Pluto Press at 50 - how we got here

Veruschka Selbach
Opinion - Publishing Monday, 18 November 2019

Pluto Press is 50 this year. Veruschka Selbach gives five tips for keeping a small, radical publisher in business


1. Ensure independence... work with brilliant people who put mission first
In 1969, our founder Richard Kuper didn't think he would be standing in the Crypt on Clerkenwell Green celebrating Pluto Press's 50th birthday. Keeping a small radical book publisher going isn't easy. He describes Pluto's origins in a blog on our website:

"Pluto Press has its origins in the anti-Vietnam war movement, the student movement and the militancy of grassroots workers' organisation of the 1960s. The origins of this late-Sixties ferment made the launch of a far-left socialist publishing house possible.

"[After a few years of running the press alone] fortunately for Pluto and socialist publishing, Mike and Nina Kidron were in the process of moving to London with energy, enthusiasm and a grander vision than I could summon up at the time.

"Mike and Nina were insistent that we formalise the endeavour as a truly independent publishing project. Our decisions on what to publish would flow from our vision of what was needed to influence political activism and develop socialist analysis among a new generation of activists. We really were living in the midst of a vibrant world in upheaval with a buzzing range of alternative movements and projects. We attempted to ensure that Pluto was part of this, shaping and being shaped by this unprecedented upheaval, and reaching our target readership by selling directly to trades unions, student unions, women's organisations and theatre audiences as well as through the expanding network of radical bookshops that emerged in the 1970s."

In 1987, the list was acquired by Roger van Zwanenberg, which gave Pluto a new lease of life. Roger and Anne Beech led the company through the next 30 years, holding on to this vision as well as Pluto's independence through a number of ownership models.

In 2018, Pluto restructured again to secure its independence and manifest it as the social enterprise that it is. Roger van Zwanenberg has created the Pluto Educational Trust, a charity which owns the majority of the company. Staff members have been given 10% and are represented on the board.

2. Floods happen... back up your data
In 2005 the washing machine upstairs overflowed, down into our finance director's office. Thoughtfully, he had backed up his data on to an external hard drive. Unfortunately, the hard drive was also on his desk. We lost all our sales data. We had to reconstruct it, painstakingly, from previous reports and paper copies.

3. Stand your ground... make sure your partners and suppliers understand you
Sometimes it's hard. And sometimes it costs a lot. In the end, you have to stand by what you publish. In 2007 Pluto published Joel Kovel's Overcoming Zionism, an insightful critique of the contradictions of Zionism and a two-state solution in Israel. The book was heavily opposed in the US by Stand With Us, a pro-Israeli government advocacy group. They targeted the University of Michigan Press, which was our distributor in the US at the time, and forced it to stop distributing Pluto books. Moving distribution cost us about 20% of our US turnover, but we ended up with a good partner who understood our ethos.

4. Watch out for suing Sheiks... check books for libel, but don't be scared
In 1999, Pluto published John Cooley's Unholy Wars, an analysis of the US involvement in training and arming a quarter of a million Islamic mercenaries in the 1980s, including Al Qaida. In April 2001 we published Reaping the Whirlwind by Michael Griffiths, a comprehensive picture of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

In September that year, the twin towers were destroyed. Pluto had the only book-length analyses of the organisation claiming responsibility and its supporters. Sales soared.

In 2003, however, we were sued by Sheik Khalid bin Mahfouz for allegations of funding Al Qaida in Griffith's book. We had to concede and pay a large six-figure settlement, which wiped out any profit we had managed to accumulate.

5. Get involved and stay involved... put your money where your mouth is
At Pluto, we keep our ears to the ground, we listen and we work with activists and authors who are at the forefront of movements, campaigns and political projects. And everyone at the company has a different take on what they perceive to be radical. But, like any successful political project, it's a combination of our internal knowledge and understanding of radical theory and economics, mixed up with an ever-changing awareness of what people actually care about. Pluto is more than just a business. We actively work to support campaigns we think can stick a knife in the heart of the establishment.

We produce a monthly podcast called "Radicals in Conversation", where we chat to people involved in campaigning on the ground. This month we discuss the arms trade, "artwash" and the power of political art, with artist Peter Kennard and Rhianna Louise, an organiser at Art the Arms Fair. We are especially excited about launching our new Outspoken series of short books, written by young people for young people, unravelling debates on a variety of issues including sex education, masculinity, feminism, mental health, and class and inequality.

We also support radical initiatives in other ways. For example, we donate books to Haven Distribution, which provides books for prisoners, and to campaigns such as the Women's Strike, the Picturehouse Cinema Strike and the Grenfell Victims' Fund. These activities keep us from becoming complacent and isolated.

Veruschka Selbach is managing director of Pluto Press.

This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Book Fair Show Daily.

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