She is beaming with a smile when she welcomes us into her house. A clean, nicely kempt living room has two book shelves standing in each corner to the left. She leads us to the dining room where we have a little chat before the interview. She would serve me and my companion a glass of fresh juice, without sugar.
Nyana Kakoma only recently became a mother, and only recently published her first book, The Headline That Morning and other Poems, a collection of poems by Peter Kagayi. Nyana speaks so passionately about books and publishing, but even more when she speaks of her plans for books by Ugandan writers.
“I want to be a writers’ publisher, a publisher who understands the strengths of the writer. For instance, Kagayi is a performer. He is different when he is performing and when he is talking to you. I wanted to play on that strength, know him as a performer to understand him as a poet,” she explains, letting us in more on her past, present and future in publishing.
At what point did you choose to be a publisher?
Right after my internship at a publishing house, Modjaji Books, in Cape Town, South Africa. Modjaji is a small press, without all the resources big publishers have but about 70 authors have been published there in about nine years. I was with them for six weeks and it changed me; I couldn’t just do a blog any more, it wasn’t enough.
I was thinking maybe when I get back, I could work for a publisher, but in Uganda, people are publishing mostly text books which are what sells. But I had a blog already and had been trained as an editor, so I thought maybe it was time to grow beyond a blog and become a publisher.
What is the environment like? Any competition?
There are actually publishers but I don’t think they are competition! For instance, Kakira and Lugazi sugar dealers are not in competition because they are not making enough sugar for Uganda any way.
Text books, inspiration books…there are so many people who are self-published. They put in their money, take to friends to read and find someone to print. What I am doing is saying; give me your work and let me take care of it for you.
Also, while there is a need for text books, there is more need for things such as novels, poetry, and creative non-fiction which is written by our own people. There are, for instance, few Ugandans writing about totems of Uganda.
By the mere fact that I wanted a certain kind of publishing house and didn’t find it, I had to create a job for myself. Otherwise, everything has been challenging because it is new. But I persevered because I know with all my heart that I’m supposed to be doing this.
How do you know?
I don’t want it to sound philosophical but the other day, I was arranging my books and I found this piece of paper I had written when I was resigning from Daily Monitor. And in my resignation letter I recommended that the paper should publish creative works, poems, a weekend paper away from politics and the hard week where people should think about books....
If you would have told me then that I was going to become a publisher, I would not have believed you yet that is what I was advocating for! And when my time at Monitor came to an end, I knew the next job I wanted to do was to write because the newsroom is gruesome, and you are always tired. I needed a job that should be relaxed enough and devote time to my writing. Then, I didn’t think of publishing. I didn’t even understand what a publisher was.
I knew I didn’t want communications or public relations either after being group managing editor at Madhvani Group. That is when I started a Literature blog, Sooo Many Stories, and I was so happy to be doing that. It feels right. I’m at that stage where you are spending money and the book is not even yet on the market but I am happy to do it because it feels right.
What works are you looking to publish?
I have thought about what I’m doing now 10, 15 years from now. Incidentally, at first I didn’t think of children’s writings but now I have a child and I cannot find her stuff to read that does not have ponies and long blonde hair. So now I’m thinking, aren’t there children’s writers? Of course, I have seen books done by other publishers but can we make more attractive books! And I think I can.
I think the age group of young adults has been ignored. People from Senior One to Senior Six, what are they reading? Mills and Boons, Silhouettes, we read loads of Pacesetters, Harry Potter and Hunger Games, but can we do something for them as Ugandans. I already have a manuscript from someone that is targeting that audience, it is not vampires and stuff but it is epic and very exciting.
I am also passionate about poetry, novels, short stories, novellas and creative non-fiction. I will do recipe books that have a story beyond how to cook or coffee books.
Are you willing to take the risk?
I am because there are readers that want that stuff and they do not even know it yet. But we deserve it. I believe that Ugandan readers are taken for granted. Let us make them well-read and give them things they will love. I think reading should be fun.
Any specific writers you want to publish?
I don’t want to limit myself because this is new. I want to be surprised by people I don’t know. Also, I want to be a writers’ publisher and nurture, so, I don’t want to say this is the person I want to publish.
What steps are you taking to make sure books get to the readers?
A lot of people say we have a bad reading culture but how well are we marketing our books? People don’t know how many Ugandan writers, or what books, there are. FEMRITE once did a survey and told the story of a writer whose publisher had only sold 80 copies since the 1990’s to date.
Now, how do you tell that person to write again? This shows you don’t believe in your product or you would make an effort to market it better. I hired a marketing person who loves books. I want to worry about authors while another person worries about selling the story. I need to change the conversation. I need to stop being part of the crowd that says people don’t read. What am I doing to solve that if I believe in books?
Aren’t you scared? This kind of business is not popular here!
Gosh, yeah! When word came out that we were launching, I realised I couldn’t take it back. But now that everyone knows, I have to make it happen.
Where will Sooo Many Stories be in 10 years?
Hmm, my daughter will be 10 years old (silence as tears begin to form in her eyes). She will have books with characters that look like her that she can relate with. That fiction out there is not bad, but the truth is I grew up wanting a pony, because that is what I knew. It is what I read. And at some point, they will be disillusioned because they are not a certain way.
I hope to have given hope to writers, for my daughter to say I want to be a writer and it is not weird. I hope to have sold books and they are not under my bed and not thinking I dreamt the wrong dream. I hope to have sold enough and broken boundaries of translation because I want a boy in Gulu or Bushyenyi to read a book and be aware that literature is not about English. I hope we will be publishing teenagers as well and if I dare to dream, that we will have creative writing being taught at university and people being taught publishing.
Tell us about this coming first publication
About The Headline That Morning is a poetry collection accompanied by an audio CD produced with a bit of music in the background, music related to the subject matter.
This was because “there are people who enjoy poetry but they wouldn’t read it. But they can come for a recital. Because when they think of reading it, a lot of us who have been affected by the education system to think exams, Shakespeare and complicated...but when you go to a recital, it is fun, entertaining, and educative but in a more relaxed kind of way. We thought we could record for you to listen if you can’t read poetry.”
About Sooo Many Stories
A blog which started in 2014, as of 2016 Sooo Many Stories has grown into a publishing house with a website and an office in Ntinda. The blog is about Ugandan writers, for Ugandan and international readers, encouraging people to write. The extra Os on “sooo” are not by accident, but rather an emphasis on how many stories Nyana has to tell
What is the process if one wants to be published?
If you submitted your manuscript, as the publishing director I would read it. Then I would see whether it’s good or not good; is it well-written, or can it be told better. Once there is a message, we will take it.
I would then get editors. Ugandan work is very poorly edited because one person does everything from editing to graphics designing, but I have decided that I am not going to skimp on quality. I will get you another copy editor and as structural editor, I will go through what we can move where, which parts to leave out, where you went off topic, and what else we can add. Structural editors make sense of the book as a whole, the entire story, are the characters real...
Then, another editor works line by line before we send it back to you to make changes. We find you a proof reader, choose what titles to take, send it over to designers, then we lay the book and proof read it again for paging. By this point, marketing should have started in a way.