The Best Time to Set Up a Radical Press Is During a Tory Term
We talked to some radical, left-wing publishers about why the time is ripe to start printing your own radical literature.
Hansib, a black and Asian specialist publisher in the UK, started in newspapers during the 1970s with the Caribbean Times, the Asian Times and others. Arif, the director and founder of Hansib, thinks the next five years will be good to left-wing publishing. "I can tell you, because we have been established for so long and I have seen Tory governments come and go, that we will we sell more books when the Tories are in power. Ironically, we make more money."
Post-election, you'd be forgiven for thinking Britain is a reactionary, conservative cloaca of shy and not so shy right-wing shafters. That's not a mistake, looking at the state of it. You might also be forgiven for thinking there hasn't been a viable parliamentary alternative for a long time. During the late 20th Century, the publishing Left slunk into the cozy arms of academia and theory to nurse its Thatcher-sized wounds.
At one point it felt the future might forever belong to crusty old Marxists beefing with die-hard anarchists for the right to show who could be less out of touch with normal people. By the 1990s, many radical and independent bookshops started closing, along with printing cooperatives and publishers. However, over the last few years, things have started changing.
The first thing radical publishing seems to have learned is that there's no point in having a radical position if you can't survive for any length of time. And by survive, I mean: make money. The fun part of being a radical publisher is feeling like a hypocrite for trying to generate cash through sales. The radical left has a problem with sales; the problem being that good sales people tend to like the other side of the fence.
However, with online shops, social media and the emergence of events such as The London Radical Bookfair, selling to interested readers has been made easier, removing that gut-squirming feeling of trying to hawk a book to someone who doesn't know they want to buy it. Even if you're a non-profit, you've still got to generate money so you can pay your writers.
Verso – one of the most prominent radical publishers in the UK – was set up in 1970 (the year of a surprise Conservative victory) and has recently produced some genuine a bunch of big sellers, like Private Island by James Meek and Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy by Gabriela Coleman. Leo Hollis, the senior editor at Verso, told me that, "radicalism seems to have skipped a generation". We are seeing more "post-2011" readers emerge, boosting sales from a lean period in which Blair-era supposed left-wingers ended up purchasing buy-to-let homes instead of filling their shelves with capitalist critique.
Verso have also, recently helped in the return of radical populism – publishing writing from a harder left perspective but aiming for popularity, as with the likes of Chavsby the omnipresent Owen Jones and Inequality and the 1% by Danny Dorling. Radical populism is something that was seen as positive in the 19th Century, but suspicious in the late 20th, which was possibly due to our society's lurch towards individualism. Now, Verso's strong presence on Twitter and other channels has reached a much wider audience than previously could have been possible.
Multiplicity is also what radical left publishing needs if it's to grow and stay true to its own ideas and principles. It's not simply a case of white-owned publishing companies printing books by black and Asian writers, but also making sure platforms are shared with self-organised black and Asian publishers.
I asked Arif if being a black and Asian publisher was in itself a radical position. "Being a minority publisher is absolutely a radical position to start with," he told me. "We were virtually unknown when we started. We had to get friends, people we know, those who are receptive to our community to help us. We couldn't get into the market place. I wouldn't have approached you, 20 years ago, to buy one of my books. But now, we have white people buying the books, too. We have got over that hurdle, but we definitely need more of us." He says now is a good time to set up a non-white publishing house. And if selling books is about one thing over anything else, it's finding your market.
Developments in print and desktop publishing have made printing books cheaper and easier to do. Self-publishing has experienced a boom like no other, but the radical side of things is unlikely to produce sexy Twilight fan-fiction. (On the other hand, Chubz: The Demonization of My Working Arse by Huw Lemmy might qualify as radical publishing's closest equivalent.)
Self-publishing is now a legitimate route to getting your material out there, but more often than not, having an editor or a small press behind the book helps legitimise and publicise the writing. The question of eBooks is a tricky one – creative commons licensing is good, Amazon is generally bad. eBooks are cheap to produce but getting retail exposure means mostly dealing with huge corporate monoliths. Even so, if you were thinking of setting up a radical press, this year would be a great time to start.
