An interview with Polly Pattullo of Papillote Press

Polly Pattullo is the cofounder of Papillote Press, a small publishing house based in Dominica and in London. Papillote Press publishes a range of books, both fiction and non-fiction, including children’s books, from Dominica. The titles all reflect the island’s rich culture and literary heritage and a number of them have received critical acclaim.

Located in the Eastern Caribbean between Martinique and Guadeloupe, Dominica is known as the Nature Isle because of its abundant and largely unspoilt natural beauty. Publishers are few and far between in this part of the Caribbean, which makes Polly Pattullo’s decision to set up shop there a courageous one given that small presses and bookstores in the region face tremendous odds as they try to discover and nurture home-grown talent. 

In addition to being a publisher, Polly is a published author and a journalist who worked for many years with the Guardian newspaper in the UK. Her books include Last Resorts: the Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean, a critical assessment of the economic, environmental and cultural impacts of tourism development in the region. She is also a co-author of the Gardens of Dominica and Home Again, both published by Papillote Press.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Polly via email during which she spoke about her experiences as a publisher and the challenges Papillote Press faces in trying to win an audience for its writers.

 Whose inspiration was it to create Papillote Press?

Polly: I’m not sure it could be called an inspiration but more a practical response to the problem of finding a publisher for a book. When I realised that no mainstream publisher would take on the book that Anne Jno Baptiste, the owner of Papillote Wilderness Retreat in Dominica, and I wanted to write (The Gardens of Dominica), I thought, “I can do this.” And so I published it myself. After that I realised that if I could publish one book, I could probably publish another. I also thought that there were many stories waiting to be told in Dominica.

Did you have difficulties getting it off the ground?

Polly: Not particularly, in terms of the practicalities. I published the first book, marketed it and got it into shops and other outlets in Dominica and into some bookshops in the UK – asking friends’ advice as to how the process works. I was lucky in that I am a journalist, have written books and have friends in publishing – so I could pick people’s brains and also felt confident about the whole editing and production process. Papillote Press only exists by being an unpaid one-woman operation and making sure that each book that is published generates enough cash to print the next book.

Do you have difficulties getting bookstores in the UK to stock your books?

Polly: Yes. I have a distributor, Central Books, and their sales reps go round taking orders, but I will be lucky to get many sales – the big chains may order a couple of copies and some independent bookshops, especially in areas where there is a Caribbean readership. I have my own database and sell directly too. Unless you pay the big retailers to give your book a high-profile positioning – as in on the front tables – your book will disappear onto the shelves and will only be discovered by the most hardcore of readers. I have managed to get excellent publicity for my books – a major feature in the Guardian newspaper and on BBC Radio 4, for example, for Home Again: Stories of Migration and Return – but this has not dramatically increased sales. The sales reps say that Papillote Press’ niche market – Dominica – is too tiny a niche, and doesn’t cross into the mainstream. However, I live in hope that I will find the book which will do just that. I have no doubt that the Caribbean is a rich repository of potential bestsellers.

Have you done book launches in other islands besides Dominica? What was the public response? 

Polly: No. Only in Dominica and the UK. I don’t have the finances to move from island to island but Papillote Press books are now in bookshops in Barbados and Trinidad. I would like to think that readers in the Caribbean would be interested in books from Dominica and would hope to increase sales in the region. Both in Dominica and the UK, the launches have been very well attended and, especially in the UK, a great interest from the Dominican diaspora has been very heartening.

As an author did you gravitate naturally towards travel writing or was it a calculated decision to take up this genre?

 Polly: I’m not a travel writer although I have written travel pieces from time to time. I have always been a jobbing journalist, writing about a range of subjects. I became a kind of specialist on the Caribbean through working for a publication called Caribbean Insight, a political and economic newsletter. I then wrote a book, Last Resorts: the Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean (Latin America Bureau/Routledge) and learned more about the region that way.

How vibrant is the literary community in Dominica?

Polly: We now have a wonderful Literary Festival and Book Fair which will be celebrating its third birthday in 2010. Past contributing writers for readings and workshops have included Derek Walcott, Mervyn Morris, Kwame Dawes, Earl Lovelace, Marie Elena John. The Festival has also provided much needed platforms for local writers and workshops to help them develop their skills. The book fair has been an opportunity for booksellers to sell local books. The Festival has attracted sizeable audiences but we hope for larger ones this year. Apart from the Festival, there are also a couple of writers’ groups, with an emphasis on poetry. However, there is a small reading population – few people can afford to buy books (which tend to be expensive – there are no supermarkets selling cut-price books), there is the distraction of television and the internet, there is a lack of books that speak to a Dominican (or Caribbean) identity.

Unfortunately the only proper bookshop, with an interest in Caribbean and local literature – in Dominica – Frontline – closed last year.  This is a terrible blow because Frontline had been in existence for many years, was a grass roots cultural focus for the island, and had an enthusiasm for selling local books. Its closure is a great loss.

Included among Papillote Press’ titles are Black and White Sands by Elma Napier, the first woman to sit in a Caribbean parliament, having served in Dominica’s Legislative Assembly in 1947, and the short-story collection It Falls into Place by Phyllis Shand Allfrey, author of the Caribbean classic Orchid House and a co-founder of the Dominica Labour Party. She later became a cabinet minister in the short-lived Federation of the West Indies. Do you think these two women’s contributions to the political evolution of Dominica and the Caribbean have been given sufficient recognition, compared to that of other well-known political figures from the region, most of who are males?

