John McDonald: Interview

Monday, September 3, 2012

Today is Labor Day in the US, but around the world the history of labor activism is celebrated on May 1, to commemorate an 1886 protest in Chicago for better working conditions, including an eight-hour day.

Despite the global economic slowdown—or perhaps because of it—business is booming for radical Chicago publisher Haymarket Books. As Publishers Weekly reported earlier this year, the book-publishing wing of the progressive Center for Economic Research and Social Change has enjoyed a 43 percent increase in sales this year, driven by the success of recent titles such as The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World as well as the emergence of the Occupy movement last fall. TriQuarterly recently caught up with John McDonald, academic marketing coordinator for Haymarket, and discussed the press’s history, the Occupy movement, e-books, and the business of political publishing.


TriQuarterly: Tell us a little about the history of Haymarket Books.

John McDonald: Haymarket was estab­­­­lished about ten years ago by a group of folks who had been working together in basic book distribution at a UK press. They thought that there was enough space for left-wing publishing in the United States and that it was time to put together the same sort of program here as in the UK, with authors that have been involved in activist work and educational work and so forth. The first book that we put out was The Struggle for Palestine, and here we are some 150 or 200 books later.

TQ: What kind of readership does Haymarket have? How are people usually exposed to your books?

JM: We promote our books at dozens of social and political events through volunteers and networks of supporters all across the country. Those are coupled with larger events such as the annual socialism conference that we hold in New York and Chicago. Then we also do trade distribution, so you can get our books in any bookstore provided that booksellers are interested in the stuff, and we do online distribution of our own, so you can buy books from our website. About a third of our sales are directly to activists, a third are from the website, and a third are through trade distributors, whether it’s Amazon or brick-and-mortar stores.

TQ: Naturally, the ongoing economic crisis has been rough on small businesses, including small presses and independent booksellers, I would imagine. At the same time, the crisis has led to an upsurge of popular political activism, such as the Occupy movement. How have these trends affected Haymarket?

JM: In the midst of the economic crisis we’ve actually seen a pretty significant increase in sales of our books. They have gone up over the last two years despite the Great Recession, and I actually think it’s a mistake to say “despite”; I think it’s because of. I would argue that society has moved in a leftward direction as a result of people’s lives being destroyed in the financial crisis. Banks are getting bailed out while ordinary people are being left behind, and the mainstream discourse has provided them no means of explaining what they’re experiencing. Folks are looking for alternative explanations. The Occupy movement, of course, is one of the main vehicles by which this sort of thing is happening.

In the fall we launched a book by Dr. John Carlos, the 1968 Olympian who famously raised the black power salute on the podium after winning a medal at the Mexico City Olympics. We had a book tour planned prior to the breakout of the Occupy movement, but after it broke out he was able to stop at a whole number of general assemblies and various other educational events all across the country. Thus he was able to talk to people who were rediscovering this kind of radical history and trying to change the world today.

TQ: As a recent article about you guys in Publishers Weekly explained, this book has gotten a lot of popular attention, but Haymarket publishes a lot of other titles, including more academic and specialized titles. Tell us about some of the other books and series you do.

JM: We do have two series, both in conjunction with academic journals. The first is the Historical Materialism book series, which we put out in connection with the Historical Materialism journal. Historical Materialism was launched a little bit before Haymarket was but with the same idea: that within academia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of new social movements such as the global justice movement in the 1990s, there was space for more left-oriented or Marxist scholarship. So the journal tried to do critical Marxist studies—“heterodox Marxism” is the way that it would define itself—and the book series basically flowed out of that.

According to the deal we have with them, we publish in paperback everything they initially do in hardcover with Brill, which is a Dutch academic press. The hardcover Brill editions are very expensive—about $130—and we bring out the paperbacks for between $20 and $30. We have more or less the same deal with our second series, the Studies in Critical Social Science book series, which we put out with the journal Critical Sociology.

We’ve also just launched a set of pamphlets which are more directly agitational. For example, Eric Toussaint, a European economist who studies the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and who basically has been an economist of the antiglobalization movement, is putting out a pamphlet that argues that the ideology through which neoliberals justify their economic policies has its origin in classical economics. He compares neoliberal and classical economic views, and then he suggests some alternative perspectives and some alternative economic models. It’s really an attempt to make some seemingly formidable or intimidating ideas accessible and intelligible for activists who are trying to make change happen.

TQ: Tell us a little bit about Haymarket’s selection process. Do you receive a lot of unsolicited manuscripts, or do you actively seek out most of the books you publish?

JM: We publish both solicited and unsolicited manuscripts. We have an editorial team that reads over the unsolicited stuff and tries to make a decision based partly on the content and potential audience and partly based on what we can realistically accomplish and what other commitments we have. There are times when we think a book would be great but we just can’t do it.

In the last two years or so years we’ve done a couple of really great books that came through unsolicited. For example, Kivalina: A Climate Change Story is about an indigenous population that lives on an island off the coast of Alaska that’s been eroded over the last several years because of global climate change. The book chronicles the struggle of the people living on the island to hold oil companies and corporate polluters responsible. When it came in and we looked at it, we discovered that it was a really compelling attempt to let the people who are living this experience tell their own story.

