Within the context of Caribbean literature and its publishers, Peepal Tree Press ranks among the most important, supportive and trusted institutions of them all. Originally established back in the mid-eighties, more as a fortuitous adventure than as a serious business project, it is now over 25 years since Rooplall Monar’s Backdam Peoplecame out of the daisy wheel printer that set in motion what would become the most respected, and, ultimately, the largest publishing house of Caribbean books, probably in the world.
More than modest, the beginnings of Peepal Tree Press were altruistic, naïve and utterly loveable. Operating from Jeremy Poynting’s garage, this, the smallest of private enterprises, moved at a fittingly slow pace, even for Caribbean standards. But slow and steady wins the race, and Poynting’s constancy in delivering the final product on time, however few products they were, paid off in due course, when a grant, first, and later a successful application for development funding from the Arts Council, meant that proper machinery and premises for the business could be procured. By the mid-nineties, almost 20 years ago, Peepal Tree Press had moved into its HQ in the number 17 of the King’s Avenue, in Burley – a less than affluent area just northeast of Leeds’ city center. That is where, to this day, Peepal Tree Press books are planned, processed and produced.
When I called, just a few weeks ago, on that run-down blue door – a weathered blue that must have been deeper, darker, once upon a time – I had to double-check to make certain this was the right address. The number 17, seemingly painted by hand next to the threshold, suggested I was in the right place, but it was only once I peeked through the post flap and I saw the cases and cases of books, that I knew, for certain, I was where I wanted to be.
I was welcomed, warmly and generously, by Jeremy Poynting and Hannah Bannister, the alpha and the omega of Peepal Tree Press. Even before I took the flight of stairs to the first floor, as I negotiated the maze of books and boxes sprawled all over the ground floor, I could tell that sometime in the past that large open-plan layout had housed a press where earlier books had been printed. But the days of mechanical printing are counted, if not gone, and these days PTP outsources all its books to a digital printer, Jeremy tells me, where, due to the overall volume of the business, they get the best possible rates with total flexibility with regards to the size of each individual print run.
Which takes us to the current business model: “We now print just a few hundred copies of our new books – maybe 400, 500. This keeps us going for the first two, three months at least, and after that we do small reprints, also in the hundreds, as we see fit.” Considering Jeremy claims on the website of Peepal Tree Press that the first edition of Backdam People, the company’s very first publication, had a run of 400 copies, this almost sounds like the story has gone full-circle. Except these days Peepal Tree Press not only has 25 years of experience behind its back, it also can profit from the low-risk strategy of having small print runs without compromising the benefits traditionally liked to mass-production: no storage problems, no conservation concerns, and, crucially, no added printing costs, despite the constant reprints.
This explains the company’s claim that it publishes between 30 and 40 books per year – a staggering number by traditional standards, but not if you consider the clever way in which they are taking advantage of (post) modern publishing strategies. “Like every publisher – Poynting tells me – we have to look at what is going to sell. But we are also concerned, and I guess in this respect we are lucky that we can afford to be, with what is going to stay, with what books are going to stay alive.” Jeremy’s motivation, still today, 25 years on, or perhaps even more so, precisely because of them, seems to be far more ethereal than you would expect. With obvious satisfaction, he tells me about Anthony McNeill, a Jamaican poet with great potential who died young in the 1990s, but not, according to Poynting, without leaving behind some admirable lines. A selection of his poems will be published by Peepal Tree Press in the coming year, despite the fact that sales are not expected to reach far into the hundreds. But this is the sort of thing you can afford to do with flexible printing patterns, low costs, minimal overheads and sincere affection for Caribbean culture.
Can this be profitable, though? Jeremy explains how continued support from the British Arts Council has enabled Peepal Tree Press to expand beyond book publishing, to organize workshops, to develop a parallel writing program, to reach out to the community and, in short, to become something close to a foundation. “Would you not be able to survive without external funding, then?” I press him. Jeremy takes a breath, lingers momentarily for what feels almost like one of those long pauses, typical of Harold Pinter’s drama, and then, pained, he tells me: “We would, probably, be able to survive. But we would have to cut out all the activities we carry out aside from publishing, and we would have to concentrate only on the core business, and we would have to cut down our overhead costs, which wouldn’t be much of a cut, anyway, because we already work with incredibly small overheads. We made a small deficit on the book publishing business last year, and evidently we would not be able to cover a deficit every year, but yes – the answer to your question is yes, we would be able to survive in some form or another without external funding.” I let out a sigh of relief, and I am not too certain, but I could almost claim that so did he.
So, with the present situation covered, and the comforting knowledge that the Arts Council is still backing the enterprise, I delve into what I really came to find out: what next for Peepal Tree Press? Where is the company heading: is it time to consolidate, to pack the bags, to slowly wind down, or is there still that hunger for more, that craving to keep going and reach higher in Jeremy and Hannah? The answer is very much the latter. As soon as I enunciate the question, Jeremy’s eyes, closely set together and sheltered by his old-fashioned spectacles, glow with excitement.
He tells me about the Caribbean Modern Classics division, a venture that since 2009 has brought back to life many of the most iconic names in Caribbean literature, from Salkey to Selvon, of whom everyone has heard, but few have actually read. Not best sellers, but long sellers, is how he describes them, and I sense a touch of satisfaction when he says it, as if that is what he means when he talks about the books that will stay alive. And now Jeremy is away – it seems like there is no end to the list of the company’s new projects: attracting young readers seems to be a priority, “because there is obviously a big market, there,” and the resources of the publishing house are already committed to this end. Another area of focus in the future will be Caribbean drama, an aspect so far highly disregarded in the regional publishing landscape, despite the fact that it has been an immensely fertile ground in the past. Hence, the Modern Classics series might well turn in the direction of theatre in the near future and provide us with some emblematic works. And, finally, there is the prospect of bringing out a new series of translated material, extending the realm of Peepal Tree Press’ competence from the English-speaking Caribbean to a region-wide circle encompassing French, Spanish and Dutch traditions, as well.
That is all I needed to know: not only have I been reassured that the greatest benefactor of Caribbean letters is relatively secure in its position (as secure as anyone can be, in these times), but now I also hear its future efforts will be geared towards a form of integration, towards creating a pan-Caribbean corpus. Well, for me, that is plenty. That is more than enough.
PUBLISHED IN THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMEENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, OCTOBER 22, 2011.