Ian Randle: the Accidental Publisher

Jamaican publisher Ian Randle has braved uncertain times and a less than enthusiastic reading public to establish a successful publishing house.

  • At the 1999 Frankfurt Book Fair. Left to right: Nicole Lalane (Haiti); Mohammed Umar of ZED Books (UK); Ian Randle and wife Carlene
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  • With former Vice-Chancellor Sir Alistair McIntyre, centre, and present VC Rex Nettleford at the launching of The Story of the Jamaican People
  • With Jamaican Prime Minister P. J. Patterson and the late William Demas at the launching of Demas's West Indian Development and the Deepening and Widening of the Caribbean Community
  • Ian Randle Publishers 2000 catalogue
  • Randle with the late Dame Nita Barrow at the launching of An Area of Conquest: Popular Democracy and West Indian Cricket Supremacy by Hilary McD. Beckles
  • The seven Randle children: Left to right: Michael, George, Yvonne, Trevor, Grace-Ann. Front: Ian and Paul
  • Photograph courtesy Ian Randle

Let me declare an interest at this point. I know Ian Randle fairly well, have stayed at his home in Kingston, think of him as a friend as well as a business associate. He has also published a couple of my books, and I owe him another one. So it felt slightly strange to be interviewing him at his London hotel late one October afternoon as the rush hour traffic crawled impatiently around an autumnal Bloomsbury Square. Odder still in that we would be meeting up the following week in Frankfurt, that German city of bankers and lawyers that gives itself up for a week each year to the world’s publishing industry. There we would be talking business, discussing schedules and doing all the things people do at Frankfurt.

But there again, it isn’t all that often that you sit down with a friend and start interrogating him or her about every aspect of the past and present-day life, from childhood onwards. There were things I knew about Ian Randle, since the previous December we’d spent a couple of days driving around Jamaica and had talked a good deal. But that wasn’t an interview as such, more a chat punctuated by stops to sample jerk chicken and other Jamaican roadside treats.

The name Ian Randle will be known mostly to people in the Caribbean who like reading. Sometimes also to those who have to read something at university, since he publishes a number of successful text books that are used on campuses all over the region. The name is synonymous (eponymous?) with his company, Ian Randle Publishers, which has been going since 1991, and it is by no means exaggeration or flattery to say that it is the best publishing outfit in the region.

Most publishers, it has to be said, like to complain. About the tardiness of authors, about the unreliability of printers and distributors, and most of all about the dreadful state of the book trade, where shops demand ever higher discounts and discerning readers appear to be a thing of the past. But those who sit in offices in London or New York bemoaning their lot should stop and consider what life is like for a small independent publisher in Jamaica. Try borrowing money from the bank, for instance, at interest rates that can go over 50%. Or imagine trying to get to work during one of Jamaica’s periodic periods of unrest, when staff are not unreasonably reluctant to get past roadblocks and demonstrators. Recruiting high-quality staff is problematic in itself, since bright young people tend to see publishing as neither lucrative (they’re right) nor status-enhancing like academia.

Then there’s the big problem of a small market. The English-speaking Caribbean accounts for about six million people, most of whom would never dream of buying a book. To reach the few who would, you have to go to St Vincent or Anguilla to persuade the local bookseller to stock your books. Then you have to go back to collect the money.

It’s not an easy life, but Ian Randle enjoys it. In fact, he is remarkably uncomplaining except when talking about airplanes and sinus problems. But enough of that.

Randle was born in 1949 at Green Island, Hanover Parish, the oldest of three boys and two girls. His father, George, was the overseer at a nearby sugar estate, owned by the De Lisser family, and the family lived in the great house in what he says was “a state of complete splendour”. There were maids and yard boys, but because Randle senior was the “Busha” or boss man, the young Ian was not encouraged to mix with the other children on the estate. Although he walked to the local school in the town of Lucea, he was kept apart from his contemporaries. “I got a call quite recently from a guy who’d lived on the estate at the same time as me. He’d moved away, worked on an oil rig, made lots of money, but it was only after thirty years that he felt he could ring me up. He didn’t think I’d talk to him. I said, what took you so long?”

But there were real social divisions in Jamaica at the time, and Randle remembers several violent incidents on the estate. A book-keeper was even killed, “chopped to death with a cutlass”. At that point, it seems, George Randle and his wife, Enid, decided to quit the great house and head for the relative safety of Harbour View, Kingston. It was a traumatic development for the 13-year-old Ian and his brothers and sisters. The parents had no work, the family suddenly faced real poverty. “I remember my mother had to go and beg for food. I don’t mean on the street, but from friends and neighbours.” It was a difficult time, made harder by the arrival of two more children.

