Owner of Kenyan online bookstore on growing Africa’s publishing industry

When Kenyan Magunga Williams launched his online bookstore at the end of 2015, he knew very little about starting and running a business, and was really just trying to help some local authors gain better access to the Kenyan market. But today Magunga Bookstore sells about 100 books a month, and is growing fast.

What makes Williams’ online store unique is it specifically trades African stories – mostly by African authors. Growing up in Kisumu, a port city in Kenya, Williams’ favourite pastime was to visit the local library after school. However, he found it difficult to find stories that related to his life or surroundings. Most of the novels stocked were set in Western countries and written by Western authors. And while Williams says many of these were “beautiful in their own right”, he found himself searching for African stories that were more relevant to his own world and experiences.

This search continued years later as an adult, but he kept facing the same challenge. Most bookstores held a few African stories – usually only by the most famous authors on a small shelf labelled ‘African’ – but Williams made his way through these quickly and wanted more. His decision to launch his own online bookstore was born from the frustration of being unable to access the wealth of African novels.

Magunga Bookstore currently has stock of around 500 different African stories, but Williams says this is still only a fraction of the stories out there.

“It barely touches it… Shipment and distribution of books, especially by African authors, is a huge problem. First of all, it is very expensive to distribute books inside the continent. If I want a book by a Nigerian author, I’m better off getting it from the UK than from Nigeria.”

Shipping books into Kenya from places like South Africa also remains a headache for Williams’ business.  This is especially the case since 2013, when the government started taxing books – raising costs further.

“The shipment and logistics are very expensive – they almost double the price of the book,” he adds.

“And we are a small business, so sometimes getting books is a bit too expensive for us… So we cannot get all the books we want.”

It is even more difficult accessing books in some of the smaller African countries – outside of the continent’s powerhouses, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. “I want to expose people to books by authors in Egypt, Congo and Zimbabwe – which is another [market] which is very vibrant right now.”

He notes writers in these markets face a publishing bottleneck – where local publishers do not have the resources to adequately penetrate other African territories, let alone other parts of the world like the US or UK.

“So your book becomes stifled in the region where your publisher is dominant.”

Furthermore, many African publishers (such as those in Kenya) are now more interested in publishing school textbooks and other academic content, rather than African novels. According to Williams, this simply comes down to business.

“There are many schools… so that is a huge market. They would rather concentrate their efforts on producing material that is going to be beneficial for schools, rather than those that are [purely] for enjoyment and reading. The one has a very sure and definite market, while the other has an amorphous market. The moment you produce a book you have to promote it and the author. So many stay away from it, ” explains Williams.

“In Kenya that is or major challenge – the reluctance of publishes to promote creative works.”

However, he adds, publishing creative novels and stories that are relevant to readers is as important – and can be just as educational.

“There is a lot to gain from reading, and a lot to learn from fiction. People always assume that if you want to learn about a place you should read the academic literature. But really, if you look at fiction and creative nonfiction, you learn a lot.”