October 19, 2009

Caribbean Publishing in the Internet Age

Anthony Williams’ aptly titled inaugural post at Caribbean Book Blog, “Breaking the Shackles” got me thinking about publishing, the Internet, and Caribbean writers. I won’t summarize the article here because it’s well worth reading in its entirety, but one of his major points stuck with me:

In the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean there is an estimated population of 5,444,762 (CIA World Factbook 2009 estimates). The Jamaican population in New York alone is estimated at 439,400 www.nyu.edu/jamaicans. Add to that the Afro-Caribbean population in the UK  estimated to be over 400,000 www.mind.org.uk/help/people; and the 783,795 people in Canada who are identified as black (2006 Census by Statistics Canada; www.eng.fju.tu/worldlit/caribbean) Altogether you come up with a population of 7,357,357 people who are overwhelmingly of Caribbean descent. This figure does not include people of Caribbean descent throughout the USA, Africans and African-Americans in the US, the African population in the UK, and Caribbean people of Indian descent in Canada. That seems quite a sizeable pool for Caribbean publishers and writers to try casting their net. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Even if only half of this population represents potential readers, many of the challenges that Caribbean writers face, especially with publishers who claim that there is no market for our writing, would disappear.

There is still, however, the problem of connecting with this audience. Williams offers these solutions:

The good news is that there is a powerful new realm of opportunity that has opened up to the literary world. It’s the Worldwide Web and it offers writers some amazing tools;  Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, online bookshops and virtually-free online publishing platforms, electronic book readers, (including the iPhone), book-review and promotion blogs and websites, online book clubs, Skype software that enables users to make low-cost international video and voice calls, send instant messages and share files with other Skype users,  print on demand (POD) publishing, viral marketing, and that’s just to name a few.

These may work, but there are some other problems that we’ll have to confront, and I’ll use this diagram adapted from marketing guru, Seth Godin, to illustrate:

Given the state of publishing in the Internet age, the goals of publishers and writers would be the following:

To connect Tech-savvy consumers via Twitter and other social media to Tech-savvy Creators.

Make it as easy as possible for Non-Tech Savvy Creators to become Tech Savvy Creators

Educate and make it as easy as possible for Non-Tech Savvy Consumers to interface with Tech-Savvy Creators.

As if that were not all, writers and publishers would have to overcome the digital divide and historic lack of trust within the Caribbean and the diaspora in the areas of money and technology. They would also have to figure out the demographics of the four major groups in the diagram.

The lack of trust is exacerbated by the lack of social proof. From my own experience, readers seem to prefer titles from any big US or UK publishing house over titles from Peepal Tree without thinking that these big companies are selling to markets that have ideas about the Caribbean that we might not share. Not to revive the old Walcott vs. Brathwaite controversy, but there is a reason why Brathwaite has never been published in The New Yorker. Brathwaite is a great poet. It’s just that his aesthetics don’t match those of The New Yorker or their subscribers.

Yet as daunting as these challenges seem, they are insurmountable. We have the genius and the daring to overcome them. And I don’t think need to depend on governments, religious or cultural institutions to help us:

Newspapers have already cut back on the sections devoted to books, and many are struggling to keep alive.

Our churches and religious institutions are too conservative and their sole purpose is to maintain the status quo. Any idea that veers away from their outdated, prudish, Victorian worldview is greeted with sermons of fire and brimstone. And a work like Marlon James’, The Book of Night Women, is criticized by some adherents because of its “bad” words.

Our governments have already proven to be unreliable. The goal of every politician is to retain power, and they have time and time again let us down. Witness the fiasco of CARIFESTA and the near debacle of Calabash.

Finally, many of the graduates of our educational institutions that should be able to provide the technological and literary expertise are more interested in holding conferences and writing white papers about dreary French theories.

So, it will be up to InI to build the networks. Again, Godin’s advice is helpful:

You can build a network (which can take many forms--natural monopolies are organizations where the market is better off when there's only one of you).

You can build a brand (shorthand for relationships, beliefs, trust, permission, and word of mouth) 
You can create a constantly innovating organization where extraordinary employees thrive.

Building networks will be the easy part, but building trust will be more difficult. Fortunately there are a few sites such as Ascodela, Caribbean Review of Books, Anthurium, The Arts Journal, Calabash, Caribbean Quarterly, Nicholas Laughlin,  The Caribbean Writer, Casa de las Américas, Hotel Abismo, Poui, Sargasso, Signifyin' Guyana, Small Axe, tongues of the ocean, Wadabagei, Town, and  Zafra Lit, that already fulfill this function.

But many of the publications associated with these sites are quarterlies and annuals, some of which are filled with academic writing that even someone as worldly wise as I am, find intimidating.

And while blogs such as Repeating Islands do an excellent job in introducing new books to readers, they cannot single-handedly cover all the books from the Caribbean. And in this digital age of immediacy, to really connect readers, writers, and publishers, sites similar to Red Room will have to be developed, as Williams has suggested, for and by Caribbean consumers and creators. And there are costs of time and money in maintaining a site full time—even public radio costs money.

What is needed is a web site that is devoted full-time to Caribbean writing. The site as I envision it would be a clearing house for books published by Caribbean writers. Publishers would submit their catalogues, writers could upload their photos and reading dates, and readers could subscribe via RSS, newsletters. or email. This would satisfy the need for a comprehensive overview of books written by Caribbean writers.

But what of excellence? For example, poetry that as Gregory Orr puts it is a combination of the “dynamic tension that comes from a marriage of contraries” such as music and structure, story and imagination?

There is an old saying, “Whatever you value, you measure.” In this respect, the site could provide down to earth book reviews that would not pander--discerning without being pedantic. And the reviewers should possess a catholic knowledge of Caribbean writing so that they would be able criticize a book on the basis of its craft and how it fits into or challenges our cultural memory.

Yet, how much are readers, writers, publishers, and advertisers willing to pay for this service?

How large will the staff of reviewers, web masters, and editors have to be? How much will the market bear for this service? How many deaths and reincarnations will we have to go through until the right model is found?

Despite all the odds, I still think such a venture is possible. We are a people who have made songs out of slavery, music from steel drums. But here’s the big question: are we ready?


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FSJL said...

"Writing white papers about dreary French theories." Y'know, this manages to leave out a lot of equally "deadly theory" (to use a phrase of Richard Hart's) that is not French or German, but is equally dreary, and equally useless and obfuscatory. After reading Homi Bhabha we can fling imbrication around (and, by the way, it means "drip" as well as "mesh", but I don't think Dr Bhabha knows that, but how does that help us either reach or raise our brothers and sisters?

Geoffrey Philp said...

Fragano, it's just my prejudice against theories like "deforestation" as George Lamming once called "deconstruction" that gets my goat.

But, yes, the French do not have a corner on that market