A conversation this morning with RobAroundBooks on Twitter reminded me of a forgotten but much-loved imprint, Rebel Inc. Classics. I was surprised that people hadn’t heard of them, but looking around, it does seem that they’ve been pretty effectively erased from the publishing landscape. With some of their titles fetching (or at least, asking) high prices on eBay, they probably aren’t even that easy to find in the secondhand shops anymore.
Rebel Inc. started in 1992 as a magazine, founded by Kevin Williamson, intended to bring the DIY punk ethos to Scottish literature. The magazine provided a voice for a new generation of Scottish writers, including Irvine Welsh, and within a few years had moved to publishing books; after some contemporary titles, the first classics were published in 1999, and I discovered them not long afterwards.
Although Rebel Inc. Classics set out to publish classics of counter-culture literature, their appeal was actually pretty broad. As well as titles like Robert Sabbag’s Snowblind and work by Howard Marks, the list also brought figures like Richard Brautigan, John Fante, and Alexander Trocchi back into print. With their distinctive (mostly) monochromatic or black, white, and gold covers, the titles were easy to spot in a bookstore, and by and large, were a pretty safe bet to buy if you did. In some ways, seeing a Rebel Inc. classic in a bookstore was the contemporary equivalent of a white-spined eighties Picador paperback in a charity shop: you couldn’t guarantee you’d like the title, but you knew it would be something interesting.
Rebel Inc. also had a pretty good website, especially for the time, and had a neat offer of a free mystery book with every purchase. I soon became a regular purchaser, and discovered Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl through one of these giveaways. They even published Ianthe Brautigan’s memoir of her father, and brought her over to the UK for a very interesting event, which I was lucky enough to attend.
Then it all stopped. As is often the case, it’s hard to tell exactly what happened: a fall out between Williamson and Canongate, who were distributing the books, is one possibility; I believe they cite “financial restructuring”. Whatever it was, though, that caused Williamson’s departure in 2001, the old Rebel Inc. Classics began to disappear from the shelves, old editions replaced by new ones, Rebel Inc. logos replaced by Canongate ones. The message was clear: one of the more interesting experiments in contemporary classics lists was over.
You can still find the titles second hand, although at the time of writing, some of the rarer titles—or the more collectable, like those by Richard Brautigan—are on sale on Amazon or eBay for prices creeping up towards the fifty quid mark. And no wonder: to those for whom the Rebel Inc. classics came along at the right time, those distinctive, award-winning covers still represent an exciting rush of literary discovery.