Ideas for how a small black publisher can survive beyond the hype

Ideas for how a small black publisher can survive beyond the hype

As a privately-held, black, female, owned and operated small independent publishing company, Jacaranda is still something of a unique occurrence. When we founded it in 2012, the publishing landscape looked decidedly whiter and was more disengaged from any kind of understanding of the dynamic world of “blackness”, let alone diversity. And while there have since been a new crop of publishing houses and imprints - think OwnIt, Dialogue Books, Cassava Republic and Hope Road - and multiple book deals involving runaway success titles like Slay in Your Lane, it's essential that we keep talking (and producing) what’s conceivable and achievable for UK black publishing long after it slides off the trend radar of the mainstream industry.

So how do you remain sustainable and relevant for the long term as a small publisher working in the margins? Our attempt at a solution is to stay traditional in our structure, but untraditional in every other way - from our four-day week, to our non-hierarchical team. In the seven years since we founded the company, not only has the industry evolved but we have had to evolve too and, yes, some of that evolution has been painful. The challenge of starting a brand new company from scratch into a deeply established, risk-averse industry, has been simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure.

The upshot? We have had to develop our business sense, looked intensively at our publishing to see where that “sweet spot” was in terms of how we were developing our brand and what our readers wanted and where we felt most comfortable positioning ourselves. You can't dilute your unique selling point to fit a fickle market - but nor should you ignore feedback and trends from your customers in pursuit of a pure agenda that might not resonate.

It was understanding the importance of having the right people on board that proved to be perhaps the most important factor in our survival, and the one thing that has held us in good stead so far. Our strength is our small team. Not only is each member highly skilled in their position, but everyone is fully invested in the dream and the vision of Jacaranda Books and sees themselves as integral to the achievement of our goals in the long term. Other small publishers, especially those who work on the margins, should make sure they're not compromising on maintaining a deeply mission-led group of people, even (or especially) as they grow. Size should not mean compromise. If it does, stay small.

It's also possible to actively capitalize on the wider publishing industry’s limitations (whether due to lack of desire, will or business ethos) when it comes to diversity and race. Despite recent progress, the book industry still skews towards a relentless homogeneity, interrupted only intermittently, with the occasional token acquisition, scheme or project. But we haven't found that daunting - we've seen it as an opportunity to serve an unfulfilled market. 

That's why, in 2020, Jacaranda Books will publish twenty black British writers in one year. Even with their extensive resources of talent, time and money, no mainstream publisher has attempted such a thing and it will have an undeniably positive effect that will form the basis of our future publishing for years to come. Our size and focus does allow us to be more fearless than the big five, meaning that we can take risks, remain socially invested and occupy a relatively small space for black writing on a global scale. We see this is as a sort of innovation that is entirely different (and probably more impactful) than all those specialist R&D teams and 6-figure budgets.

There is a massive contradiction between the very low numbers of black and African coders or those studying Computer Science and the level of adoption of digital platforms by Africans and blacks. There is a real misconception that so-called "Black Twitter" is actually a separate internet entity run entirely for and by black people. But the level of engagement on social media - where conversation, culture and commerce richly co-exist - does provide a space that publishers focused on specific, often ignored, audiences are uniquely positioned to serve. We can access our consumers right where they are, vocal and in charge of what they want to say about themselves. Plus, it doesn't take huge IT departments to harness the new e-commerce options that now exist to sell directly to those readers, in a friendlier environment than Amazon.

For us, the future is bright (and brown). Don't think you can't forge your own future just because the papers have stopped writing pieces about black writers, or the 'diversity' bandwagon has vanised round a corner. We're here to stay, and we need as many allies as we can get.