[Read part 2 here]
The story so far: ‘Villains’ had found a home in Acacia Publishers, after a nothing short of a miracle.
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Jimmi, the publisher, doesn’t mince words. The story was good, but a lot of work would need to be done. I learnt that we had to rewrite about a third of ‘Villains’.
There are characters who had to be rid of because they stood in the way of the plot. There were 3 chapters we summarised into one page!
Jimmi was thorough! He sat at a table literally cutting out text with scissors. Literally! It was then that I understood why publishers asked that manuscripts printed on one side only.
I was not happy to see all the changes, but I was anxious to get published.
It took several months to finish the cutting and pasting. It was a lot work. But I am emboldened by the promises of fame and wealth from royalties.
At one time, I checked out cars at a showroom. If I was going to buy one soon, I would need to know how much it would cost, right?
I had to rewrite a huge chunk of the book.
Now remember my dilemma? It meant more typing. Cyber Cafés had gone down to 7/-a minute, but it was still high for a student from the slums.
I was so near yet so far. Jimmi gave me a deadline. My friends had closed their Langata bureau.
It started dawning on me that I was going to fail.
I was about to give up on the dream.
Then one day, Kenyatta University’s then Vice Chancellor, Prof Eshiwani had just addressed students who were preparing for the university’s world famous Culture Week Festival. As mentioned earlier, I had joined the KU Travelling Theatre.
I got a crazy idea
Eshiwani was like a god. The feared VC walked with a bevy of bodyguards. The cordon around him was impregnable.
I had earlier spoken with his PA seeking his audience. All I needed was a computer: I’d do the typing myself after office hours. She had chased me away like a dog.
This time something snapped in me. I broke through the cordon, tactfully avoiding one particular bodyguard known for his karate chops.
By the time everyone realised what was happening I was already at Eshiwani’s side blurting out my story. The VC stopped and asked me to repeat my story. All the words had rumbled out of my mouth.
When I finished, Prof. Eshiwani simply turned to his PA
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“Give this young man all the support he needs,” he ordered. “He is the next Ngugi wa Thiong’o.”
And just like that, I had three university secretaries at my disposal. I would write in the night and give them the work in the morning to type! They would save the work in floppy disks.
In two weeks, the revised manuscript was submitted.
Shortly after, Jimmi gave me an opportunity as Editorial Assistant at Acacia. It was by no means a well-paying job, but I learnt a lot about publishing. I also took it as a chance to work on my manuscript ‘from the inside’.
Though ‘Villains’ was ready by 2004, it wasn’t released just yet.
“Kenya is not ready for this story”
Jimmi would say.
“We don’t have resources for now”
It was a long, long wait. I almost lost hope.
In between the long wait, there were moments when I thought we would release ‘Villains’.
One time in 2005 Jimmi asked me to attend an interview with Waithaka Waihenya, then with The Standard newspapers.
(Flash forward: Waithaka Waihenya is a king maker. If you have read Boniface Mwangi’s UnBounded, you will know how he helped the activist. He did the same for me).
By this time, the publisher had changed the title of ‘Villains’ to ‘The Last Villains of Molo’. Waithaka published a one-and-a-half-page review in the Standard.
My photo appeared on Standard with headline “A young mind bubbling with ideas” and a full page with the title “The banality of evil and futility of revenge”. To date, this remains my biggest feature, and it turned me into a celebrity of sorts.
In the article, Waithaka announced that ‘Villains’ had been released and was already in bookshops. This was to bring me so much pressure, with friends and family wanting to get the book and not having any.
The biggest thing that happened to me was Waithaka’s question after the formal interview. “What are you writing now?”
I told him I was waiting for ‘Villains’ to be released, upon which he shook his head in disagreement. Then he said NO. That was behind me. I should write the next thing.
That was a real eye opener. It reminded me so much of my mentor David Mulwa’s mantra: Keep Writing. Shortly after, I was to start writing my second book ‘Wangari Maathai: Mother of Trees’ and ‘We Can Be Friends’.
