Twenty-five years after opening its doors in Leeds, England, Peepal Tree Press continues to hold its own and stands tall as the world’s leading publisher of Caribbean literature. With well over 160 titles in print, many of them fiction and poetry, Peepal Tree is an indispensible lifeline to poets and writers based in the Caribbean who have limited publishing opportunities at home and find it increasingly difficult to attract the attention of publishers outside of the region.
The caliber of Peepal Tree’s writers speaks volumes about their determination to ferret out the Caribbean’s best talents and provide them with a platform to showcase their work to the world. They include eye-catching names like Martin Carter, Samuel Selvon, Kamau Brathwaite, David Dabydeen, Ian McDonald, Rachel Manley, Beryl Gilroy, and more recently Geoffrey Philps, Kwame Dawes, Jacqueline Bishop, Robert Lee and many more. They’ve also reintroduced a number of Caribbean Classics, making them accessible to new generations of readers for the first time.
But in the rough-and-tumble of global publishing, what has it been like for Peepal Tree Press? How have they been faring in their drive to capture the attention of readers, and keep Caribbean literature in the spotlight?
Meet Hannah Bannister, Peepal Tree’s marketing manager. Hannah spoke with Caribbean Book Blog about her experiences and the challenges Peepal Tree faces, as well as the successes they’ve enjoyed, over the years.
How long have you been with Peepal Tree Press and what do you enjoy most about your work?
Hannah: I have been with Peepal Tree for 15 years. Someone once said that being a publisher is a bit like being a midwife and I think that’s true, but I also have the privilege of supporting the books right through to their old age.
What is a regular day like for you at the office?
Hannah: Very varied! I keep in touch with authors, overseeing contracts, designing covers. I tell people about our new books; update the website, facebook and now twitter, liaise with our UK and US distributors, handle press/review/general enquiries, design and produce catalogs, manage the production of new books, process orders, pay the bills; and very, very occasionally do the washing up and tidy up the office!
Do you have difficulties getting bookstores in the UK to stock your books?
Hannah: It’s an uphill struggle. You will still find one or two copies of the newest Peepal Tree Press books in the high street chains, but once they’re gone they don’t tend to be re-ordered. Essentially we are never going to make as much money for a store as the latest Dan Brown! The independent booksellers, notably the excellent New Beacon Bookshop, are much more adventurous. This month we have an event for John Lyons’s new Cook-up in a Trini Kitchen at Topping & Company Bookseller in Ely.
What about the Caribbean bookstores? Also, have you done book launches in the region?
Hannah: As there isn’t an established pan-Caribbean book distributor, we work directly with Caribbean booksellers, which is rewarding and much more personal. The Caribbean book market is definitely growing, with stores becoming much more exciting, varied and supportive in promoting Caribbean books and authors. We all work hard to bury the old chestnut ‘you can’t sell a Trini book in Barbados’. The last major Peepal Tree Press launch tour was in 2005. It was a fantastic celebration as we caught up with friends old and new, and the authors came together for some truly memorable performances in Barbados, Guyana and Trinidad. The next one is pencilled in for April/May 2010, so watch this space…
How important is publicity and marketing for writers?
Hannah: Hugely. Writers need readers and followers, and engaging in dialogue with other people about writing, whether that’s blogging, attending conferences and events, publishing in magazines, all help to develop skills as a writer, whilst helping to build a profile.
How involved should writers be in promoting their work?
Hannah: As much as they can bear! A writer making themselves available through a blog allows an ongoing dialogue with readers. Writers can’t afford to be shy about promoting themselves and their work.
Peepal Tree has been very welcoming and supportive of new voices. Is it difficult to market new writers?
Hannah: It’s never easy, as readers/booksellers/reviewers do tend to trust established names, but Caribbean writing is an incredibly fertile area, and new voices generate excitement. In 2010 we’re publishing a debut collection by Christian Campbell, who has been publishing in journals and performing at events to huge acclaim for a number of years, building a reputation as one of the most exciting of the younger group of emerging Caribbean poets. He has delayed publication until he was sure that he had reached a level of consistent excellence. I think sometimes new writers are in too much of a hurry for publication.
Do you find the Internet to be an effective marketing tool?
Hannah: It’s a continually evolving, and vital tool, I think we’re only just starting to scratch the surface in terms of connecting up the global diaspora of writers and readers of Caribbean books. We send a monthly e-mail newsletter which is a great way of keeping people in touch with what’s happening.
Does Peepal Tree have plans to enhance your Internet presence?
Hannah: We are working on a new website at the moment. Soon users will have the opportunity to review titles, engage in forums and dialogue with authors, and post your own profile to network with other Caribbean literature lovers. We’re also totally revamping the shopping experience. Our current site dates back six years, which is a lifetime in cyberspace!
In your view, what does the future look like for small presses?
Hannah: I think it’s pretty good. The internet means that books and readers will find each other more easily, but that interest will still need to be converted into meaningful book sales. Retailers like Amazon are now used to such large discounts that sales through them can actually result in a loss, and that’s no future! Buying books from small presses direct is the best way to ensure that your money does something positive for Caribbean writers, rather than making a multinational corporation even richer.
Do you think Caribbean writers have reason to be hopeful about the future?
Hannah: I really do think it’s a bright future, and I hope we’ll start to see more entrepreneurs setting up Caribbean publishing companies – there’s room for more, judging by the volume and quality of the submissions we receive.
Congratulations to Peepal Tree for reintroducing the canon of Caribbean Classics to new generations of readers! What has been the public response so far to the series?
Hannah: It’s been fantastic to find that books that first seized the imagination in the 50s and 60s, have not lost their power to disturb, and provoke reverberations of thought into the 21st century. When we get the new website up it’ll be great to be able to get some discussions going and read people’s reviews.
Finally, what do you do for relaxation?
Hannah: I have two football mad children, so I spend a lot of time shivering in fields in West Yorkshire! I have just begun learning to play the piano, and I get to a yoga class at least once a week.