A week ago today grime artist Skepta, who also co-founded independent record label Boy Better Know, won the Mercury Music Prize ahead of the bookies favourite David Bowie and other household names including Radiohead. This got me thinking - what can book publishing learn from grime music?
Before drawing parallels and exploring this further, it might help to offer a bit of context, so here goes. Skepta is an artist working within a genre - grime - that many would traditionally consider ‘niche’. After discussions with majors, Skepta decided to adopt a DIY approach and set up an independent record label with his brother JME, who is a grime producer. Since being formed in 2005, Boy Better Know has gone on to release material from other independent grime artists such as Wiley. As a collective of artists who are releasing music on their own terms (literally) through their own label, Boy Better Know has gone from strength to strength.
This success hasn’t been limited to the UK either. Earlier this year, Boy Better Know shocked the music industry by successfully signing international hip hop artist Drake, an announcement made through Instagram. The positive ripple effect that this has had on the UK independent music scene (and grime) was hard to miss when I was in New York earlier this year. In talking to New Yorkers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that grime was London’s most famous export. And now to top it all off, Skepta wins the Mercury Prize for best album. So what has any of this got to do with book publishing?
Well, imagine that there is an author who is in talks with a big publishing house but never gets that book deal because they are seen as too ‘niche’. Imagine that same author sets up an independent publishing house not only to publish their own books but also to release material from other authors also considered by mainstream publishing to be too ‘niche’. Now imagine that the material that this independent publishing house is releasing is permeating mainstream culture in New York and attracting some of the biggest authors from across the pond to wanting to sign book deals with this small start-up.
I’m not sure we can so neatly compare books and music, grime and ‘niche’ publishing. The DIY approach that exists in the DNA of grime is quite different to our equivilent - self-published authors. But not all of this is hypothetical and there are many parallels we can draw. Talented authors continue to be missed/ignored/neglected by bigger publishing houses all the time because they are considered too ‘niche’, which even if is only sub-consciously the case, I can’t help but feel is too often code word for too black, too brown, too not-white.
However not all of the parallels are negative. There are many successful self-published authors, and there’s a whole new generation of independent progressive publishers from Pigeonhole and Canelo to Hoxton Mini Press and Influx Press, from Jacaranda to Cassava Republic and Hope Road. More recently we’ve even seen authors taking being published into their own hands and doing it successfully. The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla, is not just a published collection of essays by a collective of writers who are often seen as too black, too brown, too not-white (by society and as well as publishing), but it’s a successful collection which was crowdfunded and essentially published by readers, who placed it in Amazon’s top 10 bestsellers list before it was even published. Side note to publishers – ‘niche’ content read by ‘niche’ audiences can be just as lucrative as any other content.
When you look to the fringes, it’s clear to see that publishing is thriving through independent thinking and independent thinkers who are not afraid to take risks, innovate, re-appropriate and offer the best of British of their own terms through a celebration of independence. If publishing can learn anything from grime, surely it is to support, encourage and be less dismissive of a DIY/independent approach.
But will the mainstream book publishing industry ever allow the fringes into the inner circle? I have to confess when thinking about a publication date for debut novel Mama Can’t Raise No Man by Robyn Travis which is being publishing though OWN IT!, top of the criteria for deciding on a date was ensuring it would be eligible to enter the Man Booker Prize 2017 (the fact that this aligned with Black History Month was a happy coincidence).
Will we ever see the book industry’s equivalent of Skepta winning the Mercury Music Prize? Here’s hoping it happens sooner than you think!
Crystal Mahey-Morgan is founder of OWN IT!