Getting published

- Alice Wairimū Nderitū  -

“Publishing is a violent act” so pronounced Divine Fuh, then the head of publication and dissemination at the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA).

Divine was speaking at the pre-conference workshop on editorial and author considerations as relating to publishing manuscripts. The conference itself was the much-heralded 2019 African Studies Association of Africa coordinated by Njoki Wamai, Assistant Professor at the United States Institute of Africa (USIU) in Nairobi, Kenya. (See our earlier report on this  conference.)

The act of writers submitting manuscripts is often accompanied by an assumption on their part that they are a step away from becoming published authors. Submitting a manuscript, Divine said, “is the beginning of the violence, particularly on academic texts”. Divine should know, as he wears another hat, chairing the Council of Management of African Books Collective, an African owned, worldwide marketing and distribution outlet for scholarly, literature and children’s books from Africa. Divine was co-facilitating a session with Stephanie Kitchen of International African Institute. The session was interactive allowing for audience participation from an audience of publishers, published and aspiring academic authors.

The conference sought, among other objectives to begin the practice of situating conferences about Africa in Africa. The session participants included aspiring, mainly academic authors, publishers, editors.

 So how does one become a published author? Before submitting a manuscript, a writer should ask themselves why they want to write, Stephanie said.

Are you writing to disseminate ideas? Have you read the guidelines, on what exactly the publisher needs as styles are different?   

Once a manuscript is submitted to CODESRIA for example, Divine said, the wait begins. It continues. It can go on for more than two years, this wait, as quite a bit goes on behind the scenes. Usually, someone is working through submissions, most often from several writers. At this point, the writer’s wait could be broken by a rejection letter. This could be for many reasons. Maybe your writing is not good, or they do not publish your genre. Most writers have no idea of the workload of the reader and the waiting is only made easy if there are guidelines on when you can ask about the status of your book. Ironically, if you don’t get a rejection letter, it probably means they are considering your work. If they request a full manuscript, they liked your work. This could also come with some feedback such as what to improve on regarding tone and style.

The manuscript then runs through a gamut of editors. The author begins a back and forth journey, of structural changes – what Divine calls “more violence”. Change this, change that, explain this, give citations, explain context. Titles and headings in the manuscript change. If the publishing house has a house style, copy editors will ensure the manuscript fits the grammatical requirements. This back and forth is sometimes repeated multiple times. Facts will be checked, over and over, Stephanie emphasised. 

You as the author will have the final decision on what gets retained but it pays to remember editors edit for a living. Working with an editor is a humbling experience. They have edited many more before you. In time, you learn no idea is so important as not to be rewritten or discarded. Writers sometimes do not know it usually requires an editor to believe in and champion a manuscript to survive the above gamut and get published. Divine says he prefers dealing with books after having conversations with would be authors before they submit manuscripts. To produce a work worth reading, “80% of the work is in cleaning the document and 80% on quality control”. It is even more difficult if the book needs translation. This is particularly so if the translator is not a subject specialist on what they are translating as they may write a completely different book!

When the editors are done with you, in come copy editors, proofreaders, typesetting into a PDF, designers of the cover and book layout (including photographs and illustrations, specification of paper quality and binding methods), production, and a final read from the author before publication. 

When the book is finally published, Stephanie and Divine emphasised the need to remember that “citations from other authors are more important to academic publishers than the number of books sold”. Not that selling books is easy, as marketing and distribution is not cost-free. 

All this, and yet the context of producing books in Africa is itself very difficult as social demands are heavy – to become a human being in Africa means being part of a social network. Writing needs seclusion. One cannot be part of the social network of funerals, weddings and visits to sick people and still find time to write, Divine said. 

Then there are the contradictions, he continued. The thirst for reading is obvious, evidenced by how many people all over the continent crowd around the person who buys a newspaper from a vendor, each borrowing a sheet to read. Yet, it’s still baffling how many Africans send each other across borders for fabric and spices, but not books. Then there is social media. Why would anyone read or write a book instead of a 140-word tweet? It is possible to name people fired because of a tweet but not because of a book they wrote!

We carried over the discussions animatedly, queuing for tea, and then lunch, with no regard for social distance in an era we now call pre-COVID 19, reflecting on the realities of academic publishing and the humour of the presenters.  Despite the “violence” we knew quite a number of people who had succeeded in getting academically published, indeed, some of them were with us, at the conference. When I finally arrived home, my sheaf of notes spoke to a very well spent day.


Alice Wairimū Nderitū is an author, columnist (The EastAfrican) ethnic relations educator and mediator of armed conflict. She authored Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators, approved by the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development for Teacher Training Colleges; Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, A Commissioner’s experience on Cohesion and Integration and, Mũkami Kĩmathi: Mau Mau Woman Freedom Fighter, an authorized biography. Alice was named 2012 Woman Peace Maker of the Year by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, University of San Diego; 2014 Raphael Lemkin participant of the Auschwitz Institute on the Prevention of Genocide; 2015 Aspen Leadership scholarship recipient; 2017 inaugural Global Pluralism Awardee; 2017/18 Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue Jack P. Blaney Awardee for Dialogue; and 2019 Diversity and Inclusion Peace and Cohesion Champion Awardee (Kenya). Her book Mũkami Kĩmathi: Mau Mau Woman Freedom Fighter was shortlisted for the African Studies Association (UK) Fage & Oliver Prize. She holds a BA in Literature in English and a Masters in Armed Conflict and Peace Studies from the University of Nairobi.


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