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These are exciting times for Latoya West-Blackwood, head of Book Industry Association of Jamaica (BIAJ).  The body has just joined the International Publishers Association (IPA) and in an interview with Nasher, she talks about her hopes for the industry in her part of the world.

But she began with an important reminder of Jamaica’s literary status.  “Jamaica is privileged to have some of the world’s best writers call it home or be connected through ancestry. Among the internationally recognized names are: Marlon James (Booker Prize Winner – 2015), Kei Miller (Forward Prize – 2014 and the Baille Gifford 2021 shortlist for Things I Have Withheld), Nicole Dennis-Benn (Here Comes the Sun and Patsy), Alexia Arthurs (How to Love A Jamaican), Sara Collins (The Confessions of Frannie Langton) and Roland Watson Grant (Commonwealth Prize 2021 Winner – Caribbean) and many others. For a likkle (patois for little) island of less than 3 million people, I’d say our contribution is pretty impressive.”

Why is joining the International Publishers Association important to you?

Founded in 1989, the BIAJ is the longest established trade association of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean. We don’t take that position for granted and embrace the role of being a leading voice for our region in the global book industry. Becoming a member of the International Publishers Association (IPA) was a natural next step for us at our 30th anniversary mark. It’s been a long and interesting journey since our founding Chairperson Mrs Shirley Carby, got the work started but we recognize that the demands of today are very different and we have to seek out new avenues to build capacity, learn and grow.

We understand and value the importance of connecting with colleagues in different parts of the world across cultures and geographic boundaries, especially during this time when the world is cautiously re-emerging from periods of isolation and physical distance. We’ve found true community in the IPA whether through the Educational Publishers Forum, rich with information and strategies, or the General Assembly where we can collectively reflect on achievements and solutions to the challenges that face us. As newly minted full members, we are excited about what the future holds for us because our experience to date demonstrates that the IPA’s leadership is serious about diversity and inclusion; our “small voice” is accessing a big platform and we intend to use it effectively.

Can we get a picture of the book industry in Jamaica?  Roughly how many publishers are there, and how many bookshops?

Our local book industry remains relatively focused on textbooks because it’s the business model that has been “safest” in a developing economy with a history of private and public underinvestment in building a national reading and knowledge culture. It’s a reality we’re working to change but it won’t happen overnight without strategic partnerships and investment, capacity building to build competitive advantage in areas where we can leverage talent and technology to access and distribute to global markets and attract new audiences well beyond our borders.

The National Library of Jamaica gets more than 100 applications for new publishers and ISBNs each year; however, many of these are small imprints and self-publishers. Jamaica has a relatively small book industry with just under 30 established publishing houses, 5 major bookstore chains, and a number of smaller companies spanning editorial, production, distribution, marketing and new media.

How was/is the situation with regard to Covid?

I often hear people speaking about a return to “normal” but I have no idea what that means. Covid, has been a public health nightmare for most countries and worse for others when the social and economic impact is factored in. Before speaking to the impact on our industry, I think we have to take time to really process the toll on our collective physical, spiritual, and mental well being. Now when I ask people how they’re doing, I really want them to feel like they can tell the truth. It’s a lot.

On the business side, I think the pandemic has highlighted issues that were always important, zoomed in on inequality, and presented us with a once in a generation opportunity to see how we can make real change.The biggest disruption has been in educational publishing but our members have done well in rising to the occasion to provide students and other stakeholders with the materials and solutions they need. Larger booksellers have been riding the waves of declining in-person sales (up to 40%) balanced somewhat by rolling out e-commerce and other digital innovations to complement their traditional offerings. For smaller businesses, that’s unfortunately not been enough with some closing their doors. A lack of targeted government support – also the case pre-pandemic – adds to the current challenges.

A ray of hope has been the ability to coordinate outreach projects with private sector partners to support children learning from home. We’ve collaborated with the local branch of Fight for Peace to deliver virtual book clubs and illustration workshops across six inner city communities and donated 600 literacy care packages containing books with people of colour as lead characters, stationery, snacks, face masks, and hand sanitizers, through the kind support of the GrassROOTS Community Foundation and teen literary activist Marley Dias, and other sponsors. We also formed new and exciting event partnerships like The Place Beyond the Sky programmed by Kingston Book Festival with the Bath Children’s Festival Reading Is Magic team featuring Jamaican writer and illustrator Olivia Wilmot and Richard Nattoo, published by Sapling Books.

How do you see the industry evolving in Jamaica?

While the national reading culture is not at the level that we’d like to see, there are very active book clubs, literary magazines and other groups doing important work to highlight emerging writers, curate events, and connect writers and other members of our industry to communities in meaningful ways. This momentum has definitely been disrupted but with the optimistic outlook to 2022 when we hope to see the island’s major book festivals, fairs and other activities having a full rollout, and a positive impact on sales as a result.

Aside from Covid, what are the chief issues facing the book industry in Jamaica?

There are many but I’d zone in on three: access to funding; training/capacity building; and sustainable projects/programmes to support a national reading culture for all. The greatest talent, the best ideas and the biggest dreams can only go so far in an environment that is limited in converting all of those into actual projects and impact. It does take cash to care and to complement the innovation and creativity that goes into building out an ecosystem to support the success of local creatives and businesses.

The industry is changing rapidly and the skills have to keep up with it. We are excited about opportunities like the soon to be launched IPA Academy that can provide members with training to face and overcome the challenges of today while developing the mindset and resilience to take on the unknowns of the future.

Beyond the amazing individual benefits of reading, I am passionate about advocating for a national reading culture because now more than ever, we need people –  starting with children – to understand the power of imagination and connectedness, how ideas can become reality and drive the positive social and economic transformation of communities and countries.

Can you tell me about your own publishing house?

I started iPublish Consultancy out of frustration, not any childhood dream of being a boss (lol). I realized that my industry was changing and didn’t find my employer at the time, responsive to that change. My entrepreneurial journey started out with a publishing company to provide a platform for underrepresented voices but I discovered through training, travel, and mentorship that I’m a much stronger consultant. While I’m sure there were others doing similar work before me, I had no prominent examples locally to emulate on this path I wanted to take so there were a lot of lessons learnt thinking I had to do things a particular way. Today, I work with companies and individuals on a wide range of print and digital projects, to create that platform in various ways, to include publishing books. Though I have more than a decade of experience in academic and trade publishing, I really enjoy ideation, connecting people to opportunities, and conceptualizing and programming events to create new audiences across cultures. I still maintain an imprint, iMagiNation, focused on projects to share the best of Jamaica with the world, promoting gender equality, and championing inclusion. I’m always open to opportunities to work with colleagues from all over the world with a keen interest in promoting reading for fun among children and inclusive publishing – big and urgent issues in my country. Being a part of the IPA and PublisHER networks has been an amazing experience in that regard. I’m very excited about the future!

Finally, what was the last book you absolutely raved about? 

Last year I had the pleasure of celebrating the release of Parent Like It Matters: How to Raise Joyful, Change-Making Girls, the debut book of my dear friend, Dr. Janice Johnson.  The book definitely pushed me to be much more intentional in parenting, especially since we’ve been spending more time together as a family. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a must-read. My favourite books share the quality of vividly bringing the characters to life and carrying me through a range of emotions. This did that and more. I’ve just added Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives to my reading list. Why? My friend raved about it in a LinkedIn post while announcing she’d just bought the Arabic language rights!