Waithaka ended his article with the words “… still, one feels that there are a couple of unwritten books in the mind of the author, a number of untold stories”.
(Waithaka Waihenya is now MD at Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. He remains modest, not wanting to take credit for my success)
I waited 6 years. A child who was born when I finished writing the story was now in Standard One. I had given up.
And then, 2007 happened. After post-election violence rocked the country, Jimmi felt that Kenya was ready to confront the monster tribalism.
He called me suddenly to announce that we had a launch date!
In 2008 we finally launched ‘The Last Villains of Molo’ at Alliance Francaise Nairobi. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the guest of hounour would be Prof. George Eshiwani himself.
We had a pre-launch meeting with the former VC. Strange enough, he did not remember helping me with my manuscript. For him, it was all in a day’s work.
The media was kind to ‘Villains’. It was reviewed in all the major dailies. In 2008, John Mwazemba wrote an article about the book, under the title ‘Novelist prophesied post-election chaos’.
In 2010 I received a Facebook inbox from a Wandia Njoya, inviting me to talk to students at Daystar University. She had seen Mwazemba’s article about ‘Villains’ and bought a copy. That Facebook post was the beginning of my long relationship with Daystar.
4 years after the launch
All these years, all I could imagine was my book on display at bookshops. I would walk along the now defunct Bookpoint on Moi Avenue and look at the many books displayed behind the large glass panes and imagine mine there.
My prayers had been answered many times. The book was even being studied in some universities. I had received more than I wished for.
But I had no money. I hadn’t received a single coin in royalties. This got me depressed – I stopped writing and focused on my work at the bank.
A friend of mine gave me good legal advice. Based on the fact that no royalties were forthcoming, I could sue to cancel my publishing contract with Acacia Publishers.
It was going to be a tough decision. Jimmi Makotsi had made me who I was. He had turned the manuscript I had delivered to him into what people were now calling a masterpiece.
When I delivered the lawyer’s letter to him, Jimmi only gave two conditions: (1) That I buy all copies of books in stock and (2) That I acknowledge Acacia in all future editions.
I took a loan and bought all copies in his stock. I went further and bought all copies in the bookshops. Then I signed up with Longhorn Publishers, with whom I had published my other two books, to bring all my work under their umbrella.
I had written ‘Wangari Maathai’ for Sasa Sema Publications, but just before the book went to print Sasa Sema was acquired by Longhorn and became the latter’s imprint for creative fiction.
In 2012, we relaunched ‘Villains’, hosted by Daystar University. It was a well-attended event, many thanks to Dr. Wandia Njoya.
Dr. Njoya and I have proceeded to do many things. We co-facilitated the Creatives Academy, a pioneering 13-week course on creative writing at Daystar University. We are in discussions for a revamped version of the same.
So, 10 years after submitting the final manuscript, I am finally at home. And 15 years after writing ‘The Last Villains of Molo’, I am an overnight success.
I am getting paid for ‘The Last Villains of Molo’. Not only am I receiving timely royalties, I am making money from book sales, appearance fees and associated income.
Things will be much better if students stop photocopying books, which is a story for another day.
I wrote this story in the hope that someone reading may learn from it. We are being bombarded by “success stories”, and rarely do we get a chance to hear about the story behind the success. It is also m hope that students who are wont to photocopy books will pause and reflect on the fact that it takes blood, sweat and tears to get a book in their hands – the best they can do is get an original copy so that at least the writer gets paid.
In summary, I have learnt three things from my experience publishing ‘The Last Villains of Molo’.
- The power of asking
- The power of building networks
- Never giving up
You can buy ‘The Last Villains of Molo’ and my other books here: kinyanjuikombani.com/order-a-book
Links to events mentioned in this story
Kombani & Prof. Eshiwani: nation.co.ke/How-Prof-Eshiwani-rescued-my-career
Novelist prophesied Post-election violence: standardmedia.co.ke/?articleID=1144002733