Nairobi — Kenya's lucrative book publishing industry is losing millions of shillings annually through book piracy.
The main target of the entrenched pirates are secondary school literature set books.
A test of how difficult it can be to deal with them was witnessed last week when the Copyright Society of Kenya and a leading book publisher, the East African Educational Publishers, launched a crackdown on the pirates.
The well-coordinated swoop netted only three suspects since the other pirates, having got wind of the impending crackdown, either went into hiding or came up with ways of evading the dragnet.
And it is not only the publishers and book sellers who are losing out in this murky business, but also the writers since they do not get royalties from the pirated books.
Kenya's leading fiction writer Prof Ngugi Wa Thiong'o is among victims who have lost millions in the racket.
In the rip-off, unscrupulous printers have rolled out thousands of copies of two set books, which were recommended by the Ministry of Education in November last year for use in secondary schools.
Among the two set books is Prof Ngugi's The River Between, which he authored in 1965 while he was still a student at Makerere University.
The other is An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen.
Since it is now compulsory for students taking literature in Form Three and Form Four to have copies of the two books, several schools are said to have been ordering for hundreds of copies of the pirated copies of two novels.
This they do either knowingly or unknowingly.
This has seen the EAEP, who are the official publishers of the two books, and the books' authors lose millions of shillings to pirates.
The management of EAEP raised concern over the issue after some schools started returning copies of the two set books to them complaining of myriad of errors.
Some of the books, according to EAEP's sales and marketing manager, Mr Mutua Nzioki, have numerous typographical errors. Others, he says, are wrongly paginated and end up confusing the readers.
"There are copies of The River Between, which indicate that Prof Ngugi was born in 1983 instead of 1938 as shown in the original book," Mr Nzioki says.
Following the complaints, the EAEP staff in the field carried out a search and discovered that the pirated books had found their way into the shelves of several bookshops, especially in Nairobi, Murang'a, Kisii and Meru.
"The printers who are pirating these books are making millions of shillings considering the number of students we have in Form Three and Form Four in the country," Mr Nzioki says.
A speech delivered by former Education minister, Prof George Saitoti, at the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) last year, pointed out that there will be 1.4 million students in Kenya's secondary schools this year.
Out of this number, half of the students will presumably be in the two classes, which translates to about 700,000 students.
The recommended retail price for a genuine copy of The River Between is Sh375 while An Enemy of the People should go for Sh265.
But Mr Nzioki says that a pirated copy of the former is going at Sh220 or less whereas a copy of the latter is being sold at a maximum of Sh180.
Unaware of the racket, several schools are said to have fallen into the trap.
School Tendering Committees - the bodies authorised to procure reading materials and other supplies for secondary schools - are said to have bought the counterfeit copies owing to their reduced prices.
In some cases, members of the tendering committees are believed to have colluded with the dealers by manipulating and convincing the committees to order for the pirated copies after which they get a kickback from the dealers.
Mr Nzioki could not quantify the amount of money EAEP may have lost through piracy, but said that the company was losing 40 per cent of its market share to this illegal business.
After selling the books, the publishing firm has to give a certain percentage of money in royalties to the author. This explains how Prof Ngugi is a also a victim of the rip-off.
However, the students have also become victims of the racket, according to Mr Nzioki.
"Some of these pirated books can mislead the students to the extent that they may end up performing poorly in their exams," Mr Nzioki points out.
But then, who are these unscrupulous printers? And why have they been allowed to operate with impunity?
Last Wednesday, the EAEP and the Copyright Society of Kenya with the assistance of police officers launched a joint operation to crack down on the book pirates.
The raid was conducted in Nairobi's River Road area, which is where a number of the bookshops trading in the pirated copies of the two set books are located.
It transpired during the operation that it is very tricky to net the masterminds of the racket.
This is because most of the bookshop owners were aware of the crackdown even before it commenced.
While it is not clear how they ended up receiving the information, it is noted that EAEP staff led by Mr Nzioki had held a press briefing at the CSK offices in Sheria House prior to the raid.
They were briefing the press about the operation, which they wanted them to cover.
After the briefing, the raid team comprising EAEP staff members, CSK officers and the police officers started positioning themselves for the crackdown, which they started shortly before 2pm.
By then, news of the planned raid had spread like bush fire in bookshops in the entire River Road area.
When the members of the raid team posed as customers in some of the suspected bookshops to see whether they could buy the pirated copies of the books, the retailers, already aware of their presence, had come up with appropriate responses.
On ordering for the cheap copies of the set books, the members would quickly be warned by the retailers:
"We don't sell such books. It is illegal," most of the bookshop owners would say.
On realising that the exercise headed for failure, the team carrying out the operation decided that a change of strategy was imminent.
They decided to identify themselves to the bookshop owners and order for a search of all their book stores.
In this way they managed to arrest the three suspects from two different bookshops. One of them was a dealer while the other two were employees of a separate bookshop.
The employees were arrested after the owner of the bookshop they worked in made a dramatic escape immediately the members of the raid team walked into his premises.
The two bookshops where the pirated copies of the set books were found were located on the same floor of a building along Cross Road off Accra Road. The building also had at least six other bookshops.
However, not all of them could be searched because the owners closed them down and fled.
"We have only arrested the three, but we know that there are distributors, printers and sponsors behind them," Mr Nzioki said after the operation.
He said they will have to come up with another strategy soon to see how the architects of the entire racket can be arrested.