Another example of a book that started as an unsolicited manuscript is Always on Strike, a biography of Frank Little that’s coming out this fall. Little was an agitator with the Industrial Workers of the World around the beginning of the twentieth century and was lynched in Butte, Montana, because of his union organizing. This is a fascinating story. The author, Arnold Stead, is an English professor who discovered Little while researching Dashiell Hammett, who evidently was in Butte working for the Pinkertons around the same time that Little was lynched. Arnold is not a partisan, nor does he necessarily take the most political approach to writing a biography like this, but he really wanted to tell Frank Little’s story. As it stands right now, there are no biographies of Frank Little out there, so we wanted to put it out and hopefully get other people doing more research and learning about this guy.

We also solicit books directly. One example is Beyond the Green Zone by Dahr Jamail, who, while working as an unembedded journalist in Iraq, did phenomenal dispatches that were eventually picked up by Al Jazeera. We approached Dahr and said, “We think there’s a book here, and we’d love to be able to do it.” He agreed, and as a result we were able to do a really great book tour at the height of the antiwar movement, and Dahr had a chance to share his experiences with a lot of different people. We were really proud that we were able to put the whole thing together.

TQ: Haymarket’s commitment to activism and social change obviously differentiates it from other presses and publishers, especially those who are in the game to simply make money from the sale of books. Nevertheless, you guys rely on selling your books to stay afloat, and consequently, the existence of free digital copies of books—for example, I know there are a lot of PDFs of the Historical Materialism titles you mentioned a moment ago floating around the Internet—might be thought to threaten the viability of your enterprise. At the same time, I would imagine that given your general political outlook and the outlook of many of your authors, there’s sympathy for this kind of information sharing. Does so-called digital piracy pose a challenge for you at all?

JM: Haymarket doesn’t have any kind of official position on the question of digital piracy. But to my mind, what you might call the prefigurative approach—the idea that we should create the world that we want to live in right now, which I suppose would mean for us that we should publish free books because we believe in a world in which commodities aren’t traded on the basis of the exploitation of labor—is unrealistic. The fact of the matter is that printing books costs money, authors do not simply have the means to survive by themselves, and while our royalties are meager, they’re real. There’s a great phrase in the Communist Manifesto about how capital chases the bourgeoisie across the globe; the idea isn’t that capitalism expands simply because the bourgeoisie chooses, but rather that there are systematic compulsions shaping people’s actions. We have to sell books in order to publish more books, but the goal is to be able to cultivate a space in which people are able to participate and in which they can survive so that we can better change the reality that we’re confronting.

We try to make books available to people as cheaply as possible, and we try to connect with activists wherever possible. That’s part of the reason why we’re putting out the pamphlet series I mentioned a moment ago. Each pamphlet costs only $4.95. We also have e-books, and we’re offering a book club plan by which you can pay about $25 a month and get all the titles that Haymarket publishes. As I said, the goal is cultivating a left milieu in which people can have meaningful discussions. There are no CEOs or executives at Haymarket—none of us lives on the Riviera, you know? We’re in it for changing the world, and that entails surviving economically.

We’re definitely for the expansion of left-wing publishing in general. For example, the New Press, another independent press that publishes a lot of left-wing and radical books, recently put out The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The book is making a huge splash, and we’re really thrilled that’s happening because insofar as we’re all committed to the broader mission of social justice and social change, what’s good for them is good for us. The main difference between us and more mainstream presses is that we don’t view left-wing publishing as simply another niche market; we’re interested in contributing to the development of a wider political culture with our books.

TQ: Digital books perhaps pose a problem for you from another angle. There’s been a lot of clamor recently about the “death of the book” and the rise of e-books, which some say pose a threat to traditional publishers. How has Haymarket dealt with the rise of e-books? Do you see them as a threat?

JM: I'd say that rumors of the demise of the book have been greatly exaggerated. It's entirely possible that we'll reach a point where physical books become an anachronism, but our ability to connect with activists in Zuccotti Park in the midst of Occupy demonstrates very clearly that we're not quite there yet. The publication of literature—be it newspapers, pamphlets, or full books—has always been one of the essential mediums of resistance, and our success amidst the decline of other publishers is at least partially attributable to our commitment to embodying this spirit of dissent.

From another angle, I'd say that much of the hue and cry about this subject seems to be generated because electronic publishing (and the digital world more generally) has made it much more difficult to maintain distribution rights and the intangible "authenticity" necessary to extract a profit from a particular book. Since Haymarket is concerned about our bottom line only insofar as it allows us to reach a wider audience with our titles, the bright new dawn of the e-book hasn't worried us very much—in fact we look at it as something of an opportunity.

TQ: What does Haymarket mean to you?

JM: We see ourselves as standing in the tradition of the Haymarket martyrs. In a certain respect, Haymarket represents the first example of mass-scale working-class radicalism in the United States, and the martyrs are a lasting inspiration for radicals across the globe. It's something of a tragedy that these tireless fighters for a better world, both those remembered through posterity and the nameless rank-and-file militants whose names were never written down, have been so effectively stolen from us. It was the mass struggle of working-class people in the United States, centered in Chicago in 1886, that sparked the movement leading to the establishment of the eight-hour work day. The anniversary of the strikes (May 1–4, 1886) for which the martyrs were hanged is celebrated on a mass scale all across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, while here May 1 is largely forgotten.

One of Haymarket Books' principal goals is reclaiming the struggles that have been so thoroughly effaced from the textbook version of American—and global—history. The Haymarket affair, and the brutal repression that followed it, represents one of the most pronounced instances of this intentional whitewashing. As a publisher in Chicago, we didn’t think there could be a better namesake.