Breaking the Shackles
“The fundamental cure for poverty is not money but knowledge.” Sir William Arthur Lewis, St. Lucian Nobel Laureate for Economics
Caribbean writers are facing a dilemma. The region is blessed with numerous poets and novelists whose work has thrilled readers over the years.
But if you speak to many booklovers in and outside of the Caribbean, or check out some online message boards where the topic of discussion is Caribbean literature, you’ll find people bewailing how difficult it is to find good books by Caribbean writers, whether it’s in the region itself or in the metropolitan markets.
There is also a thirst for new writers which goes unquenched – again because it’s not easy to find their books in the bookshops. What a shame, considering how difficult it is for new writers – not to mention those from the Caribbean, especially if they reside there – to get published. Yet, undaunted, the young aspirants continue to spill out of creative-writing classes and workshops yearning to have their voices heard.
Caribbean writers are increasingly being published by small presses in the UK, US and Canada. Several of these publishers have said they have a tough time trying to get mainstream bookshops to stock their books. Those writers who opt for self-publishing find it even more of a hassle to get shelf space for their books in the bookstores.
Claudia Beckford-Brady, writer of the novel “Sweet Home, Jamaica” knows first-hand what it’s like for new writers trying to get bookstores to sell their books. Drawing on her own experiences she said in her article “Black Writers” www.itzcaribbean.com/blackwriters “If your name is not known, which it won’t be if you are a first time writer, despite the best efforts of your publisher the buyers of the large stores will disregard your book without even taking the time to explore its salability. The same applies to the book reviewers of the major publications who decline to take the time to explore the contents and readability.”
She said something else that had me thinking. “It may be that black writers will have to come together to brainstorm about how to bring attention to our plight and how to find ways to get ourselves out there.”
For a long time I’ve been researching the structures of the international book trade to try and understand their ramifications for Caribbean authors and publishers of Caribbean literature. I can’t help it – I’m obsessed with books and publishing. Gradually, I came to realize that our writers have to start thinking outside of the box and find new and innovative ways to promote and market their work. This prompted me to dig deeper to try and discover what it is that our writers are not doing, and ought to be doing if they are to get the recognition and sales they deserve.
No doubt, there’s need for change – massive change. Otherwise we may well be faced with a situation where our literary griots end up being relegated to a state of obscurity and irrelevance. To avoid this they must find new mediums to draw attention to themselves and their work. It can’t continue to be done the old way. Times have changed. The marketplace has changed.
For well over half a century our writers (both established and would-be writers) have mostly focused on trying to get their work published. Difficult as that is, they soon discover this is actually the easy part. The real challenge is how to get their books onto the bookshelves and into the hands of readers. Indications are not enough attention has been placed on devising effective and cost efficient ways to locate potential readers wherever they are, and to entice them to buy the books. Because the Caribbean Diaspora is so widely dispersed, and because there are relatively few bookstores in the region and in the metropolitan countries selling Caribbean books, it means that writers have to find new ways to get their work out there and into the hands of people who are yearning for books they can relate to and that speak to them in authentic voices. There’s also need to broaden the range of literary genres to cater to different tastes.
Gone is the golden age of Caribbean literature which reached its zenith in the 60s and 70s. Back then writers could count on the two venerable publishing houses Heinemann and Longman to provide a home for their work through their “Caribbean Writers Series”. Prior to that, BBC Caribbean Voices gave a voice to the voiceless. More recently, Macmillan and the veritable David among the publishing Goliaths, Peepal Tree Press have stepped in to pick up the slack.
With the exception of Peepal Tree and, to some extent, Macmillan (though they seem to be placing more emphasis on publishing school text books) all the other players have scrapped their Caribbean imprints under pressure from their accountants and the demands of the marketplace where corporate acquisitions, mergers and profit maximization became the new games in town. Their rationale – either implied or stated outright in hushed tones among sympathetic listeners – not enough Caribbean (read Black) people read to make this line of publishing financially worthwhile. It seems quite a bizarre presumption when you consider that that in the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean there is an estimated population of 5,444,762 (CIA World Factbook 2009 estimates). The Jamaican population in New York alone is estimated at 439,400 www.nyu.edu/jamaicans. Add to that the Afro-Caribbean population in the UK estimated to be over 400,000 www.mind.org.uk/help/people; and the 783,795 people in Canada who are identified as black (2006 Census by Statistics Canada; www.eng.fju.tu/worldlit/caribbean) Altogether you come up with a population of 7,357,357 people who are overwhelmingly of Caribbean descent. This figure does not include people of Caribbean descent throughout the USA, Africans and African-Americans in the US, the African population in the UK, and Caribbean people of Indian descent in Canada. That seems quite a sizeable pool for Caribbean publishers and writers to try casting their net. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
There’s also the view that books that sell in one island may not sell in the other islands (Jamaicans eh interested in what Lucians or Dominicans have to say). How are these books being promoted in the various islands, if they are at all? What strategies are being used to capture readers’ attention? Can they be adapted to suit each island in ways that are targeted and cost effective? Writers, book lovers, creative-writing tutors, is there a way we can put our heads together to try and come up with ideas about how we can spread the word about books we’ve read and enjoyed – books that we think deserve to be read by others. If the book is a good read, I bet there are ways of catching the eye of potential readers no matter where they are, as long as it’s easily accessible and affordable. Surely there must be some things that we can learn from our musicians who have found ways to cross boundaries and win fans, regardless of their musical genre.
