Radical publishers take on the world

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Image: Martin Vorel/Libreshot

Fazeela Jiwa is an acquisitions editor at Fernwood Publishing, which is based in both Halifax and Winnipeg. David Bush is the publicity and promotions manager at Between the Lines, an independent publishing collective in Toronto. Fernwood and Between the Lines are among the handful of publishers in Canada that specialize in social justice-focused, critical, and radical books, and both recently joined with around 30 other publishers with similar politics from around the world to form the Radical Publishers Alliance. Scott Neigh interviews them about their own work, about the impact of COVID-19 on the publishing industry, and about the new ways that radical publishers from around the world are showing mutual support and solidarity through the alliance.

Even at the best of times, being a book publisher in Canada is a hard business. In 2018, there were 54 million books sold in this country with a total value of $1.1 billion, and there are 245 English-language, Canadian-owned publishers. But the vast majority of these are quite small operations with fewer than 10 employees, and globally and in Canada, sales in the industry are dominated by just five huge corporations. As today's guests discuss, a lot of small Canadian publishers depend on government support to survive. As is true in the dominant media more generally, there is a long history of underrepresentation in Canadian publishing of authors, voices, and stories from all the same groups that face oppression and exploitation in other areas. As well, there is relatively little openness across the industry to material grounded in radical visions for collective liberation, beyond Fernwood, Between the Lines, and a few others.

And now, of course, is far from the best of times -- for publishers both large and small, COVID-19 has made everything harder. The ongoing threat to public health, the devastation of the economy, and skyrocketing unemployment are all taking their toll. Small publishers in particular depend on in-person book events and independent bricks-and-mortar book stores to connect with readers, and the former haven't been able to happen in months while the latter are facing their own serious troubles. How this will shift people's book purchasing and consumption habits in an ongoing way is uncertain and the exact details of what all of this will mean for publishers in general, and for Fernwood and Between the Lines in particular, remains to be seen. But as Bush put it in the interview, it is "obviously not good."

In the face of all of these challenges, radical publishers from around the world have banded together to support each other. It started with an organization called Literal, which puts on a book festival that was supposed to be happening in Spain. When COVID made that impossible, they began to reach out to publishers and put together a sort of month-long online book fair involving a wide range of different kinds of book-related events that they called Radical May. Fernwood and Between the Lines were part of that project, and at some point in the course of the organizing it was actually Amanda Crocker, managing editor at Between the Lines, who suggested that the participating publishers go one step farther and form a new organization. Currently, more than 30 book and magazine publishers from around the world with various kinds of left-leaning, critical, and social justice-oriented politics have come together to support each other and to act in solidarity as the Radical Publishers Alliance.

This has included collaborating on and cross-publicizing each other's online events, in Radical May and beyond, but it has involved a lot more as well. Radical publishers around the world were facing not identical but certainly similar circumstances during the urgent early days of the pandemic, and the alliance was an important resource for them to figure out what to do -- they could talk through issues together, bounce ideas off each other, and so on. Skill sharing has been important as well, as some members were already well-versed in the online ways of doing things required by the current moment but others had to learn. And they are also doing things like collaborating on sending welcome back packages to US-based independent bookstores as they re-open and strategizing about reaching out to librarians with radical politics. And as the longer term implications of the crisis become clearer for left-leaning publishers, they are strategizing together about how to navigate the new reality.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out their website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join their weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists. In the interest of transparency, please note that these books were published by Fernwood!

Image: Martin Vorel/Libreshot

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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