Peepal Tree Press is behind the dark, magical realist novel that scooped the £30,000 Costa Book of the Year last week, with The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey putting a new spotlight on a small publisher that has consistently supported international Caribbean writing for 35 years.
It’s a tiny outfit. Including founder and managing editor Jeremy Poynting, the Leeds-based independent has just two full-time employees. The other stalwart, operation manager Hannah Bannister, has spent the past week “working beyond the call of duty” to pack up thousands of copies of Roffey’s novel, after the press received a flurry of orders. Two days after the prize announcement, the press had sold just over 12,000 copies and had to switch from its usual printer, InPrint Digital, to cope with the demand. An extra 20,000 have since been sent to print at Ashford Colour Press.
Poynting says Roffey’s novel is “a damn good story”, and perhaps the same can be said of Peepal Tree itself. As Poynting says, “we have been around for ages, but now people have really started to notice”.
Poynting has lived in Leeds since 1965, when he attended the “radical” university there, befriending Kenyan author and academic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and working on a PhD in Caribbean studies. It was a conversation with Guyanese writer Rooplall Monar, who had unsuccessfully tried to get his own book published, that planted the seed of Poynting setting up his own indie. The press formally opened its doors in 1986, operating entirely from Poynting’s home, with Monar’s Backdam People as its first title. “It was just a favour for a friend,” says Poynting. “He couldn’t get his book published, and it was a book I liked.”
Peepal Tree launched at a time when the industry was undergoing rapid change. The first wave of Caribbean writers had been published largely by independent presses, which were fast disappearing, including Andre Deutsch, whose founder was an early advocate of V S Naipaul. Publishing houses disappeared entirely; Heinemann and Longman discontinued their “excellent” Caribbean series.
“The accountants got in and saw that neither African nor Caribbean writing paid,” says Poynting. “The Caribbean stuff dwindled. I was aware that there were quite a lot of writers who were no longer getting any kind of access to British publishing, so it struck me, perhaps naively, that there was a niche there. And then the idea grew.”
The venture was a struggle. “At one stage, I worked out I couldn’t afford to keep paying the printers’ bills. One of the printers was kind enough to let me buy an old machine for a grand, so I did,” Poynting says. “We printed our own stuff for quite a while, in an 18-by-eight-foot garage. It was a very wonky machine, but it had rubber bands in the right places. I hated it—the air was frequently blue.”
Now part of Arts Council England’s National portfolio, the press receives funding through their grants. Self-printing for many years produced a sizeable backlist and, with the exception of around a dozen titles Poynting has let “quietly die”, all of its 450 books are still in print. Thirty-five years on, Peepal has published all the writers who work for the list, including inaugural Jhalak Prize-winner Jacob Ross (associate fiction editor at Peepal Tree), and Kwame Dawes (associate poetry editor), author and editor of over 100 books and winner of the 2019 Windham-Campbell Prize. Ross has sold 3,064 units—a mixture of novels, short story collections and poetry—for £29,167 through Nielsen BookScan’s UK TCM, while Dawes has sold 1,271 books for a value of £14,451.
Sales and marketing agency Inpress represents the list, which relies on support from indie bookshops. From the very beginning, African and Caribbean specialist New Beacon Books in north London has stocked its titles, while Edinburgh’s Portobello Bookshop is one of its strongest retail channels. North-west London’s Queens Park Books was an early supporter of The Mermaid of Black Conch.
A knock-on effect
The sudden new interest in the press following the Costa win has benefited other Peepal Tree writers, Poynting says. Sales of Corinne Fowler’s Green Unpleasant Land and Roger Robinson’s 2020 T S Eliot Prize-winning collection, A Portable Paradise, steadily increased throughout 2020, and have now accelerated. “If we are able to maintain the turnover of the past two months, which would be exceptional, then we would be selling about £300,000 [worth of books] a year,” says Poynting.
“Undoubtedly there is a kind of revived and renewed focus,” he adds, acknowledging the force of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, he credits Caribbean literature festivals, including Jamaica’s Calabash, and Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad, with directing the gaze of the “British literary elite” at Peepal Tree.
Marina Salandy-Brown, former BBC producer and current director of the National Gas Company Bocas Lit Fest since 2010, is behind the $10,000 OCM Bocas prize for fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Roffey won the festival’s overall prize for her novel Archipelago in 2013. “[Salandy-Brown] has very strategically invited certain people from the British literary media to attend, and now suddenly the mainstream publishers are requesting previews of titles,” says Poynting. He is wary of suggesting the current attention will force a long-lasting change to British publishing. “For about the past 15 years, the only Caribbean writer who has been majorly and consistently published by the British media is Earl Lovelace. But suddenly now, Faber and [others] are looking out for the next Caribbean hot thing. But how long it will last, who knows?
“For a while at least, the major presses will be skimming the things that they think will appeal to a wider readership. Themes and the kind of style and narrative that give it a wide [scope]. The cynical side of me thinks this will last only as long as the books sell. Our hope is that it lasts. We publish some books that we think are the best that author has ever done, but for some reason couldn’t find a home at one of the big publishers.”
Roffey is among these authors. The Mermaid of Black Conch, her sixth novel, for which she crowdfunded a PR campaign, was repeatedly turned down by many mainstream publishers before it found a home at Peepal Tree. Now those publishers are interested in acquiring the title, though at the moment Peepal Tree is resisting.
Despite his cynicism, Poynting is hopeful publishers will soon wake up to the wealth of Caribbean writing, particularly that of Trinidadian women. “Trinidad is the oyster at the moment; there is a lot of grit and good writing coming out of there,” he says. A particular trend that is emerging is historical fiction, reimagined from a woman’s point of view.
Forthcoming novels include Amanda Smyth’s story of the island’s early oil industry, Fortune, and One Day, One Day, Congotay by Merle Hodge, author of 1970 novel Crick Crack, Monkey, set to be released in September. Among these heavyweights, Poynting is keen to continue to spotlight more talent, particularly the “endangered species” of male Caribbean writers. “You can’t ignore the fact that you survive by selling books,” he says. “We have got to think about the best interest of the author, and our position too. We obviously want the books to sell. But if the books are good, if the stories are really good, they will.”