The good news is that there is a powerful new realm of opportunity that has opened up to the literary world. It’s the Worldwide Web and it offers writers some amazing tools; Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, online bookshops and virtually-free online publishing platforms, electronic book readers, (including the iPhone), book-review and promotion blogs and websites, online book clubs, Skype software that enables users to make low-cost international video and voice calls, send instant messages and share files with other Skype users, print on demand (POD) publishing, viral marketing, and that’s just to name a few. Recently I was reading the comments thread of an online message board where book readers were discussing the difficulties they encounter when trying to find Caribbean books. I was struck by the number of persons (virtually all of them) who said they bought most of their books off the internet for the perennial reasons – not enough Caribbean bookstores and not enough Caribbean books on sale.
Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House, was recently sounding the death knell of traditional publishing.
“We’ve come to the end of the Age of Gutenberg … Anybody can be a publisher, anybody can be a writer. The traditional filters are now going to fail – publishers, editors, critics, and so on.” At the time he was delivering an address at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., where his company, On Demand Books had just installed a new standalone Espresso Book Machine. Writers can use the machine to publish their books themselves. www.blogs.wsj.com/jasonepstein.
Commenting on the issue, the publisher of Akashic Books, Johnny Temple said, “The best way to [get people to read books] is to bring books to the public as opposed to expecting the public to come to books … We need to be proactive about it.” www.brooklynpaper.com/johnnytemple.
In her book entitled ‘The 010101 Book’ based on an extensive 10-year study (1993-2003) about digital technology for books, information science and linguistics expert, Dr Marie Lebert noted: “The Internet has considerably reinforced the relations between the authors and their readers … Thanks to the Web, a writer can now post his work, sell it or discuss with his/her readers without any intermediary.” www.etudes-francaise.net/010101book.
A sign of things to come is Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ recent disclosure that titles sold via Amazon Kindle e-readers has, to date, accounted for 48 percent of total book sales in instances where Amazon sold both digital and physical copies of books. Amazon has now begun selling a new version of the Kindle that can wirelessly download books both in the United States and in more than 100 other countries.
The increasing demise of independent bookstores around the world is a sad reality of the revolutionary changes in the book trade. The writing was on the wall with the rise of predatory behemoths like Amazon, a creature spawned from the Internet. Caught between the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the poor independents are gradually being steamrollered into oblivion. Moreover, there’s a growing psychological shift away from the old way of doing things as the world becomes increasingly mesmerized by the technological wizardry of cyberspace. The tide is much too strong to ignore. Writers risk being swept away if they do. We’ve got to find ways to make it work for us rather than against us. All the more so if you’re a Caribbean writer, bearing in mind that your potential readers are dispersed in almost every corner of the globe. The internet can help you surmount the barriers of distance and make you more accessible to readers and vice versa. New talent can get the opportunity to bloom and be discovered quicker if the medium is used creatively.
The longer we take to adapt and change our modus operandi, the greater the risk that we might lose the next Derek Walcott or Elizabeth Nunez, without even realising it. And with the worldwide economic slowdown taking a toll on publishers and booksellers alike, getting published will continue to be a challenge, especially for writers from the Caribbean. Jah Bless Peepal Tree – the rock upon which He is now building Caribbean literature. Yet even they will not be able to give a voice to all those who yearn to speak out – as much I’m sure they would love to.
Says Claudette Beckford-Brady: “If anyone has any great ideas let’s hear ’em!” I hear you, and I have lots that I’d love to share.
With Caribbean Book Blog my aim is to plant a seed that will hopefully grow into a virtual community of writers and booklovers who could meet online to chat about Caribbean books in ways that would help to promote our literature and our authors, and exchange ideas about how there could be more interaction between writers (especially new ones) and readers. The road to literary success can be a difficult and frustrating one. As all writers know, it’s easier to bear when you walk it with friends who understand what you’re going through. We need to extend our discussions about books beyond the halls of academia and take them down to the grass roots. Let’s get those books into the hands of people who are longing to read them. Let’s encourage our people to read more.
Feel free to let me know what you think of this post. Your feedback is always welcome.