Why write this history of publishing?

 A publisher’s task is to transform a handwritten or typed manuscript into a printed or electronic book, taking the text from its author to the shelves of a bookshop or online retailer. The process involves selecting what to publish; editing and designing the book; the logistics of marketing, rights, royalties and sales. An underlying consideration therefore is how the history of New Beacon’s publishing fits with wider political and cultural shifts in book production as a form of political resistance. This analysis acknowledges that while in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries book publishing has rapidly been outpaced in the political sphere by other forms of media, questions of access to printed information and freedom of expression remain vital.

Publishing is never neutral nor value-free. Even as the book industry undergoes huge changes in the digital era, publishing demands a combination of creative input, decision-making, and dedication to the practical administrative tasks. New Beacon has played an important, if underacknowledged, role in the gradual social and cultural diversification of knowledge production in Britain. Building on the exemplary, in-depth work of Anne Walmsley (1992) and Brian Alleyne (2002), the present study is intended less as a monument to the passing of a certain mode of independent publishing or to the ebbs and flows of radical black political ideas, than as a balanced discussion of the short and long-term achievements of New Beacon Books.

Amid the maelstrom of black consciousness movements, progressive left-wing politics, Cold War tensions, and the rise of Third Worldism, New Beacon represented a challenge to the status quo of the British publishing field, offering new means for selecting, channelling and circulating information. Alongside other publishers, including Bogle L’Ouverture, Allison & Busby and the Race Today Collective in Britain, Présence Africaine and Editions Maspero in France, New World Quarterly, Tapia and Savacou in the Caribbean, and Third World Press in the USA, New Beacon forged a resilient space for independent radical black publishing. This early period culminated with the success of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, which was held annually from 1982 to 1995 (White et al).

John La Rose’s presence as a federating figure and voice of experience and encouragement, together with the central role played by Sarah White, depended on human relationships built through trust and a firm belief in the social, cultural, and political value of communicating ideas at local and global levels. Faced with the challenges of a colonial legacy and his chosen exile to Britain, La Rose saw publishing as a means to ensure continuity over distance and time. Ten years after New Beacon was founded, he described the project in an interview as:

A vehicle which gave an independent validation of one’s own culture, history, politics – a sense of one’s self – to break the discontinuity. It can’t be done totally because we are not in control of the schools, we don’t have control of the media, we are not in control of everything that impinges on a person’s life in the society. However, you can break some elements of that discontinuity and give people some sense of what is important, so that they get some sense of what they need to know to transform their lives. (Interview in Race Today, June-July 1977, 82-84)

Publishing can be radical since it affects the fundamental ways in which information is selected, packaged and circulated in print. The word “radical” itself comes from the Latin radicalis: relating to or forming the root. The widespread radical reform of rooted social or political ideas depends on intellectual insight, thorough commitment and long-term hard work, qualities which together characterise the history of radical black publishing in Britain.

At a time when publishing is undergoing seismic shifts and uncertainty reigns over its future form as an industry, the record of this history reminds us of the complex human networks and the social, political and economic forces that shaped the production of the written word in the last century. As such, it is a key aspect of black British history and of media history more widely. It reminds us that writing (and reading) does not occur in a vacuum, encouraging us to question critically how texts are shaped by the contexts in which they are produced. Tracing the often-concealed context of production suggests new layers of meaning, as well as alerting us to the contingency of our own reading experiences. In the case of Caribbean and black diasporic writing, it raises important questions: How did editors located in the former colonial centre choose what, and what not, to publish? How did they then produce and distribute that writing? What might the choice of binding (soft or hardback) tell us about a book’s intended readers? How do the illustrations and bookcovers work towards, or against, certain notions of Caribbean/black identity?