The importance of black independent publishers

Award-winning author, playwright, screenwriter and self-described ‘Garveyite’ Alex Wheatle MBE reflects on the state of play facing black writers as a result of the pandemic and George Floyd, and shares his vision for Words of Colour with Joy Francis.

What have been the biggest learning points for you during the Covid pandemic as a black writer?

The biggest things I’ve had to confront during the Covid pandemic was having to be at home and not see or connect with anyone, which made me appreciate my privilege. And the fact that, in my line of work, I’m able to meet all types of young people, readers and students across the spectrum. 

I also missed learning from people’s lives and I missed being able to enter and hear about people’s lives. It depressed me for quite a while to the degree that I couldn’t concentrate on any creative pursuits. Watching the news, hearing how bad the pandemic was, seeing the body bags makes you worry about your close family members.

I lost two aunts to Covid. One in Canada and one in Jamaica. That really affected me. I couldn’t leave and go to their funerals. It made me reconsider what I really wanted to do with my life.

As I approach 60, what kind of legacy do I want to leave? Is it about the pursuit of bigger advances and bigger sales, or do I wish to establish something else? I’m trying to figure out the ways I can leave a lasting legacy once my career is over. 

What do you think is the current reality facing black writers and writers of colour in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and all the mandates and promises from publishers?

It’s double-edged. There has been an emergence of incredible black female writers in the UK and abroad, who are being acquisitioned by publishers in the UK, which wasn’t the case 15 years ago.

Back then, you were published with a squeak, and nobody heard about your book. Now, they are getting marketing budgets, advertising budgets and all of that is good. But I do fear that there are not enough young black male UK writers being developed or published at this point in time. 

I’m adopting a watching brief to see how publishers are going to respond to all of this. It is not just about publishers thinking, this book can be a literary prize winner so let’s support it, because not everyone can win those big awards. 

I hope mainstream publishers support all writers. It’s not just about literary work. It’s about crime fiction, romantic fiction and other genres that sometimes get left behind, and especially black writers who are not as supported as literary writers. 

Coming back to your point about black male writers not being published widely enough in the UK. I would say that the inclusive independents, many of which are led by black women, are championing black male writers. You have OWN IT! with writers such as JJ Bola and even Courttia Newland, Jacaranda Books with Kabir Kareem-Bello, Tony Warner and DD Armstrong, for example. How do you feel about what the indies are doing?

Our black independents are doing so well, even to survive, in this climate, especially as it’s so hard to get a space in bookshops. This might prove controversial, but I feel that The Black Writers Guild should address this. It shouldn’t be just about addressing the big five publishers and what they do for their authors. It should also include what they can do for independent publishers and what they can do for the writer who decides to self publish. That needs to be concentrated upon as they need as much help as anybody else. 

During the pandemic some of the black independents nearly went out of business and had to raise funds online [through the Inclusive Indies Fund]. I agree with you that emerging talent, particularly black male talent, are coming from the independents, so we need to find a way to actively acknowledge them and make them grow.

I was published by a small independent press, BlackAmber Books, also run by a black woman, Rosemarie Hudson. She couldn’t maintain that business because the support wasn’t there. She has reappeared with HopeRoad Publishing, but I feel what Rosemarie started could have been so much bigger. That is why we have to figure out a way for the black independents to be fully established.

You have collaborated with Words of Colour for many years and sit on our Steering Advisory Group. Where would you like to see Words of Colour land over the next 12 months?

I would really like to see Words of Colour spread its wings more. We dug our toes into co-production with Theatre Peckham in 2021 and I feel that’s the route that we should pursue. There is no reason why we can’t move into TV, even film, eventually. The knowledge is there. The advice is there. All we have to do is steer it. I’m sure that Words of Colour can evolve into a production company and an advisory body for any kind of artist of colour because we cover most bases: poetry, film, theatre, fiction. There is no reason why we cannot dream that big and encourage those artists to come forward and see what we can do to develop them.