Haymarket Books: 15 Years Later, Mainstream Catches up with Radical
A funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. Radical became mainstream. To many millennials, the Cold War seems as ancient as the Peloponnesian War, so mention of the word “socialism” just does not ignite the same fits of red-baiting hysterics as it used to. Holding steady through it all—at least, for the past fifteen years—has been Haymarket Books. A project of the Center for Economic Research and Social Change, Haymarket has been publishing books about socialism, the class divide, the need for criminal justice reform, and race relations since way before it was fashionable.
Today, with presidential candidates talking seriously about these issues, Haymarket Books is finding that book sales are growing. But, as editor Julie Fain tells us, the indie publisher still finds ways to remain true to their radical roots. I spoke with Julie at BookExpo America in Chicago last month.
It sounds like maybe fifteen years ago you might have been considered “out there,” but I think you’re mainstream now with the rise of Bernie Sanders and criminal justice reform actually being talked about seriously by both parties.
Socialism is not a dirty word anymore and we’re happy to be a socialist publisher that has a wide range of titles on topics of interest for radicals and activists and people working for social change.We definitely consider ourselves to be part of the movement for social change, whether it’s criminal justice, race, or gender. All of our books are geared toward social change in some form.
Do you think people are more in tune to that now than they were fifteen years ago?
The terrain has changed. There is no question. People are more open to radical politics, questions of race and gender and criminal justice are on the table like they have never been at least in a generation. You’re looking at a Black Lives Matter movement that has grown dramatically in the last year or so. We’ve published on the topic and the books have done extremely well. We published Angela Davis’s Freedom is a Constant Struggle and it’s done remarkably well. Our book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation has just taken off and I think it’s because people are really hungry for these kinds of political ideas, in the era of Bernie Sanders, in an era where people are starting to say the status quo is no longer acceptable.
What is a Haymarket book? What kind of message does it send?
To publish at Haymarket, a book has to speak to people who are doing something to change society. It can be poetry, it can be gender, it can be history, even history long ago. But something that informs struggles today. So economics, politics, we’ve done children’s books that have some relevance to looking at society in a different way and trying to make it a better place. I don’t see any contradiction between doing a children’s book that talks about race or talks about war and give young people, give teachers tools to think critically about the world. Our reason for existence is to provide those tools to people who want to change the world. I don’t think that books change the world. I think people change the world with ideas that get informed by history, analysis, thoughtful people, and intellectual and cultural work.
In terms of books sales, have you definitely seen an uptick recently?
We’ve definitely seen it take off in recent years for sure. I think there’s been a healthy political time in our broader culture. I think people are talking about politics, thinking about politics.
Whether in a productive way or not, I don’t know.
Yes, but that’s good for us because I think people are putting out books that have a message. I think those books are finding their audience. And I think as a niche publisher we have gotten to know our audience and so we’ve been successful at identifying the people who are most likely to read our books. We’re not trying to reach everybody. We’re not trying to reach the entire American population. We’re trying to reach people who have started thinking about the world and their place in it.
You’re in growth mode. Do you plan on branching out into other genres or topics?
Well, we’re trying to manage that growth smartly. One thing that we have expanded our acquisitions on is after we publish this book called The Breakbeat Poets. It’s a collection of hip hop inspired poetry. I think it’s a really great way of reaching young people, reaching a wider audience, reaching people who are doing important cultural work. So that’s one of the places where we are expanding our work intentionally over the next few years.
Are librarians and mainstream booksellers a little skeptical because you’re political?
We’ve had a lot of really good success with a lot of independent stores. Not every bookstore carries a substantial political list but the ones that do are very careful about what they order and curate really well. So the bookstores that know that they have either a university audience or they’re in a city where they’ve established that they are the good place for nonfiction. We have good success with those folks, they understand our list. They pick and choose, but hopefully they will pick some of the right titles.
Howard Lovy is executive editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow him on Twitter @Howard_Lovy