This October, in honour of Black History Month, Virago is celebrating Black women in publishing.
Margaret Busby was the first Black woman publisher in Britain. She has been one of the most consistent and thoughtful commentators on and campaigners for greater inclusion in British publishing over the past fifty years – and one of the people who’s done the most to create actual change in the literary world.
So many look to her with gratitude and for inspiration, including Zadie Smith, who wrote: ‘[She] helped change the landscape of both UK publishing and arts coverage and so many black British artists owe her a debt. I know I do.’
Born in Ghana in 1944, Margaret Busby moved to Britain as a child to attend school and then university. In 1967 she founded the publishing company Allison & Busby with Clive Allison. Busby left after the company (which is still going very successfully) was sold in the 1980s and went on to be the editorial director of Earthscan publishers. After several years there, she went freelance and since then has pursued an incredible range of projects, from journalism and reviewing, to adapting books for dramatisation and hosting radio programmes, to editing two ground-breaking anthologies of African writing, Daughters of Africa (1992) and New Daughters of Africa (2020), to last year being the Chair of the Booker Prize for Fiction.
In recognition of all the work she has done to promote literature and in particular Black writers, and to improve diversity in publishing, she has received multiple awards and honours, including most recently being voted one of the 100 Great Black Britons in 2020 and this year being given the London Book Fair Lifetime Achievement Award as well as being made a Commander of the British Empire.
Looking at her career, the sheer range of her areas of expertise, and the huge numbers of writers she’s helped to promote, really shines through. Speaking about her anthologies, she recently said, ‘There are still so many writers who deserve to be better showcased, and quite often it is only a handful whom the traditional gatekeepers let through. The anthology could have been twice the size, thrice the size’. She has sustained over decades this curiosity and energy for bringing brilliant writing to readers, whether that’s on the page or through radio or prize shortlists – and this is now inspiring a new generation of publishers, something which has always been crucial for her as well.
Speaking about being ‘the first’, she said last year, ‘Well, I know that the description of me that is often given is that I was the UK’s youngest and first black or African woman publisher, but although being the first at something can be seen as an achievement, it has always been more important to me not to remain “the only”, so I am always happy to encourage others to enter the industry’.
We hope this profile – which inevitably covers only a few highlights from Busby’s incredible (and ongoing) career – will inspire you too.
A small selection of books which Margaret Busby has published and edited:
Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent: From the Ancient Egyptian to the Present (1992)
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