This Kenyan writer is using the internet to get others to read African fiction
Magunga Williams, or ‘The Real G’, as he would like to be known, is a proficient writer. His blog has been nominated for several awards, and his writing has appeared in a number of newspapers and journals.
Last December, Magunga made a move that some would consider audacious, although it makes perfect sense when looked at in hindsight: he opened an online bookstore that dealt exclusively in African fiction, a Kenyan first.
“I tell stories on an everyday basis, both for fun and as a source of livelihood”, he says. “Therefore it is no surprise that I decided to help authors to sell their own.”
After buying a book from his store, I sought to find out why he chose to sell books online.
There are various outlets selling books online in Kenya, but they are usually extensions of existing bookshops, and they deal mainly in motivational books and textbooks. The Magunga Bookstore deals mainly in fiction, specifically African fiction by contemporary authors.
The business of selling books is hard in Nairobi. There’s the street sellers who sell everything from classics to trashy romance novels for between 50 and 100 shillings (US$ 0.49-0.98), and the bookshops that sell textbooks with a small section devoted to fiction and nonfiction.
Recently though, several bookshops across Nairobi have been closed down. Some of them, because of financial difficulties and others closing because of family problems. Despite this, Magunga remains optimistic.
“Bookshops may be closing down, but readers are still reading”, Magunga adds. “Also, you need to understand that they are not closing down because there is no business. Could be because of poor strategy.”
Why did he get into this? As it turns out he wanted to start his own bookshop online ever since he started writing, but he kept postponing the idea until last December when he opened the Magunga Bookstore, first as an extension of his blog, and later as a standalone project.
“I chose the internet”, Magunga says, “because that is where everyone is. The internet has no borders.”
I asked him why he opted to sell fiction work by African writers, while most successful bookshops sold textbooks and stationery.
“My main motivation lies in the need to get people reading African stories. From my own observation, there are more Western books being sold in Kenya than African books. And that does not sit well with me at all.”
“There are so many African stories that are being told but never get to be read,” he adds. “There are so many books that have been written in South Africa, Zimbabwe, West Africa, North Africa, that have not been read in East Africa. But then you walk on the streets every single day and you cannot miss Fiction and Non-Fiction from US and UK. I mean, does that not bother you?”
He has used his blog and his social media accounts to promote the bookshop, and the results have been better than he expected. The idea of having an exclusively online bookstore is still strange in Kenya, but it is picking up.
The books come from all sorts of places. Magunga sources them from publishers, book distribution agents and self published authors. He has worked out a deal where he can sell all the published works by an author at a discounted rate, which should be a treat for those looking for the lesser known titles by their favourite authors.
The business is not without its challenges though. Magunga’s biggest headache has been getting books from Kenyan publishers.
“Imagine it is easier for me to get books from publishers in Nigeria from those in Nairobi. Granted, I have gotten books from some local publishers, but I can tell you for sure that I have sold more books from West and South Africa, than from East Africa.”
As for plans to open an offline bookshop, Magunga is cautiously optimistic. “For now, the store is online. However, when we grow and our growth demands an offline store, then we will get a shop somewhere. That does not mean will will go offline completely. I believe the future of Africa is on the interwebs. So whatever happens may happen, but it will always be available online.”
So far, the books are available in Kenya and Uganda, with plans to expand in the works.
The dream for Magunga is to grow and become the leading online store on the African continent. It is a far off dream, but he has already started walking.