"Is we to speak to we now"

New Beacon’s publishing work was in part a response to the metropolitan ownership of the means of book production, though they did not envisage, at least in the short-term, competing in commercial terms with Longman, Heinemann, Nelson or the other major players. New Beacon Books is what might be termed a “micro-publisher”, having published 65 books between 1966 and 2012, and John La Rose would often refer to the venture modestly as a “publishing maisonette”:

It was never our intention to become anything but a small to medium publisher and bookseller. We knew the other political and cultural commitments that we had, and we continued to want to make, and that therefore we couldn’t really think of ourselves as being full-time publishers and booksellers, in the way that if you were going into this business as a commercial operation. (Cited in Goulbourne, 153)

New Beacon retains its symbolic stature as a radical publisher in part because of this rejection of profit-making goals, which in turn allowed it to take certain risks, in line with the ethos of most small independent publishers. New Beacon and other independent black publishers marked an important shift in the publishing landscape, as seen in this letter from Kamau Brathwaite to La Rose:

i going to cuss off oxford, yale, doubleday, longmans and a whole set o these exploiters who jess reject my white power in j’ca. them doan want we to say what we got to say. and what base not on fancy, but on dem hard hard document.

in anycase, is we to speak to we now: that is why new beacon must survive and grow; why bogle must survive and grow; why savacou must survive and grow. (EKB to JLR 6.6 (no year), LRA/01/0143/4)

This strategy of “we to speak to we now” encapsulates the call for new independent alternatives to the established publishing field. Most writers, including politically radical voices such as Brathwaite, continued to publish with larger publishers while turning to New Beacon for smaller projects. What is clear, however, is that by the late 1960s, there was little place for the paternalistic approach of figures such as Henry Swanzy who had shaped Caribbean literary publishing in the previous decades. As Swanzy wrote in his journal after a CAM conference session where he had spoken in 1968, he was looked upon as a “Swanzy-zombie” in the new climate (Walmsley, 167). [Henry Swanzy’s extensive unpublished journals are currently the subject of a research project on World Literature and Broadcast culture at the University of Warwick led by Dr Chris Campbell and Dr Michael Niblett- see http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/ccs/staff/postdocfellows/mniblett/worldliteratureandbroadcastculture/]

It might well be asked why the vast majority of books bought, borrowed, or read in the English-speaking Caribbean were published in London throughout this period. Despite the strength of local press and magazine printing in the Caribbean both before and after the “boom”, this situation reflected the limited means of producing and distributing books in the islands. Increasingly, authors sought publishers who would secure a large readership for their work and provide them with regulated working conditions (consistent marketing, regular royalties etc.). Publishing in London by mainstream publishers had ongoing material benefits in this regard. For some authors being published in the British capital conferred a form of symbolic prestige. The work of ground-breaking Caribbean little magazines and other culturally-oriented journals remained strong however during the late 1960s: Savacou (1970-89) was founded as part of a planned Caribbean branch of CAM (AW 202-205). Other publications included New World Quarterly (1963-68), Voices (1964-66), Tapia (1969-) and Jamaica Journal (1970-). Several of these publications have been digitised by the Digital Library of the Caribbean. They were important publicity outlets for New Beacon’s early publications and each merits further research in its own right. 

New Beacon’s ethos as an independent radical publisher was motivated by principles of autonomy, freedom and community, as understood in relation to global contexts of decolonisation and the Cold War which inflected local contexts of discrimination in Britain. John La Rose defended these principles of artistic freedom in a long letter to Andrew Salkey:

The artist whose tool (production tool) is his/her imagination is uncontrollable and uncontrolled. The tool escapes the totality. (but everything else that is needed to turn the creation of the imagination into product – sculpture, book etc. is within the control). (7.1.77, JLR to AS, LRA/01/0698/1 Pt2, p10)

While acknowledging powerful forms of imaginative resistance, La Rose was aware of other forms of power and control – here seen as part of a political “totality” managed by the state – exerted by publishing and other institutional forms of artistic production. In the same letter, written ten years after New Beacon’s founding, he referred to the Heberto Padilla affair in Cuba – the important case of a poet who had been punished after speaking out against Castro’s Cuba. The comments express a certain disillusionment with post-revolutionary disregard for creative freedom:

The relationship between culture and politics, the artist and society, cultural creativity and political creativity continue to bedevil and stretch on the rack of post-revolutionary societies […] The state control of all resources is the source of the trouble in the bureaucratised state. The Organisation Men control the printing press, the ink, the paper for book production, journal production, distribution, access to books to travel to people. (7.1.77, JLR to AS, LRA/01/0698/1 Pt2)

While New Beacon’s “dream to change the world” can be described as utopian, the letter reminds us of La Rose’s alertness to the potential forms of control that exist either side of revolution. For radical independent publishers in Britain, the decision to publish or not to publish remained contingent on practical issues of financial means. Their greater freedom at the stage of selection and production faced challenges of distribution and sales. In the case of New Beacon Books and CAM, this meant a tension between their political aims to create an enabling form of autonomy and to open possibilities for more fluid and creative notions of identity, and the ongoing monopoly of the Caribbean book market by large publishing houses. As Brian Alleyne writes, New Beacon’s activism is “not only built around resistance, but seeks actively to create alternative systems of value and communication” (2).