Polly: The political landscape of the Caribbean has always been – and remains – male.  That makes it more extraordinary that Phyllis Shand Allfrey and Elma Napier should both have played such important roles in Dominican politics half a century or more ago.  Both were white, however, with the attendant privileges  (although Allfrey’s colour meant that in the years of liberation politics she became a less prominent figure) and both had spent part of their lives overseas (Elma Napier was born in Scotland and only arrived in Dominica at the age of 40). As individuals, they both had to fight hard to be heard; Phyllis Allfrey, in particular, had to bear virulent criticism from her own class, and from relatives and friends, in Dominica. Nowadays, however, I feel that their legacy is respected – and publication of their works has to some extent helped this.

You have written several books yourself, including “Fire from the Mountain: The Tragedy of Montserrat and the Betrayal of Its People’ which received critical acclaim and was cited for its vivid portrayal of the Soufriere Hills volcanic eruption “against a backdrop of island politics and imperial neglect.” In an article on The Times Higher Education website, the writer James Ferguson said, “Polly Pattullo’s lucid account makes clear the Montserrat volcano affair cast unexpected light into one of the dustier recesses of British foreign policy.” Did you set out to make a political statement in writing the book?

Polly: Well, I don’t think of the book as a “political statement” but it would be strange to write about the story of the Montserrat volcano and  not to include anything about the relationship between Montserrat (an Overseas Territory) and the UK (the colonial power), which was/is crucial to the management of the volcano crisis.

You have lived in the Caribbean for extended periods and the islands seemed to have inspired a lot of your work, both as a journalist and an author. Do you feel an affinity with the region?

Polly: All I know is that I love being in Dominica – where I spend many months each year – that I am interested in its people and culture, and that Dominicans have always made me feel welcome.

As far as you can tell, what have been the experience of writers from Dominica and the smaller English-speaking islands of the Eastern Caribbean seeking to get published? 

Polly: I think that one problem is that many aspiring writers in Dominica (I don’t really know about the other islands) don’t really know how to go about getting their book published. They don’t have the contacts – this is also a problem for aspiring writers all over the world. Many publishers won’t look at manuscripts from unknown writers – they insist on going through an agent, and an agent is almost as difficult to find as a publisher. This, I hope, is where a small publisher such as Papillote Press might come in useful – it is approachable (at least I hope it is) and accessible.

I don’t, however, believe that by and large there are wonderful books languishing unpublished. I think that most decent writers do get published. It is important for unpublished writers to read as much literature as possible, to be willing to polish and re-polish their work and to have it criticised. This is the role of book clubs and writers’ circles. Having said that the economic climate does not encourage publishers to take risks; perhaps small publishing companies with a commitment rather than an obsession with economic returns are the best bet for unpublished writers, who, unfortunately, have to realise that no one is likely to get rich – neither publisher nor writer. There is also another point to make: writers from the Caribbean have traditionally “made it” by having to be published by major companies in the UK or the US, who don’t have any particular knowledge or affinity with the region. It would be great to think that a Caribbean publisher could make the breakthrough into the big time.

Nowadays, the alternative for many writers from Dominica is to go down the route of self-publishing. To my mind this is both good and bad: good in that people with a manuscript in their bottom drawers can see it published and readers can have the opportunity to read a home-grown book. Publishing has become more democratic, which must only be a good thing. The negative is that writers have to spend a lot of money getting their book out; the companies who publish their books promise a lot but expectations are not usually realised. There is also no opportunity for critical editing or, indeed, peer review before publication, so some self-published books are sometimes of a low standard. But, perhaps, we should never not welcome a book – perhaps it should always be the more the merrier, and the market will decide whether a book is of interest or not.

Do you find the Internet helpful in promoting and marketing your books?

Polly: Absolutely. Without it, it would be even harder to promote Papillote Press books.  I have a website (www.papillotepress.co.uk) and a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Papillote.Press) and there is, of course, Amazon, which is the one way in which people without bookshops in their neighbourhoods can buy just about any book in print.

In your view, what does the future hold for small presses?

Polly: Difficult to say. We don’t even know the future of large presses given the birth of e-books etc. However, the large presses over the last 20 years or so in the US and the UK have ravenously been eating up the small presses and I can’t see this process stopping. But let’s hope tiny publishing companies with smaller overheads and a lot of passion can survive the onslaught.

In addition to its website www.papillotepress.co.uk Papillote Press has a Facebook page as it is keen to engage its readers and get them involved in its literary projects. It’s gradually amassing a loyal following who are enthusiastic about the press’ adult and children’s books. Check it out at  www.facebook.com/Papillote.Press  

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3 responses to “An interview with Polly Pattullo of Papillote Press

  1. Instead of vacationing, Polly Pattullo gardens… An English journalist employed to The Guardian newspaper in London, and one of the non-Caribbean writers featured in the collection, she writes; I have a garden in Dominica, an island which is all garden… and, unlike Mr Rochester in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea who perceives the Dominican landscape as being “too red, too green, too blue”, Pattullo revels in the lushness and variety of the island and its flora.

    This is an extract taken from a review of the book “Caribbean Dispatches” which I wrote for the Jamaica Sunday Observer. That book was my introduction to Polly and I’ve grown to respect her tremendously. I now respect her even more for the task she has taken on in trying to give the people of Dominica an avenue through which to expose their writings. BIG UP POLLY!

  2. Dear Claudette
    Thank you so much for your very generous comments. I much appreciate it. I see that you’re now living back in Jamaica – so perhaps you would be interested in Papillote Press’ book, Home Again, about the experiences of returnees to Dominica. Good luck with your own writing. I look forward to reading Sweet Home Jamaica.

  3. You’re welcome, Polly. I most definitely am interested in ‘Home Again’ and will be taking steps to source myself a copy.
    Thanks too for the good wishes for my writing.

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