Monumental Lessons from the AWT Publishing Fellowship programme

When the African Writers Trust made a call for applicants, I threw my hat in the ring. There was no optimism or self-confidence in this act. In fact, I was quite sure that I would be facing yet another rejection from a distinguished writing programme. I merely braced for the impact and prepared to add to my growing ‘Rejection’ pile. To my surprise, I received a response to the effect that I was one of eleven African writers selected from nearly 300 applications. What followed was a series of ‘shock and awe’ moments followed quickly by a serious case of ‘Imposter Syndrome.’ All I kept thinking was, I do not deserve to be here!

This feeling was quickly alleviated by the warmth with which Goretti Kyomuhendo welcomed us, the Fellows. She did not spare a moment to unequivocally tell each one of us that we deserved a seat at the table. This constant reassurance was exactly what thin-skinned writers like me needed to hear. I could not have been more grateful for that.

For the next five days of the AWT Publishing Fellowship programme: Training and Mentoring workshop, we followed a schedule of sessions which included, but was not limited to lessons on manuscript editing (both copy and structural), printing, contracts with publishers and book shops and finally marketing. The facilitators aptly dubbed these lessons, The Book Cycle.

As a self-publishing writer, every single stage of this cycle was monumental for me, and thus every lesson necessary. Up until this fellowship programme, I had navigated my way through the book cycle with the aid of unadulterated guesswork and a few tips from self-publishing American or British writer vloggers/YouTubers. My biggest problems with those sources of advice were: One, the guesswork was ineffective as it was based on my own inexperience and ignorance. And two, the online advice was inapplicable in the African (Ugandan) context.

Being in a space with other African writers and publishers was the exact formula I didn’t know I needed to solve my problems.

The content and format of the sessions were curated for optimal relevance and participation. Yes, we were being taught about the nitty-gritty world of publishing, the do’s and don’ts of editing, the book market and book audiences, but every lesson was conducted with the utmost desire to impart wisdom. Sometimes that meant one of the fellows giving a tip which they found useful in their own publishing journey or share a horror story of some inequitable contract they signed with a former publisher. Every interaction was a learning experience; from group discussions to individual tasks, to the ten-minute tea breaks. The online classes I took before the fellowship couldn’t compare to the invaluable lessons the facilitator, Otieno Owino, taught us about copy and structural editing. And the best part was that he imparted these lessons through more than a flip-chart board, he allowed every fellow to ask questions, pose scenarios, and think out loud. This free discussion style was the format of every class, and the reason I believe that no lesson was left unlearned.

There is no lack of discouragement for many fiction writers on the continent, more so particular genres like fantasy. It is therefore easy to conclude that as a writer, you are alone in your bunker. So how comforting and encouraging it was to interact with other writers facing identical obstacles. To meet a woman from Botswana who also writes fantasy fiction for young adults but is equally discouraged by the lack of engagement in her country − Or a fellow from Zimbabwe who is also frustrated about the lack of a reading culture in his country. These stories didn’t alleviate my worries but the companionship they offered was immeasurable. At least once a day, one fellow was bound to say some variation of the phrase; I thought I was alone.

When Abdulrahman Ndegwa aka Abu Amirah, the winner of the inaugural AWT seed fund shared his publishing story, it was amazing to listen to someone speak about the practical implementation of the book cycle. His struggle to mobilise the writers, his high praise for the editing work put in by Otieno Owino, and his detailed account of the steps he took to ensure that the book, KasKazi was up to international standards − gave us a perfect idea of what was expected of all of us now that ignorance was no excuse.

Every day spent in this programme proved more essential than the last, and to be honest it is difficult to pick one class or one session that outweighed the other in terms of value imparted. But when we got to the marketing lessons, facilitated by Crystal Rutangye, Racheal Kizza, and Oscar Ranzo, our collective brains came close to exploding. Crystal was so meticulous in taking us through the financial practicalities of the book cycle, that by the end of her lessons, the amount of introspection every fellow had to make was painful but necessary. It was a wake-up call to all of us and a practical lesson on what it means to self-publish. I realised that although I would like to sit in some café and write all day and not worry about how to sell my books or who to sell them to, I am also running a business, and this business has to be profitable. Otherwise, in the words of Crystal, I might as well be writing in my diary. And then when Racheal spoke about using social media to advertise our products, seeing as we just realised books are our products, I had to scan my different accounts. My accounts were reflective of a struggling writer, not a self-publishing writer charting her own destiny.

The biggest take-away from this programme was that we cannot wait for some publishing saviour to come and save us, we must first of all, create a product that achieves international standards. And then we must confidently put it on display for the world to see. 

Rachael A.Z. Mutabingwa with her two novels ,Adavera and Kunda.

Rachael A. Z Mutabingwa is 31-year-old lawyer and self-published author of fiction of two novels- ADAVERA (2018) and KUNDA (2019). KUNDA serves as both a standalone and a prequel to ADAVERA. She has worked for different lifestyle magazines in Uganda over the years as a freelance writer and editor. She currently works as an editor for Zaaz Press, an independent publishing consultancy based in Kampala, Uganda.

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