Time is short, our enemies are legion, we are spoilt for causes worth fighting for: no one needs another internecine left-wing squabble, which is why I have shied from commenting in public about this one until I was hopeful it was over.
Seven years ago, me, Mark Fisher and the rest of the team that started Zero Books were forced out or resigned — the distinction is a fine one, but our decision to leave was not one we took willingly. It involved many of the things our readers consider important and care passionately about: workplace bullying, employers’ contempt for staff, editorial interference, the poor treatment of authors and, perversely, an animus against our project itself.
Zero Books started at a meeting at the New Piccadilly Cafe, since closed, in the spring of 2007. Oddly, I remember it being one of the last times I have felt physically nervous, God knows why, as those assembled were about as unlikely to erupt into violent disagreement as any I have sat across a table with and, indeed, all looked fairly nervous themselves as I cantered on without a script. Perhaps we all shared a presentiment that we were about to make (modest) publishing history. If we did, we were not able to do so quickly. The fact that it took two further years for our first books to come out was a pretty accurate reflection of our collective publishing experience, which aside from my having published three novels (but with no practice at the other end of the business), was negligible. The small group of enthusiasts that met that day were chosen by myself and Mark, believing the other writers would form part of a new publishing vanguard, an ambitious suggestion that I was happy to take his word for. As my original desire had been to get Mark into print (the editors I had shown his work to were completely non-plussed and generally dismissive of his writing), and the belief that there were other such lone voices out in the blog wilderness, I was ready to conclude that the job would now have to be done ourselves, treating our “summit” as an opportunity to get the kind of people who did not think they were authors, but who should be, into print.
In retrospect, I realise that the only publisher willing to back us, John Hunt Publishing, was at cross purposes with us from the start. In Zero they saw a cheap (in the early days we worked for free and later for never more than very low wages), relatively risk-free way of ground-testing their innovative publishing model: all author communication would run through an online database, minimum staff and no phone calls or emails, multiple titles with very little editing and low production costs and quality, little marketing or promotion — and all done at a budget. As our wanting to find and publish new authors, to better establish our emerging “hegemony”, was itself risky, only a relatively low-cost publisher was going to collaborate with us. Hence a strange alliance was formed and held, for a while, but our refusal to see these systems as the point of the exercise, simply a regrettable means, combined with JHP’s anger at our success despite our different approach (personal contact, events and friendship were always a big part of how we operated) meant that the tension was never less than sharp, ongoing and enduring. Sales helped, tipping the balance of power in our favour. Whereas at the outset our success had seemed unimaginable, by the time the first books were released it felt inevitable. Titles that might have been considered too marginal or plain weird to colonise the mainstream did just that, best epitomised by Mark’s Capitalist Realism and Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet. One was a work of political analysis and the other a piece of godless nihilist theology. Both were written in a tenor, a voice that a readership that had been neglected, but that we were also in the act of creating, understood and connected to at once.
When the end came, we were led (on) to believe we would be able to buy the imprint, but the ownership of John Hunt Publishing was able to do what we on the left thought impossible, which is to say beyond the pale: to bring in a replacement and so kill our hope of a sale. The marriage of convenience had shown itself to have run its course and JHP clearly felt that the money could flow even without the “project”, to which JHP had never really signed up. As the replacement did not care about the issues we did, the issues we thought people who read our books did, or at least could look the other way in his own marriage of convenience, relying on indulgent treatment on account of the back catalogue bequeathed them, the new publisher was able to opportunistically benefit from the brand, and pose an existential threat to our new project, Repeater Books. Faced with the irony of having to compete with our own back catalogue, Repeater moved to a more effective model (still flexible, but far fewer, and better produced and edited books). Meanwhile, with the Zero team moving over en masse to the new imprint, with the ever-valuable support of readers who knew our story and backed our project, as well as Zero’s cynical missteps, were of incalculable benefit in building our new imprint up from scratch.
One month ago, Repeater, as part of the sale of John Hunt Publishing to Etan Ilfeld, a founding member of Repeater Books, was reconnected with something we had never wanted to let get away: Zero Books. The weeks since the sale have been challenging in that the former publisher withheld Zero’s channels and began a campaign of demonstrable lies and cynical misinformation that has yet to stop. On the day he found out about the sale, he rebranded Zero’s Patreon and YouTube as his own. There had been no direct contact between him and the new ownership at the time and no discussions had taken place about his future with the company. Nevertheless, he falsely reported being fired, broke confidentiality and leaked news of the sale attempting to frame it as Watkins Media vs him.
This week, the last of the remaining assets were returned. Nothing looked like Zero when we started it, now everything, at least superficially, does. The window displays of Foyles are heaving with polemics bound in covers with garish colours, supposedly calling out power and privilege. But big publishers are still essentially conservative — even if they will now take chances on authors that independents have already broken, they still do not trust their instincts on discovering and spotting new talent. That means there still exists the same need for innovative publishing and publishers, as there was in 2007. How this will work for Zero and Repeater is an interesting question. An imprint with a successful backlist that supports a struggling frontlist (whose successes have come from interventions in the leftist civil-culture war, and a robust YouTube presence that has nonetheless failed to complement sales), faithful to the corner-cutting model, has run its course, as it was not for nothing that the company was sold to us. And, while it is good to have our books back where they belong, we have decided to call a moratorium on new signings until we have consensus on a viable new direction. Until then, we will return to a team-based operation, not one that uses the imprint as a platform for individual self-aggrandisement, honouring all existing contracts, for authors we signed, and for those that we did not. I would also like to offer our thanks and gratitude to the readers and writers, often an interchangeable distinction, that have supported both imprints from their foundation to the present.
Tariq Goddard, November 2021