Yet despite the hardships, the Randle children did well at school, and all seven of them were to get free scholarships to high school. The four boys all made it to university in Jamaica, and Ian chose to study history at the Mona campus. There he was taught by the influential Douglas Hall and attended a couple of lectures by the firebrand Guyanese Walter Rodney before he was expelled by the Jamaican government in 1968. These were heady political days, but Randle preferred not to become involved in Jamaica’s explosive party politics, even though his brother Michael was a high-profile People’s National Party activist in the 1970s. George Randle, too, was a PNP man: “I thought Norman Manley was my grandfather,” says Randle, “as we had his portrait on the wall.”

It was during his second year at university that Randle’s mother died at the age of 38. Looking back, he realises that he avoided facing up to her illness by more or less living full-time on the campus, squatting in university accommodation during vacations. Despite this domestic tragedy, he remembers his university days with affection. “I wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic student, but there were guys there from all over the Caribbean. Most of my best friends were from Trinidad and we managed to have a pretty good time.”

Even so, Randle managed to get a degree and was suddenly confronted with the unpalatable fact that he’d have to find a job. “I’d harboured thoughts of becoming a lawyer, but then John MacPherson, who was publications officer at the Faculty of Education, approached me and said that Ginn, a British educational publisher, was looking for a local manager for a new operation, Caribbean Universities Press. The job involved repping Ginn books and a bit of editorial work. So I accepted and found myself in a big house in Mona, with no staff, working on my own. I grew up very fast.”

Randle stayed for two years with Ginn, during which time he married Carlene, now not only his wife but also responsible for the day-to-day financial running of Ian Randle Publishers. He then worked for Ferdie Sangster, a legendary figure in the Jamaican book trade, who had started off selling magazines from a bicycle and grown to own a chain of bookstores and a publishing business. The experience he gained in running Sangster’s university bookstore was invaluable, but Randle wanted to be more involved in the editorial side of things and so accepted an offer from Collins, the big British company, to work partly as an editor and partly as a salesman. “In fact,” says Randle, “they just wanted me to flog their books around the Caribbean. Publishing locally was very much the poor relation in the arrangement.”

The big breakthrough came when Randle was contacted by another British publisher, Heinemann, who were altogether more interested in using his editorial skills. He was taken on to run Heinemann Caribbean, a locally-based subsidiary that would be much more than an outlet for selling British books. In the meantime, he had won a Commonwealth Scholarship to study international politics at Southampton University. With a year’s break and a new job in prospect, it was an exciting time, and Randle got to know his Heinemann colleagues well during the year spent in the UK. James Currey, in particular, was an important influence, and together they worked on the Caribbean Writers’ Series, a showcase for some of the region’s best writing. Among the early successes was Trinidad’s Michael Anthony, whose novel A Year in San Fernando went on to become a classic.

Looking back, Randle acknowledges that he learnt a lot from Heinemann and from Currey, Keith Sambrook and Alan Hill in particular. “These were people who saw things the same way and were easy to work with,” he says. But things were less easy in Jamaica, especially during the turbulent years of the late 1970s when Michael Manley’s government was facing a serious economic crisis. In some ways this turmoil worked in Randle’s favour, as Heinemann was forced to “go indigenous” in order to satisfy the government’s desire to be less dependent on foreign companies. This meant that he was his own boss and the public face of Heinemann as the company tendered for a big government textbook contract in 1976. But “everyday life was pretty much hand to mouth,” he says, as currency shortages and inflation wreaked havoc with any business.

Barely had Heinemann Caribbean survived the tribulations of the 1970s than changes in London began to create fresh difficulties. “The decade was a bad one for British publishing as a whole,” says Randle, “as the men in suits began to take over from editors.” Heinemann changed corporate hands three times in rapid succession, passing from the British Tyre and Rubber Company, to Paul Hamlyn (now Octopus) and then to the Reed empire. In Jamaica, meanwhile, Oliver Clarke, a local entrepreneur and owner of the Gleaner group, was beginning to pose a further threat to Heinemann Caribbean as he bought Sangsters and wooed the education ministry with an offer to print school textbooks locally and cheaply on the Gleaner’s presses. At that point, Heinemann decided to bring in some local capital and political clout, and Randle invited Pat Rousseau, the senior partner in Jamaica’s largest law firm, to take a 51% stake in the company.

What should have ensured Heinemann Caribbean’s future merely hastened its demise. Randle freely admits that he and Rousseau didn’t get on well as partners. “He wanted to do more and more trade-oriented books, Birds of Jamaica, that sort of thing, while I was keen to reinforce Heinemann’s reputation as an academic publisher. I brought him into the company for his financial expertise. I didn’t expect him to start working as an editor.”

