In the previous two posts on the radical small press, we introduced the LGBT+ indie publisher and the feminist press. In this last post on the topic of radical small presses, we will be taking a look at people of colour (POC) presses.
In recent years, POC have begun to receive more representation in mainstream publishing, or rather, more POC works have become more visible, at the very least. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, a New York Times bestselling book published by American publishing house Simon & Schuster, centres on the life of a Korean-American teenager. The book, already well-liked in the young adult book community, skyrocketed in popularity when a Netflix film adaptation was released in 2018. The novel successfully landing a film adaptation contract can be seen as a testament to the growing power of POC works in the traditional publishing industry. It is notable that POC works (defined here as either works about POC characters and subjects or works by POC authors) have begun to gain recognition and popularity in traditional publishing. Books like The Hate U Give, a novel about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement by Angie Thomas, and Crazy Rich Asians, a romantic comedy about Asian characters set in Singapore by Kevin Kwan have been published by traditional publishers and have performed well, receiving critical acclaim and charting on bestselling book lists.
However, these are far from the norm. While there are no concrete numbers as to how many POC works are published by large publishers across genres and countries, there is a general understanding that they are in the minority. To illustrate, a study of the British Young Adult market found that overall, authors of colour wrote 8% of the unique titles published from 2006 to 2016. According to UK children’s reading charity BookTrust, in 2017, fewer than 6% of children’s authors and illustrators were people of colour.
POC in the publishing industry are also significantly outnumbered, according to The Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS 2.0), created by Lee & Low Books in 2019. It surveyed 153 companies in the publishing industry, including the Big Five publishing houses, and found that 76% of those employed in the industry overall identified as white or caucasian. While these numbers might not be reflective of the number of POC books put out by traditional publishers, it is not unfair to say that POC are still underrepresented in the industry, and so the POC press definitely still has its place in publishing today.
Small POC presses, African-American small presses, in particular, can be traced back to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, where there were increasing opportunities for African-Americans to engage in book publishing due to political, social and economic advances. During that time period, the US government rolled out several legislative acts that led to education reform, leading to increased literacy rates, including among African-Americans. Employment levels were also on the rise, and consequently, they had greater economic power. In addition, the 1960s saw advances ushered in by the American Civil Rights Movement, which brought about much desegregation and blatant discrimination against African-Americans.
With greater freedom and ability to consume and produce literature, the demand for books written by and written for African-Americans increased. African-Americans began to take up book publishing to satisfy the demand, filling the gap that existed in the market. The number of small African-American presses and books increased dramatically. Most of these early POC presses tended to prioritise cultural and social impact above profit. With their more niche market, some small POC presses struggled to establish trade partners, like distributors, just to name one. Raising capital and acquiring the necessary expertise to operate a press also created issues, and these problems forced some to shut down. However, a healthy number survived and some are still in operation, while new ones continue to appear.
Today, small presses specialising in publishing works by and for POC exist worldwide, including in the UK.
One example of a POC press operating in the UK today is New Beacon Books. Founded in 1966, the publishing house calls itself “the UK’s first black publisher, specialist bookshop and international book distributor” and is widely recognised as an important player in Black British culture. Named after The Beacon, a Trinidadian journal, it is known for being a provider of Black British, Caribbean, African, African-American and Asian literature in genres including but not limited to poetry, non-fiction, history and children’s. New Beacon Books was started by John La Rose and Sarah White, who were inspired by La Rose’s political and cultural vision derived from his experiences in the Caribbean and South America. Although culturally and historically significant, the POC press is not immune to the challenges that many small publishers face. In 2017, the directors of New Beacon Books recognised that the publishing house, which was becoming outdated in the age of technology, was economically unviable, and decided to shut it down. It was only with the formation of the New Beacon Development Group and volunteer efforts to crowdfund and refurbish the POC press that it survived.
As can be seen in this case, POC presses are still valued today, for reasons that remain true to their roots. They are necessary to represent and provide opportunities to POC authors, and to reflect POC life. Diversity in publishing is important because of how books shape cultures. Books are a medium for the transmission of ideas and a reflection of life. Many people gain an understanding of the world through books. While traditional publishers are beginning to catch up, POC presses still have an important role to play in providing POC with voices and telling POC stories.
Joyce Donald Franklin, Gatekeepers of Black Culture: Black-Owned Book Publishing in The United States, 1817-1981. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983).