In October 2017, the radical press Verso published police abolition activist and scholar Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing. An examination of the destructiveness of America’s policing system, the book also considers what alternatives to public safety might look like. When it was first published, abolishing the police was considered a niche leftist topic. Brought out as a hardcover, the book's reviews were better than its sales.
Then in June, protests erupted across the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd, and “defund the police” became a prominent demand. Seemingly overnight, police abolition became the hottest topic in America. The time for The End of Policing had arrived. Verso made the e-book edition available for free and within two weeks it had been downloaded more than 200,000 times; the publisher ordered a new print run of 45,000 copies.
“When the world is going badly, people turn to books on the left in search of explanations,” said Jake Stevens, Verso’s managing director. “Our sales go up with political and economic turmoil and down during times of prosperity.”
This year may well be remembered as a hallmark year of upheaval. Coronavirus, the protests over Floyd’s killing, and the presidential election have put normality on trial. Political and social ideas once considered fringe have suddenly become urgent and necessary, and the books that expand upon them are the wheelhouse of leftist publishers.
This year is the 50th anniversary of both Verso and the Feminist Press, two of the oldest and most respected radical English-language publishers. For half a century they have weathered changing political and social climates along with changing markets and readerships. Contributing to their longevity, however, is an adherence to their underlying principles and a willingness to reassess time and again what it means to be radical.
“Looking back at 50 years,” said Jisu Kim, Feminist’s Press’s marketing and publicity manager, “it’s really amazing to see all the different types of books that we experimented with as a publishing company, and the varied directions our publishing vision has traveled, but also how much we still stick to our foundational editorial pillars.”
Both presses’ celebrated backlists are full of theory, social criticism, and fiction by storied authors like Theodore Adorno and Judith Butler (both Verso) and Zora Neale Hurston (Feminist). Their frontlists demonstrate a continued tradition of bringing out forward-thinking work. Verso’s current catalogue includes a history of Black abolitionist poets, Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin’s treatise on the climate crisis, and a novel by acclaimed musician and writer Jenny Hval. Among the Feminist Press’s new and forthcoming titles are a guide to raising Black children, a visual history of radical postering, and a collection of writings on violence by Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza.
“With some corporate presses publishing feminist books, where their model leans more on focusing specifically and formulaically on what works in the market, we have been able to publish the books that bring up the conversations that need to be had,” explained Jamia Wilson, the Feminist Press’s director and publisher. "Cutting-edge feminist issues we see rising to the top—as well as issues that need to be unearthed in a mission-driven way.”
Wilson said she has a mission of publishing the kind of work where “everyone recognizes themselves in a book and recognizes themselves in the people that make books.” Being able to accomplish that means addressing an issue that has long dogged publishing institutions. According to Lee & Low’s 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey, 85% of editorial staff working in publishing identify as white. Only a very small number of nonwhite editorial staffers are African American, said Wilson, who is herself Black. “Power concedes nothing without demand,” she added, citing Frederick Douglass. “You can’t really change an industry when you don’t have enough people represented in decision-making positions. You have to push for it.”
This means, in part, being able to keep up with evolving ideologies. Verso’s continued success, Stevens pointed out, lies in fostering relationships with left-leaning periodicals—especially with younger editors. “When I arrived at the U.S. office in 2007,” Stevens said, “it was right before the financial crash. There was a changing of the guard at places like Dissent and the Nation. And then you had younger journals cropping up like Jacobin, n+1, and the New Inquiry. It has really helped us to make connections with this new generation of editors and writers, and to ensure that we are connected to the political and intellectual currents that have shaped the last decade.”
The origins of both presses were engendered by similar cultural and political fervor. 1970 bookended a period of civil unrest that largely began in 1968: protests of the Vietnam War raged on, National Guardsmen massacred students at Kent State, and second-wave feminism was at its height. “You have this whole intellectual context and this whole political and editorial context where it’s clear that radical books suddenly had a new audience,” said Sebastian Budgen, an editor at Verso who is compiling a history of the press. When Alexander Cockburn and Robin Blackburn, two of the editors of the British intellectual journal the New Left Review, copublished a popular anthology of radical student writing, the rest of NLR’s editors took notice and decided they could start their own publishing company.
Initially known as New Left Review Books and based in London, Verso developed a degree of editorial autonomy from the NLR in the early 1980s. It has since grown to include two offices totaling 29 employees (17 U.K., 12 U.S.), with global revenue of $7.5 million. Starting with seven titles in 1970, Verso has published 1,800 books, including 85 this year. Despite the pandemic, the press said its sales are up 40% for the year to date compared to the same period in 2019, a result of a 200% increase in online sales. In addition to The End of Policing strong sellers so far this year include Judith Butler’s The Force of Nonviolence, Mike Davis’s Set the Night on Fire, Breanne Fahs’s Burn It Down, and a new edition of Vivan Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism. (“All that said,” Stevens noted, “we need the bookstores back.”)
To celebrate its list and legacy, Verso plans to launch a book club this summer. Subscribers will have digital access to its entire archive and will receive print copies of new books by mail. This service will charge $5 per month for the first three months, then $10 per month.
The Feminist Press wasn’t founded to respond to a demand, but rather to create demand. Discovering that the nearly all-male curriculums were discouraging female PhD candidates in American English and language departments, Florence Howe had an idea to publish biographies of deceased women writers, written by living ones, that could be taught in these programs. When no university would finance the project, the Baltimore Women’s Liberation group raised money on Howe’s behalf and Feminist Press was born.
The Feminist Press is now based in New York City and has six full-time employees and two part-timers overseeing a backlist of approximately 375 active titles. Like Verso, its 2020 titles have done well, including Trina Green Brown’s aforementioned Black child-raising guide Parenting for Liberation, Juli Delgado Lopera’s novel Fiebre Tropical, and Bishakh Som’s graphic short story collection Apsara Engine.
Though the pandemic has stymied plans for in-person galas, early this year, as part of its celebrations, the Feminist Press raised enough money to launch a new edition of I Love Myself When I’m Laughing, the Zora Neale Hurston reader edited by Alice Walker. Wilson said that feminism will always be a part of the press’s mission. “In 2017, the year I came on board, there was a lot of momentum following the Women’s March on Washington—the biggest women’s march in history. It led to feminism being announced as Merriam-Webster’s word of the year. And we were glad about that, but it remained clear it was also the word driving us over our 50 years of existence. From what I can tell, we will have our work cut out for us for another 50–100 years or more.”
Michael Barron is a writer and editor living in New York City.