Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Radical bookselling update and prospects

The big debate in the general booktrade - featured heavily in the Guardian - is about whether the day of the celebrity biography has finally come to an end or is simply slowing down. At the other end of the spectrum even commercial publishers have started noticing that left wing books sell, and sell well, with Allen Lane publishing The Establishment by Owen Jones. This book topped the Christmas best-seller charts at Nottingham's Five Leaves Bookshop and at News from Nowhere in Liverpool, coming second at Housmans in London only to Housmans' own annual Peace Diary, despite it being a £16.99 hardback. Allen Lane, the top end of the Penguin empire, also published Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything, the one book that really might have an impact on climate change and a book which places the blame for climate change right where it belongs - with capitalism.

Five Leaves has just completed its first full year trading as an independent and radical bookshop. Looking at our December best-sellers, ten of the top fifteen were political books. The only novel was John Harvey's Darkness, Darkness which was set during the miners' strike of thirty years ago and in modern times. Indeed, three of the fifteen were related to the miners' strike. The strike remains a defining part of our common history. We're pleased with our first year, but just as pleased that News from Nowhere had a record Yuletide and a record year. The publicity around their fortieth birthday helped as did the unfortunate closure of a Waterstones' branch in the same street. Many people, in person and online prefer to "shop with the real Amazons" at this women-run bookshop. The radical book-trade is nothing if not tenacious! News From Nowhere, London's Gay's the Word and Housmans are positively venerable; Wordpower in Edinburgh and the two anarchist distributors Active Distribution and AK Distribution have passed out of their teenage years but there is a range of younger projects that seem to be sustaining themselves. All strive to be part of their local community, working with campaign and other groups. It can only be positive that members of the Alliance of Radical Booksllers are sprinkled around the country - it's not a London-centric membership. 

AK Distribution report that their best selling titles includes books on feminism and economics and in Scotland Wordpower had large sales for books related to the Scottish referendum. Another trend is the renewed interest in "people's history". In Nottingham Chris Richardson's City of Light, a book about radical life in the city in the year of 1844 has sold over 500 copies while Spokesman Books and Merlin Press offer a different history of World War One that that pursued by our Government. For those of us keen on pamphlets it is s good to see Stop the War Coalition's pamphlet on WWI, No Glory. People will read pamphlets if they are stocked by bookshops - something commercial bookshops are loathe to do. Five Leaves is a publisher turned bookseller and having a shop has enabled us to return to being a pamphleteer too. Our first two titles will be available shortly, one being a forgotten essay by Edward Said on Jerusalem, sadly as appropriate now as when first written, the second on the Communist Doctor Who writer, Malcolm Hulke, whose existence we came across in the Morning Star!

Radical bookshops are not the only side of the business with claims to venerability. Merlin Press will shortly be sixty and its publishing arm is run in tandem with Global Book Marketing, representing many publishers from home and abroad while the main distributor of radical publishers and magazines, Central Books, has been in business since 1939. Nobody rests on their laurels though, and the Russell Press (set up in the heady days of 1968) has been at the forefront of digital printing and reports more and more groups using this affordable technology to publish local and people's histories.

Bookshops, publishers, distributors, printers... and prizes and bookfairs. The Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing is four in 2015 and will be funded by the General Federation of Trade Unions while in Nottingham the mini-festival of the same name was established in November also with trade union support. The number of local anarchist bookfairs continues to grow while the London Radical Bookfair is now the major date for the whole radical booktrade to come together. This year the Bookfair will again be at the Bishopsgate Institute, on 9th May.

So what are the big radical titles going to be for 2015? We too are finding a lot of interest in feminism, especially from young women, but the publishers are a bit slow to catch up. An exception is the short book We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The Green MP Caroline Lucas should get a lot of attention in March with her Honorouble Friends? discussing her work inside and outside of Parliament while Paul Mason's Post Capitalism will be a summer best seller. Looking at the lists of dedicated left wing publishers, Pluto is bringing out David Rosenberg's Rebel Footprints, a walking guide to the capital for lefties, due in March (the author first got to know he byways of London as Central Books' van driver) while the Verso paperback of A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros might enable us to think about walking without, you know, actually doing it.

And Five Leaves? Well, there is the small matter of an election coming. One of our big books in 2014 was Harry Paterson writing on Nottinghamshire during the miners' strike where, among other things he discussed the UDM. In 2015 we are letting him loose on the the political equivalent of a scab union, UKIP, with We Need to Talk About Nigel. We could hardly not.

A shorter version of this article will appear in the Morning Star

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