Commentary

Black and Asian novelists have never been more commercially successful. But who is profiting? Not in

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."

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? Maybe 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". The final decision? Neither.

Then there is the competition from the multinational conglomerate publishers. Deborah Dyson, an American publishing consultant, points out that in the US, "as black publishers, we found it difficult to come up with the hefty advertising dollars necessary to showcase our titles among the very visible and often discounted corporate bestsellers". Inevitably, the corporate giants and bookselling chains work together in an almost exclusive club. When did you last see a bookshop window display featuring titles from a small, independent publisher? Or a black publisher? As Pope points out: "In recent years, some of the support and commitment from the major book chains has waned. Many shops have got rid of their black writing sections, and black books have to fight for space in stores that think they can make more money selling books to a mainstream audience. But if a major publisher decides to put out a black book, you can bet it will get shelf space."

Aware of all these issues, I still, perversely, decided to start a company, Brown Skin Books - and then decided to add sex to the mix. Yes, I'm outing myself as a publisher of erotic fiction by black women. Suffice to say that, to survive as an independent black publisher, it will be necessary to find innovative, perhaps untried, ways of selling my books, outside of the traditional methods - preferably without having to walk the streets.

Undoubtedly, there is money to be made in black literature, something to which booksellers might just be waking up, long after the advertising industry estimated the combined disposable wealth of black and Asian communities at £32bn. The big question, however, is who will profit? Pope believes that "in future, very little of black publishing will be in the ownership of the black community".

The danger is that those of us who got into publishing to try to produce something radical or challenging, or just different, are squeezed into the position where we either go out of business altogether or can no longer afford to take any risks.

There are glimmers of hope. After 15 years in business, Wilkins confirms that "schools are increasingly aware that they need to adapt to accommodate cultural changes in the classroom". The shifting demography of many of our major cities, and the success of African American and black British authors on both sides of the Atlantic, might yet convince booksellers that they could profit from taking the business of black books seriously.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2004 issue of the New Statesman, D-Day for British politics