and it has now grown into a print publishing house. Before venturing into fiction writing, she worked for The New Vision and The Daily Monitor as a reporter and sub-editor. She also worked as the group Magazine Editor for Madhvani Group.
Nyana has been published in The Suubi Collection, online, The Caine Prize Anthology (2013), Jalada, The Storymoja blog and kampalawritesbremen.com. She has facilitated writing workshops with Writivism and Tukosawa Stars (a writing workshop for secondary school students with FEMRITE). She has given talks on publishing and writing at FEMRITE Readers/Writers Club, ACME and African Writers Trust Editorial Workshop. She is a member of Femrite and one of the founding members of Jalada, a PanAfrican collective of writers.
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a @ms_tiahmarie