Wednesday, January 08, 2003

In today's Express, Kevin Baldeosingh profiles Jamaican-American writer Colin Channer, author of the romance novels Waiting in Vain & Satisfy My Soul; "the most successful Caribbean novelist of the younger generation", Baldeosingh says, "most successful" clearly meaning "best selling" in this case. (No link; the Express hasn't put the story on its website.)

The theme of the profile, it turns out, is the uselessness of Caribbean publishers; it seems that Channer couldn't find any Jamaican publisher willing to take on his first book; fed up, he got himself an agent in New York, & "Waiting in Vain was eventually published by Random House ... a major firm". (Well, to be precise, it was published by the One World imprint of Ballantine Books, a division of the Random House group which specialises in "commercial" as opposed to "literary" fiction. There is a difference, one that matters in the publishing world, however snobbish it may seem.) The story goes on:

Channer is still miffed that he had to get published by a US firm, and he remains underwhelmed by Caribbean publishers....

He berates the regional publishers for not being true capitalists. "A true capitalist understands the need to grow his customers, get the product in the pipeline, and nurture talent," he argues. He also rejects the argument publishers make about financial constraints. "There are no poor publishers in the Caribbean," he insists.

For good measure, Channer also makes a neat little snipe at the Caribbean Publishers Network (CAPNET), the regional association trying to promote the industry in the Caribbean.

As an editor at a Caribbean publishing house, I naturally find all this intensely interesting. Some of Channer's basic points are sound. Regional publishing, despite a few specific success stories, is in an unfortunate state. The best Caribbean writers are published abroad, most of them live abroad, & increasingly so do their readers. At least in the English-speaking Caribbean, most of the components of a healthy "book culture" — real bookshops, reviewers to write reviews & newspapers & magazines to publish them, prizes, arts councils — are largely absent. For writers, publishers & avid readers alike, this is a frustrating state of affairs. And naturally the publishers themselves must take some responsibility — it's always possible to try just a bit harder, isn't it?

But the fact Channer willfully ignores is that the Caribbean book market, by reasonable standards, is a very small one, fragmented by geography & language. The big foreign markets in North America & Europe are difficult to break into, especially for small firms based outside those markets, with only small resources for distribution & promotion. Books are expensive to produce in short print runs, but very few Caribbean publishers can afford long print runs — not when the local market is measured in hundreds, not thousands. Channer says "there are no poor publishers in the Caribbean". Perhaps none of us are actually below the poverty line, but very few of us are getting wealthy off our titles (with the possible exception of the textbook publishers), & many important books published in the region never manage to recoup their costs. It's easy enough to breeze on about "growing customers" & "getting the product in the pipeline", but for a published writer Channer seems oddly na├»ve about the economic realities of the book business. Large, well-established houses in New York & London are losing money, cutting staff, reducing their lists; does Channer really think that down here in Port of Spain & Kingston & Bridgetown small publishers like Prospect Press (the firm of which I am a member) are sitting on bags of gold?

Towards the end of the profile, Channer remarks that one of these days he's going to start his own publishing house. Perhaps with a nice fat Ballantine royalty cheque for capital, he'll make a great success of it & put the rest of us out of business, publishing his Caribbean-themed romance novels. Or perhaps he'll discover it's not quite as simple as he thought. I'm looking forward to seeing his first catalogue.

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