In 2015, it's much harder to distinguish, aesthetically, between books produced by huge publishing companies and those from very small imprints. This means, in a democratic space, most books have a level playing field. It is now possible to make a printed book look as well produced as any other. A good looking book will always beat an eBook for style, like vinyl beasts the mp3. If new publishers want to get new ideas and work out there, they can compete in a bookshop, and pick up readers who might initially be put off by the themes or content at first.
The 2015 London Radical Bookfair showed a truly wide range of radical publishing, not just from acts like Verso, Zed, Zero, Pluto, Five Leaves and PM but also from imprints with far fewer funds such as Myrdle Court, Merlin, Active and radical magazines such as STRIKE! and Red Pepper. There were many new publishers at the fair with their first books on sale. This seems to be a strong reaction to the continual disappointment with Parliament and mainstream discourse.
Tansy E Hoskins' Stitched Up: An Anti-Capitalist Guide to Fashion is published by Pluto Press. Stitched Up moves between Karl Lagerfeld and Karl Marx, exploring consumerism, class and advertising. Tansy told me, "Stitched Up would not exist without a publisher not terrified out of their brain by the word 'capitalism'. Pluto also understood that there was an audience for a book about fashion written from an anti-capitalist perspective and were confident enough to stretch their boundaries by engaging with the fashion world and its press".
Hoskins believes, as I do, that radical publishing is more important than ever. "We have to protect what we have but also create space for discussions of a better world," he says. "With the coming launch of the Left Book Club I hope radical books will become a greater part of more people's lives."
Radical publishing is still in the margins, but it is growing. With tighter networking, a little more unity, inclusivity, and awards such as the Bread and Roses prize, more people might be willing to take the plunge. This five year Tory term could prove quite the money-spinner. Besides, the right-wingers may dominate politics, the media and know how to market books, but from my perspective, all the best writers are on the left.
It's fairly easy and cheap to set up your own book publishing outfit without knowing how to print a single thing. And with all the above in mind, here are some tips:
1) Find a great book to start your press with, either through someone you know or an open submissions process (see newly-formed Repeater Books as a good example). Anthologies often work well as a first book. Edit it in MS Word and make sure all contributors are happy with the alterations.
2) Download a crack of Adobe Indesign and Photoshop (or pay, if you want to).
3) Learn which format you want your book to be in. Basic guides are "B (standard novel size), "Demy' (slightly oversized), A5 (a bit square) and "Crown Quarto" (big bastard) are the standard sizes.
4) Choose bookwove cream 80gsm. There's no need to print text on anything else. It's darker and sexier than white, so text reads better off the page.
5) Register your books for ISBN with Nielsen. This is the unique identifier that means libraries and bookshops can catalogue your books. Once your book has an ISBN it will automatically appear on online retail sites. You can buy bundles of ISBN codes at Nielsen here.
6) For most books, set your Indesign file margins as 20mm on the inside and 16mm on the outside. This means the text won't tuck into the spine in the middle of the book. Set the dimensions as per your book size and off you go.
7) Find a printer. There are many short run, digital printers – from Berforts to Short Run Press, to Bell & Bain who will help you. Or you can find a cooperative printer like Footprint. Once you have decided who gives you the best price, ask them for a spine width calculation – then design the cover with this in mind. Most short run printers will give you 30-60 days to pay your bill after the delivery of your books, this gives you time to sell them before paying the invoice.
8) Send two files off – a pdf of the text and a jpeg of the cover – to the printers. They will send back unbound proofs so you can see what the book will look like and spot any mistakes to correct before doing the print run.
9) Do some "branding" – e.g. design a logo.
10) Ask other small and independent publishers for advice. Most of them are more than willing to offer pointers and help you.
11) Set up a website with a payment gateway plugin such as PayPal or Big Cartel. Set up a twitter account. Tell people about the book and get them to order it.
12) Once the book is back, take it to bookshops with an "Advance Information Sheet" (A4 paper with book cover, synopsis, details on the author, key selling points, and contact details). Convince the bookshop to stock it on sale or return. Bookshops such as Housmans, Freedom and Bookmarks stock a truly wide range of radical literature, so approach them first. Also take it to your local shops. See what happens – it might do well.
13) Send copies to bloggers, writers you like, other publisher types and get the word out there.
14) If you liked doing that, repeat the process with a new title.
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