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Margaret Busby: how Britain’s first black female publisher revolutionised literature – and never gave up

In her 20s, she set up her own company, publishing everyone from James Ellroy to the Worst Witch series, and changing Britain for the better, book by

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In her 20s, she set up her own company, publishing everyone from James Ellroy to the Worst Witch series, and changing Britain for the better, book by book

There is a revealing story Margaret Busby tells, about the first novel she published. A family friend had bumped into a former US serviceman called Sam Greenlee. Greenlee said he had written a novel, rejected by 40 American publishers, a satirical thriller about the first African American man hired by the CIA but given a very visible non-job (the point being it was only to improve the CIA’s image). The man keeps his head down, learns about guerrilla warfare, then quits to become a freedom fighter in Chicago. Busby took it on, borrowing money so Greenlee could stay in London while the book was edited and, when it was about to be published, in 1969, she sent it to the Observer.

The paper refused it – it didn’t extract fiction and certainly not black power novels. Busby sent it back, insisting the paper was wrong. It ran an extract, and The Spook Who Sat By the Door was translated into six languages and turned into a film. When this “parable of institutional racism”, as the New York Times described the film, opened in 1973, newspapers wondered if it would start race warfare. It closed early under FBI pressure, and was not reissued until 2004, then, nearly a decade later, added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

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