Thursday, 2 November 2017

Ten years, WMP & the Small Publishers' Book Fair

The first CBe books were published ten years ago this month. At the time – I’ve written about this before – I had no plans (or money) to publish more books, and no distributor and no sales agent and no social media presence, but it turned out to be more fun than any work I’d done in offices and so I stumbled on.

I was lucky in the timing. Ten years ago the small-press scene was a bit more Wild West than it is now, which meant I could make things up as I went along, trusting that everything could be held together with bits of string and packing tape. I’ve still never made a spreadsheet. Today, the good small presses do have to be a little more – well – organised. Not least because they have become an accepted part of the system; condescended to, but not as ignorable as before. They win prizes.

Another difference between now and ten years ago has been the expansion of opportunities for writers who, because of where they are coming from, even a short time ago would rarely have got a look-in. I can’t claim that CBe has a terrific record here. The list has included a fair number of foreign writers in translation, and writers who had not published before and even older writers (one year the average age of the authors was 83), but just one non-white writer.

I sometimes think that institutions in which degrees of sexism and racism have been embedded from the start can never really be ‘institutionally’ free of those elements without starting again from scratch. I sometimes feel I’m a sort of institution myself – white, male, in my mid-sixties, a life of privilege. (I write about this in Robinson, in which the character Robinson himself asks why my children do not ‘rise up and smite me’.) Traditional mainstream publishing is also an institution.

A Good Thing about the small presses over the past decade and longer is that, operating from outside the given publishing-industry structure, many of them have been able to choose to start from scratch. Not completely, because to get their books noticed and sold they are still largely dependent on the established mechanisms. But enough to loosen things up, to mix up the categories, to reach out to new readers. This is work in progress. (There is still resistance. White male privilege, bedded in for so long, isn’t going to simply say sorry and walk out the room. Earlier this year a Tory MP made a formal complaint to the Equality and Human Rights Commission about the Jhalak Prize, founded to ‘celebrate the achievements of British writers of colour’, on the grounds that it ‘unlawfully discriminated against white writers’. According to his Wiki entry, the same MP attempted in late 2016 to derail a Bill protecting women against violence on the grounds that it was ‘sexist against men’, and has declared that ‘by definition’ those with disabilities are less productive: there’s a pattern.) But the progress is worth celebrating, and taking forward. Come to the Small Publishers’ Book Fair in the Conway Hall, London WC1R 4RL, on 10/11 November.