What UG’s new publishing imprint means for Guyana

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Ian Randle hands Vice Chancellor Ivelaw Griffith one of over one of 200 books his publishing company is donating to the University of Guyana library

Last night, the University of Guyana and Ian Randle Publishers signed an agreement to create a University of Guyana imprint – meaning UG will be able to publish books and journals under the name ‘University of Guyana Press’.

There are a lot of details to work out. Will only academic texts be published? Will it be run for profit? Will e-texts be available? How will access be ensured through affordability and distribution? What steps will be taken to tackle infringement of copyright (or even to establish copyright guidelines – are there any in Guyana?)

But these will be worked through in time. And Ian Randle, founder of the eponymous Jamaica-based publishing company, said he hopes to see the first UG publication roll off the presses by the end of 2017.

This means that finally researchers and lecturers at UG will have the opportunity to publish their works, without looking beyond their own institution or country. And old papers, theses and monographs (my new word for the day, meaning a detailed specialist study on a particular subject), consigned to the archives, will finally see the light of day.

After all, as various people pointed out at the launch, what’s the point of research if no one reads it?

Publishing is having a rough time of late. But still, books continue to hold their own against e-book readers and the internet. As Mr Randle quoted, “They’re portable, high resolution, and have a long battery life.”

Academic writing, too, is facing its own crises. As well as debates concerning open-access publishing and peer reviewing, the very role of academia is under debate.

This excellent article from The Conversation, entitled Academics can change the world – if they stop talking only to their peers  highlights the exclusivity of many researchers’ work:

…their work is largely sitting in academic journals that are read almost exclusively by their peers. Biswas and Kirchherr estimate that an average journal article is “read completely by no more than ten people”.

The article goes on to report that some academics don’t want to feel like they’re “dumbing down” complex thinking and arguments. Since when is writing with clarity, sensitivity to your readers and energy ‘dumbing down’?

Perhaps they really mean, “I want to use big words”. Go ahead, no one is stopping you. We have dictionaries.

While he has made his name across the Caribbean publishing scholarly works, Mr Randle acknowledged that their second (I believe) bestselling book is a cookbook: Tastes Like Home by Guyanese foodie Cynthia Nelson.

I believe thinking commercially is essential. Not just to reduce the financial burden on the university and make the imprint sustainable in the long term, but to re-establish Guyana as a leading literary force.

Guyana is renowned worldwide for its fantastic writers. Edgar Mittleholzer, Jan Carew, Gaiutra Bahadur, Mark McWatt, Pauline Melville, ER Braithwaite, Sharon Maas, David Dabydeen, Grace Nichols, John Agard, Wilson Harris, Martin Carter, Wordsworth McAndrew… I could go on.

And there is a whole swathe of writers who don’t achieve international fame or become household names, but quietly plug away – just for the joy of writing. Since I’ve been in Guyana I’ve met poets, short story writers, playwrights, novelists… where do they turn when they want to publish?

Some do get publishing deals, while others decide to self publish. This democratisation of publishing is welcome, but care has to be taken. Without the critical and promotional input of editors, proof-readers, production managers, marketing experts etc, quality can be jeopardised and the potential reach of works dramatically reduced.

It’s an oft-repeated adage that until the lion learns to write, stories will always glorify the hunter. In Guyana, people talk often of the search for national unity – a uniquely Guyanese identity. Is it a coincidence that the local publishing industry is so lacking? That schoolrooms and libraries are dominated by Western books glorifying the hunter?

Yes, you can go to Austin’s Bookshop and buy great contemporary and classic Guyanese books but they’re not cheap. Which gives rise to cash-strapped teachers and parents photocopying texts for their children. And in turn, takes away potential royalties for authors – making writing not a feasible career choice, except for those wealthy enough to support themselves through another means.

Imagine a Guyana where children of all backgrounds read books about Guyanese children who look and sound like them. Where students learn from textbooks written by Guyanese experts. Where data and research about Guyana is widely accessible. Where the National Library is a hive of activity every day of the week. Where Guyanese authors in the diaspora come to publish their books ‘back home’. Where critical theory is standard in the curriculum. And where books come stamped with the proud label, ‘University of Guyana Press’.

This doesn’t have to be fiction.

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