Frustrations had reached a peak when Randle was in London in 1990. He had been thinking of changing direction for some time. He says that the need to make radical breaks, to start again from scratch, is part of his personality. Coincidentally, he was invited to a meal by Currey and Sambrook who were celebrating five years of post-Heinemann independence and the success of the former’s James Currey Publishers. “After a few drinks the idea dawned on me that I didn’t have to stay with Heinemann. Suddenly I declared that I would do the same thing and set up my own company. You could say it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I hadn’t even mentioned it to Carlene. Now I think of myself as the accidental publisher.”

In the cold grey light of morning the idea still seemed to make sense, and when Randle returned to Jamaica he immediately resigned, registered Ian Randle Publishers as a company and went to the bank to borrow a modest $20,000. “Pat wasn’t exactly pleased,” he says, “in fact he didn’t speak to me until 1998.” Wasn’t it a little bit impulsive, even rash? “It was a gamble,” he concedes, “but I had a lot of contacts, a lot of friends in the business. I knew I could make a go of it.”

He opened his doors for business in January 1991. The rest, as they say, is history. Or rather history has played a large part in Randle’s success as an independent publisher. “I was very lucky in that an American publisher offered me a book on Jamaican politics, which I had ready in time for the company start-up. But the first real breakthrough came with a couple of history textbooks that caught on with American and local university courses. After that, the manuscripts started pouring in.”

But Randle is much more than just an academic publisher. I asked him what his best-selling title was. “Actually, it’s a cookbook,” he replied, “The Real Taste of Jamaica by Enid Donaldson. I think we’re up to about 65,000 copies sold.” Other recent hits have been Reggae Routes by Brian Chang and Wayne Chen, and Drumblair, a memoir of growing up in the famous Jamaican political dynasty, by Rachel Manley. “Basically, there are two markets in the Caribbean,” says Randle, “the academic and the tourist. We try to reach both, but obviously not with the same books. The problem is really that a general local market is almost non-existent. I personally know most of the people who buy our non-academic books.” But sometimes even an experienced publisher can get it wrong and underestimate demand for a book. Randle admits that he was caught napping when a collection of poems by Easton Lee, From Behind the Counter, proved an unlikely bestseller.

He is about to take his first step as an independent publisher into fiction, with a hitherto unpublished novel by the great Jamaican-born writer Claude McKay scheduled for Spring 2000. “It’s often the word-of-mouth factor that counts in the success of a book,” he admits, “and the personality of the author. These are hard to predict.”

For the most part, however, what Randle publishes depends on agreements between him and partners in the US and UK. “The market in the Caribbean is too small for most books to be published here alone, so I am constantly looking to extend my print-run and lower my costs by publishing along with other like-minded people.” These co-publication arrangements have brought Randle back into collaboration with James Currey in Britain, who publishes many of Randle’s books under his own imprint. “It’s very much a two-way process,” says Randle, “it allows both of us to publish books that otherwise wouldn’t make financial sense with very small print runs.”

At the moment, Ian Randle Publishers consists of ten staff in what Randle calls “an integrated operation” turning over about $2 million a year. There is the publishing itself, producing about 20 new titles each year, while the company also acts as agent for a couple of large educational firms, Houghton Mifflin in New York and Stanley Thornes and Taylor & Francis in Britain. There is a small bookstore attached to the offices near the Mona campus, and the business also includes supplying schools around Jamaica with textbooks from a range of sources. Finally, Randle has also diversified into specialist legal publishing, his Caribbean Law Publishing Company producing law reports as books and CD-ROMs. “There’s no competition in this respect,” he says, “nobody else in the Caribbean is publishing legal material, while with academic and trade-oriented books I always have to compete with big American companies.”

And so Ian Randle has finally ended up doing what he wanted to do 30 years ago — publish books from and about the Caribbean for a Caribbean audience. He still gets a kick out of doing what he knows best and freely admits that he loves seeing someone reading one of his books. As his company reaches the tender age of ten and he reaches his own half-century, he says he’s maybe ready for another change in direction. What might that be? I enquire anxiously, remembering the manuscript I still owe him. “The next thing is to establish a Caribbean publishers’ association,” he says. “We need to work to encourage local initiatives in publishing throughout the region. Probably the most exciting prospect at the moment is Cuba — a huge potential market for local publishing.’

Perhaps he’ll think longer and harder next time before he starts again. But whatever the future holds, you can be sure that Ian Randle will not abandon his enthusiasm for books and for the Caribbean. It’s a combination that has worked well for him and it’s one that the region and all discerning readers should value.