Publisher Be Damned

By Kevin Baldeosingh

At the Bocas Literary Festival which takes place later this month in Trinidad and Tobago, a “Caribbean Literature Action Group” (CALAG) will be formed. This group, according to the organising committee’s media statement, has been created because “talented writers who choose to stay ‘at home’ often find it difficult to access international publishers, or find opportunities for local publication and promotion.” Yet only two out of the 10 writers on the 20-person panel actually live in the Caribbean, and those two are, respectively, a poet who’s published just five collections and a writer of one novel for teenagers. Although there are a couple of other authors  living in Trinidad who have had more books published and have also written about this issue, they apparently lack the talent to be part of the action group.

It is not exactly clear how CALAG is going to help local writers get published, for the issue of location, although crucial, is secondary. The primary challenge is financial: can the Anglophone part of the region, with a population of seven million, support a Caribbean publishing house; or enable authors to make a living from books; or persuade foreign publishers that there’s profit in publishing work from writers who deal with Caribbean themes? Ian Randle’s IRP Publications, Ken Jaikaransingh’s Lexicon Press, and Gerry Besson’s Paria Publishing have survived. But these firms rarely publish novels, and their nonfiction publications are hardly likely to attract a large readership.

Surprising as it may seem, though, the challenges that face local publishing and writers are not peculiar to our region. In the developed societies, with their long histories of literacy and publishing, writing is still not a profession which most authors can make a living from. In The Guardian (the British one) columnist Blake Morrison noted in a 2007 article that 60 percent of British authors earn less than Ј10,000 a year. Since this is barely a liveable wage in Britain, these writers presumably have some other source of income. Usually, that income is from universities, who see hiring writers as part of their cultural duty. But, in the Anglophone Caribbean, the University of the West Indies has never had this perspective, and is notorious for having blanked Derek Walcott when he was in financial difficulty, hence forcing him to emigrate to America, nor did UWI ever attempt to woo VS Naipaul early in his career.

Moreover, the sales of literary novels is quite low even in a reading country like Britain. Morrison was writing about the Mann Booker Prize, and noted that “By mid-August, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach had reached sales of 100,000, an astonishing figure for a hardback novel. But the results for the rest of the Booker shortlist make chastening reading. At the same point, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist had sold 1,519 copies; Lloyd Jones’s Master Pip 880; Enright’s The Gathering 834; Nicola Barker’s Darkmans 499; and Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People 231. It wasn’t as if these novels had only just been published—most had been out for several months.”

In the United States, the picture is similar. Data gathered in 2004 by Nielsen Bookscan show that 1.2 million books were sold in that year, in an adult population of over 200 million. Of those 1.2 million, 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies, while another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 books sold more than 5,000 copies, and fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000 copies. Only ten books sold more than a million copies each. So the average book in the United States sells about 500 copies. This is, obviously, not enough for the average writer to make a living by, and makes publishing a high-risk venture.

In The Business of Books, publisher Andrй Schiffrin, says, “In American publishing since the 1920s, throughout periods of prosperity and depression, average profit for all the houses was around four percent after taxes. In France, the most prestigious of the established book houses, Gallimard, makes an annual profit of a little over three percent, despite a strong backlist and a flourishing children’s book programme.” Publishers, it seems, would be better off using their money to play the stock market. Yet England publishes about 70,000 books annually, while France’s output is around 20,000. But the country to note is Finland which, with a population of just five million, produces 13,000 titles annually, 1,800 of these being fiction.

Finland has a long literary tradition. The oldest Finnish enterprise still in business, Frenckell Printing Works Ltd., was established already in 1642. Several of the country’s still existing publishing firms were established in the late 19th century.  The first Finnish novel, Seven Brothers, which was first published in 1870 is a story of orphan brothers who realise that becoming literate is the key to happiness and a good life. Technically, then, it is possible for several publishing firms to be financially viable in the seven-million strong Caribbean. But there is, of course, a crucial difference between this region and Finland: that country is highly literate and has one of the best education systems in the world. However, the latter is a relatively recent development, dating from the 1970s.

What, then, about the business model developed by Ian Randle, where a regional firm partners with a metropolitan one to publish specific titles? Since the focus is fiction, such a strategy would depend on getting the interest of the foreign publisher. A 2001 master’s thesis by editor Jennifer Holder, titled “The Art and Science of Choosing Literary Books that Sell”, listed 24 criteria by which publishers choose a manuscript for publication. The four which are relevant to the CALAG initiative are (1) The book has a clear and identifiable readership; (2) complements current market trends; (3) is similar to another title that sold well; (4) will occupy unique place in our literary heritage.

The problems are instantly apparent. The Caribbean readership, even when it can be clearly identified, is small. There are no market trends for this region or even its diaspora population. As for similarity, there are few titles which sell well to start with, and fewer writers to mimic them. And, finally, a foreign publisher would obviously not be interested in the Caribbean’s literary heritage.

Given these limitations, it seems that Caribbean publishing is not viable in the free market. But this was also true of publishing in many developed nations. Schiffrin says, “Traditionally, ideas were exempted from the usual expectations of profit. It was often assumed that books propounding new approaches and different theories would lose money, certainly at the outset…For much of the 20th century, trade publishing as a whole was seen as a break-even operation. Profits would come when books reached a broader audience through book clubs or paperback sales. If this was true of nonfiction, it was doubly true of literature…Even in the long run the market cannot be an appropriate judge of an idea’s value, as is obvious from the hundreds, indeed thousands, of great books that have never made money.”


Yet the inescapable fact is that books cannot be published without money. For the Caribbean, that money has therefore to come from philanthropists and/or State funding. This actually would not be very costly, relative to the otiose initiatives we frequently expend hundreds of millions on. For publishing, a million dollars annually could fund ten book titles or more. The real problem is that, if such grants were given by the State, a set of Government Ministers’ relatives and friends might suddenly turn out to be aspiring writers. And the cultural spokespersons, despite their rhetoric about the importance of literature, occupy exactly the same glass house. So, even in the case of private philanthropy—as fiction writer, poet, and culture critic Raymond Ramcharitar has frequently argued—the literati in the Caribbean are unlikely to apply meritocratic criteria in promoting talented writers: as the membership of the Action Group itself demonstrates.

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