Commentary: Black and Asian Novelists Have Never Been More Commercially Successful. but Who Is Profiting? Not Independent Publishers, That's for Sure, as Vastiana Belfon Discovered When She Set Up Brown Skin Books, Specialising in Erotic Fiction by Black Women

By Belfon, Vastiana | New Statesman (1996), June 7, 2004 | Go to article overview

Commentary: Black and Asian Novelists Have Never Been More Commercially Successful. but Who Is Profiting? Not Independent Publishers, That's for Sure, as Vastiana Belfon Discovered When She Set Up Brown Skin Books, Specialising in Erotic Fiction by Black Women


Belfon, Vastiana, New Statesman (1996)


Every day, I ask myself why I decided to set up as a black independent book publisher hoping to target female readers (as opposed to an independent book publisher who happened to be black). I'd done my research--much of it by loitering around bookshops in the Charing Cross Road area, watching what women were buying. It all seemed to make sense. But I might have listened to the experiences of the trailblazers ...

"Booksellers would tell you they had no need for these books, since 'there are no black people here in the UK. Why not try the inner city?'" says Verna Wilkins, who set up Tamarind Books 13 years ago to publish children's books, a number of which have won awards. Some of her titles are now on the national curriculum reading list and others are featured on television. "Books with black characters were seen as being 'for black people', even when the storyline was a universal theme."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This is a persistent perception that surrounds black publishing, along with the notion that black people just don't read. Yet Steve Pope, co-founder of the X Press, the London-based imprint, points to Victor Headley's Yardie, which he published back in 1992, kicking off a revolution in black writing in the UK. "It was the first populist black title aimed at a black audience, and its sales success prompted W H Smith to set up black writing sections in its stores. Other booksellers soon followed."

If statistics are needed, an Arts Council of England report shows that books are almost equally popular among black and white people in Britain. How else do we account for the sales that such publishers as Tamarind and the X Press make through their websites and at book fairs and cultural events around the country? Or for those readers who take the trouble to order books from the US, Africa or the Caribbean?

So why is it still so difficult to get our books into the shops? May be white people just don't want to read the kinds of novels we write. Well, that means it was us all along making bestsellers of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Monica Ali and Zadie Smith. But if so, we've come full circle: remember, black folks just don't read or buy books, do they?

Some of the problems we face are the same as for any independent publisher in Britain: first, with the disappearance of many independently owned bookshops, we are increasingly at the mercy of the bookshop chains. With my own books, for instance, I was told that because they might well appeal to white women, too, the difficulty was with knowing whether they should go under "black writing" or "general fiction". …

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