Book distribution and the struggle for autonomy

Distribution to the Caribbean and within Britain remained a challenge, since New Beacon did not use any of the existing distribution services to get their books into bookshops. The early covers referred to the publisher as New Beacon Books: London and Port of Spain, and carried separate prices for the UK, Caribbean and the United States (sales were recorded separately for these three regions). Most publishers at this time would use an established distribution firm, but New Beacon deliberately undertook the work themselves.  White recalls:

We always wanted to control our own distribution, to know where stuff was going. It’s not like we gave the distribution to someone like Turnaround or Central […] you can obviously give your books to a distributor who will do it all for you and do all the invoicing and everything else. And we didn’t really want to do that. (Interview)

In the early years, Dillons bookstore on Gower Street stocked New Beacon’s books in central London, thanks to the interest of Gillian Shears who ran their Africa Department. La Rose and White abandoned WH Smith since they would only take books on a sale or return basis, meaning that unsold copies would be returned to the publisher, often in poor condition. Margaret Busby, co-founder of Allison & Busby, recalls that “the general experience you had trying to get into the chain bookshops here was, you know, ‘Black people don’t buy books; Black people don’t read books’” (“What we leave we carry”). New Beacon’s work challenged such assumptions, both through educational campaigning and their commitment to independent publishing and bookselling. Interested readers also travelled from outside London to buy books at New Beacon which they then shared with friends at home in other parts of Britain. One historian cites the example of a woman who moved to Northampton in 1973 but continued to travel to New Beacon several times a year as a means “to support and further her development as a Caribbean and a Black person” (Watley, 232). Distributors such as Book Centre in North London, Turnaround, or Third World Books in Birmingham did offer support, but New Beacon preferred to keep their distribution in-house. Many of the early publications, including Foundations; Tradition, the Writer and Society; Creole Grammar and The Pond sold out their print-runs of between 2000 and 3000 copies within a few years, reflecting keen interest in this material and the effectiveness of New Beacon’s distribution network.

In the early years New Beacon informally arranged “agents” in the Caribbean and the United States, and John La Rose also visited the Caribbean frequently to meet with booksellers. This face-to-face contact was essential to ensuring the best distribution possible for New Beacon’s titles. In 1976, for example, John La Rose visited the following bookshops during a trip to Trinidad: Mohammed’s Bookstore, Abercromby Bookshop, Cassia House Bookshop, Stephen’s Bookstore. He took lists of New Beacon’s books, brought deliveries, and tried to secure further orders (often for only 10 or 20 copies of each book, though some books, such as C.L.R. James’s Minty Alley, were more in demand) (Caribbean Trips, LRA/01/0183 April – May 1976). In 1978 he was taken to visit the Tapia printworks by their founders, Lloyd Best and Allan Harris, and also travelled to bookshops, libraries and publishers in Barbados (University Bookshop, Yoruba Press), St Vincent (Mack’s Bookshop, Bequia Bookshop, Carnegie Library, Wayfarer’s Bookstore) and St Lucia (Voice Bookshop, Sunshine Bookshop, Lithographic Press, Noah’s Arkade). After his meeting with the manager of Yoruba Press in Barbados, he wrote in his notebook:

Yoruba Press is beginning to challenge for book publishing to be used as educational material in the Barbadian educational system. This will challenge the monopoly now held in educational publishing by Nelson, Longman, Macmillan etc (JLR notebook 4).

The question of breaking into the educational publishing market would remain elusive however, due to the resources of smaller publishers. John La Rose made various attempts to meet with representatives from the Ministries of Education to promote particular books, but with little success. Which books made it into classrooms, and how, remains an area for future research. La Rose wrote to Merle Hodge, then a tutor at the University of the West Indies, Mona expressing his awareness of this situation:

What we have never had in the Caribbean so far is a serious Education reform movement, we need to focus on the curriculum content and the examination of objectives to which that content is geared. Radicalism has always assumed that with the change in political regimes, we will get change in education. What we have got is more of the same. (17.6.71 JLR to MH, LRA/01/0386).

An expansion of a physical Caribbean branch of New Beacon Books was contemplated in the late 70s. La Rose and White registered the publishing house as a Limited Company and even found a suitable location near Oistins, Barbados in 1979. The project did not come to fruition partly due to logistics, and partly due to the distractions of the increasing workload in London from 1979 into the early '80s with the success of Bala Usman’s For the Liberation of Nigeria (1979) alongside La Rose’s many campaigning commitments, and from 1982, the annual Bookfair.