The Role of Radical Publishers: An Interview with PM Press founder Ramsey Kanaanby Odette Sheffield
November 8th, 2016
PM Press’ Stall at the World Social Forum
At the 2016 World Social Forum in Montreal, I sat down to talk to Ramsey Kanaan, founder of PM Press. PM Press is a radical publisher based out of Oakland, California. I first met Ramsey two weeks before the World Social Forum, in Richmond, California at Soil Not Oil. I was blown away by the quality and variety of PM Press’s content, and eager to learn more about the origins and vision of the project.
ODETTE: Would you describe PM Press as an anarchist publication?
RAMSEY: The folks who started PM were all anarchists, but there’s a range of ideas. Literature that is not explicitly, or perhaps even implicitly anarchist. I still think the ideas matter: I don’t really care about the labels, or the particular sectarian pigeonhole they’re in. It’s the utility of the ideas.
O.S.: How would you describe the works you publish?
R.K.: Well I think they run the gamut, the politics are all certainly radical, definitely left-wing. But, they’re equally likely to be independent Marxists – by independent I mean non-party political Marxists. We’re not interested in electoral politics, and we’re not interested in building “the revolutionary party”, the one big idea which will lead the masses to, you know, we’re not interested in that. We’re interested in things that will help people self-organise, so organise from below if you like. Within that, there’s a wide tradition, and vary varied tradition. That would include anarchist, Marxist, the radical end of religious folks – Catholic workers or Quakers.
O.S.: What’s the selection process like? What do you look for in the books you publish?
R.K.: Firstly, they have to be really good. It’s the quality of the work and the ideas within. So, we’re only interested in publishing radical left-wing stuff, which will hopefully make some small contribution to a better world. For example, we’re not interested in publishing escapist fantasies – we all need to escape, but that’s not the role of PM Press.
We publish all kinds of fiction, but it’s leftwing fiction. It’s a different way of conveying ideas – it’s not pure escapism. Whatever subject-matter it tackles, we want it to be through a left-wing prism. We’ve published books about sports. While it could be argued that sports are reactionary, it can also be argued that the way people organise around sports is very progressive. It’s not an either/or. We also publish music. The music we do is a way of conveying ideas.
O.S.: So for people submitting books to you, would you say you look at quality of publication and whether it’s through a left-wing prism?
R.K.: Yeah, and the other thing is the commercial aspect. It could be the best book in the world on the most important topic, but if we don’t think we can sell it, then we’re not doing anyone a favour. We’re not doing the author, the ideas or ourselves a favour if it’s going to languish. We turn down books sometimes, not because of the quality of the work but because we don’t think we can sell it.
O.S.: What sort of books lack commercial viability?
R.K.: Well you could have a very narrowly defined subject book. You could have a book about say, I don’t know, a worker’s collective in 1936 in a region of Spain. That might be the best historical investigative work ever written, and it may illuminate all kinds of things – but the chances of a wide audience reading about a very narrow piece of history are pretty slim. So that’s not about the value of the book or the importance of that story – but if there are only 200 people around the world who want to read it, it’s not commercially viable for us to print 2000 copies.
O.S.: In terms of the left-wing leanings of PM Press – what does that mean for how you organise internally? What does it mean for what your group looks like? How many people do you have?
R.K.: There are eight of us. Everyone gets paid the same. On paper, me and another chap Craig are the owners – we have 50 per cent shares in the company. We all work fairly independently, we have more or less specific job duties. So someone’s full-time job is events/tabling, another’s is production, another’s is marketing and publicity, another’s is editorial/copy-editing.
O.S.: What advice would you give to anyone setting up their own independent publication?
R.K.: I would urge everyone to think about what you want to do, why, and realistically who’s the audience? If you want to do obscure historical research, that’s actually really important, and modern technology means you can just print 200 copies – but that would be very different to if you want to reach a wide audience?
O.S.: What are your print runs like?
R.K.: We won’t print anything if we don’t think we can sell 1,500 copies. But for us, it’s not commercially viable because we’re paid – if we’re paying someone to copy edit, layout, proof it and try to sell it. That’s a different economy of scale. I’d encourage people to think carefully about what you’re doing and why, because that will tailor what you’re producing and who it will reach.
O.S.: What are your dreams for the future of PM Press?
R.K,: My ultimate dream would be that PM would be redundant, because we’ll have a massive social, political revolution.
O.S.: But won’t we want to write about it?
R.K.: Yeah, that’s true. My dreams are that we can continue to make some sort of, however modest impact. PM is also a political project, we’re trying to contribute to a “better world”, if that doesn’t sound too banal. Some of my dreams are that we continue to be effective, somewhat, in doing that.
O.S.: Do you think you’re effective in doing that?
There have been a few things we’ve done where we have seen clear cause and effect. So we published a book of writings by this Black Panther who’s been in prison for the last 40 years, called Russell Maroon Shoatz. Recently he won a court case that meant he was no longer kept in isolation, and it was cited in the court case that he was a well-known person now that he had a book of his writings published. So, that had a direct, tangible impact.
You can also see the effect of some of the ideas that, when, one of our authors become more well known, and their ideas because of the books we’ve published. I think it’s fair to say that both Silvia Federici and Selma James, went to the next level in terms of their recognition and the circulation of their ideas when we published their books.
Odette’s current favourites from PM Press
“The fight over the tar sands in North America is among the epic environmental and social justice battles of our time, and one of the first that has managed to quite explicitly marry concern for frontline communities and immediate local hazards with fear for the future of the entire planet.
Tar sands “development” comes with an enormous environmental and human cost. But tar sands opponents—fighting a powerful international industry—are likened to terrorists, government environmental scientists are muzzled, and public hearings are concealed and rushed.
Yet, despite the formidable political and economic power behind the tar sands, many opponents are actively building international networks of resistance, challenging pipeline plans while resisting threats to Indigenous sovereignty and democratic participation. Including leading voices involved in the struggle against the tar sands, A Line in the Tar Sands offers a critical analysis of the impact of the tar sands and the challenges opponents face in their efforts to organize effective resistance.’
Contributors include: Angela Carter, Bill McKibben, Brian Tokar, Christine Leclerc, Clayton Thomas-Muller, Crystal Lameman, Dave Vasey, Emily Coats, Eriel Deranger, Greg Albo, Jeremy Brecher, Jess Worth, Jesse Cardinal, Joshua Kahn Russell, Lilian Yap, Linda Capato, Macdonald Stainsby, Martin Lukacs, Matt Leonard, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Naomi Klein, Rae Breaux, Randolph Haluza-DeLay, Rex Weyler, Ryan Katz-Rosene, Sâkihitowin Awâsis, Sonia Grant, Stephen D’Arcy, Toban Black, Tony Weis, Tyler McCreary, Winona LaDuke, and Yves Engler.”
“This book reveals Australia’s radical past through more than 500 tales of Indigenous resistance, convict revolts and escapes, picket line hijinks, student occupations, creative direct action, street art, media pranks, urban interventions, squatting, blockades, banner drops, guerilla theatre, and billboard liberation. Twelve key Australian activists and pranksters are interviewed regarding their opposition to racism, nuclear power, war, economic exploitation, and religious conservatism via humor and creativity. Featuring more than 300 spectacular images How to Make Trouble and Influence People is an inspiring, and at times hilarious, record of resistance that will appeal to readers everywhere.”
Read more at http://www.pmpress.org/