At the Independent Book Publishers Association’s annual Publishing University, held in San Diego from May 4-6, attendees gathered for a keynote panel of “Legends of Black Independent Publishing.” Moderator Troy Johnson, founder of the African American Literature Book Club, facilitated a conversation with well-known industry veterans Third World Press Foundation’s Haki Madhubuti, Black Classic Press and BCP Digital Printing’s W. Paul Coates, Africa World Press and Red Sea Press’s Kassahun Checole, and Just Us Books’s Wade Hudson and Cheryl Hudson.

All the panelists spoke to how important community and consistent values have been to their longevity in indie publishing. “Vision alone is not enough,” and investors and allies are essential, said Checole, who started Africa World and Red Sea in 1983.

Everyone on the panel “came out of the struggle” for civil rights, said Coates, who opened Black Classic Press in 1978. “Wade as a young man was involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Louisiana. Haki is still one of the foundational members of the Black Lives Movement. Kassahun was with the Eritrean Liberation Front. Myself with the Black Panther Party. These are people who carried the struggle forward and had it bloom in publishing.”

Everyone in the group shared powerful examples to demonstrate that the word community goes far beyond feel-good rhetoric. In December, Madhubuti said, a pipe burst and flooded Third World Press's Chicago office while he was away in Cleveland: “We lost 85% of our book inventory.” Although he was reluctant to seek help, friends convinced him to raise funds. He requested $90,000—less than he actually needs—and as of this month, a GoFundMe has raised more than $125,000 from supporters.

An in-person representative of community showed up for Coates. Author Walter Mosley—who sought out Black Classic Press in 1996 for Gone Fishin’, one of his Easy Rawlins novels—was in the audience to cheer the indie publishing panel. Mosley got an impromptu standing ovation from the surprised attendees.

Married pair Cheryl and Wade Hudson talked about their own commitment to Just Us Books for young readers. “People think the name is ‘justice,’ which is fine, but really the company is just us,” Cheryl Hudson said with a smile. She recalled how, in the 1980s, publishers did not want to take the chance on what became their successful Afro-Bets series of alphabet and other educational books. “We stand on the shoulders of so many other brothers and sisters,” Wade added, encouraging Black entrepreneurs to have “the audacity” to proclaim themselves publishers in a diversifying and at times exclusionary industry.

Wade Hudson added that Black indie publishers also need to advocate for social justice, as Just Us Books has done with authentic representations of children of color. Madhubuti agreed, saying that efforts to educate and inform must be sustained against occasional pushback: “One of our major programs is our prison literature program,” he said. “We’ve given literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to prisons across this country. And as a result of that we’ve been locked out of prisons now. Last week they sent back four or five of our books, ‘not able to use in this prison.’ So the struggle continues.”

Even with setbacks, Madhubuti continued, “It’s our responsibility to publish material that allows us to rise above the limiting and high-level hatred that exists among others and outside our communities against us.” At age 80, with more than half a century in publishing, he still feels determined: “There are more than 55 million Black people in this country, and we’re not going anywhere.”

Innovative Voices

To kick off the "Legends of Black Independent Publishing" panel on May 6, the IBPA announced a grant initiative for indie publishers from marginalized communities. The Innovative Voices Program will provide each grant recipient with an estimated $2,000 worth of financial and other support, including education and mentorship. The inaugural set of grants will go to five publishers.

In a press announcement, IBPA invited applicants whose “race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language, disability, or age” places them in a marginalized category. In addition, IBPA noted that “applicants must run a book publishing program that demonstrates proven support for a diverse set of issues related to one or more of those communities.”

Co-sponsored by IngramSpark, each grant package includes $750 from IngramSpark, $750 from IBPA to spend on IBPA marketing programs, IBPA membership and a scholarship to attend PubU 2024, plus free printing of 250-500 books and either free or discounted goods and services from companies including Above the Treeline, NetGalley, Papertrell, and PW.

Applications for the inaugural year must be submitted by June 30, and the start date for the first Innovative Voices Program cohort will be August 1, 2023.