A brief history of Peepal Tree Press
By founder and managing editor Jeremy Poynting
The idea for Peepal Tree began in the ruins of the former Lusignan sugar estate on the East Coast Demerara in Guyana in 1984. My friend Rooplall Monar was acting out several of the stories he had written, but was in despair at their ever seeing the light of day. Writers in Guyana usually went to the local printery, or Sheik Sadeek with his Adana press, but in those bad, grim Burnham days, there was no paper to be had. The government was keen to keep the means of communication out of opposition hands. Cheese was smuggled not paper. I promised to organise the printing of a small run (400 I think) back in England. The idea for the name came from the research I was doing in Indo-Caribbean writing. I wondered about ‘Banyan’ at first, but it didn’t have the right ring. There were peepal trees in the Caribbean, seeds of which had evidently been brought by Indian indentured labourers. (I recall a poem by an early Indo-Guyanese poet, Jacob Chinapen that described estate workers sitting under a peepal tree telling stories at the end of the day).
The printing days at 17 Kings Avenue
The name seemed a good metaphor (and pun) for something that was transplanted, as a symbol of staying connected to origins but putting down roots in a new environment. There was also a certain political point to the name. At the time, in the 1980s, the position of Indians in the Caribbean, was still one of cultural marginality and political exclusion. Much has changed since then, but I wanted the name to be both Indian and Caribbean. So, Backdam People became the first Peepal Tree publication, ‘typeset’ on a daisywheel printer and printed in the evenings at the college where I worked. New Beacon Books, all praise to John La Rose and Sarah White, who were my inspiration, sold quite a few in their bookshop; I took them to the Black, Third World and Radical Bookfair, and began to learn that publishers had to be salesmen too (a difficult lesson for a sheltered Further Education lecturer), and of course sold quite a few in book-starved Guyana. Sadly the Guyana dollar was devalued from about $8 to the £1 sterling to over $100 to the pound just after these were sold. That was a lesson about the intricacies of export, one that was reinforced later when our former US distributor went bust, and when a certain Trinidadian bookseller skipped off the island with her new American husband, leaving her large debts behind.
Peepal Tree office and printing floor circa 2007
But Peepal Tree has never been discouraged for too long. Backdam People began what was a serious but quite expensive hobby, bringing out one or two books a year, until a friendly printer sold me an old Rotaprint offset press (it did depend on an elastic band) and with the help of my then teenage son, we began printing (that statement conceals many painful hours of trial and much error) Peepal Tree books in our garage. When the Arts Council gave me a grant, we bought an ear-splitting old folding machine and were really in business. A year or two later we were encouraged to put in a bid to the Arts Council for development funding. (They were evidently impressed by the fact that we actually delivered the books we promised.) I wrote the first business plan of my life (of astonishing naivety I see now – though no one in the Arts Council recognized this).
On the basis of being awarded development funding, I began to try to turn the hobby into a business, and took the risk of turning my FE lecturer’s job into a halftime post.
The business plan was to subsidize the overheads and printing costs of the books by running a parallel printing business, looking for jobs from other small publishers and local NGOs. What happened thereafter is a too long, involved and sometimes painful story to tell. (It involved being seriously in debt to the bank.) But the conclusion is that in time this did indeed become the reality and that is how Peepal Tree survived for many years as a printer publisher. It kept costs down and let us produce above our financial weight, but ultimately it limited the number of books we could do by cutting into editing time – and when it wrong, as it too frequently did, I hated printing, folding and binding with a passion. The romantic illusion of being William Blake making his own books was impossible to sustain. Since we stopped printing even our own books, there were far fewer “bad words” vented at 17 Kings Avenue.
There were two other crucial steps in Peepal Tree’s survival. One was the support of two Caribbean poets, who also happened to be business people (Ian McDonald and Ralph Thompson along with others), to help us turn Peepal Tree into a limited company with a small number of very friendly investors who did not expect to see any dividend returns on their investments – which helped us towards some financial stability. The other was the arrival of Hannah Bannister as an intern, who possessed all the practical skills that has kept Peepal Tree functioning since 1994.
It was the development of digital printing technologies that provided the way out, and solved the other problem that we were running out of space for storing book stock in our basement. After much careful study of spread-sheet calculations we took the decision in around 2010 to cease running a print shop and send out all our books to be made at the excellent Imprint Digital based in Exeter. It means that we print for anticipated demand and pre-orders and then keep reordering print runs when they are needed. Besides not tying up capital and exceeding storage space, it makes it much easier to keep books in print without any hiatus in supply. All our books are still typeset and designed in-house, the covers all designed by Hannah Bannister as one of the several hats she wears. No longer doing our own printing also meant that we had more time to devote to the development of books and writers, a capacity increased when we took on first Kwame Dawes and then Jacob Ross as respectively associate poetry and fiction editors. It also meant that there was more time to devote to marketing activities, a capacity increased when we took on Adam Lowe as an associate to run our social media and digital marketing, such as the regular newsletter.
It meant, too, that we were able to engage much more with the outside world and in specific partnership activities, both in the UK and the Caribbean. We are partners, for instance, with Leeds Soroptimists who support a literary prize for Black and Asian women writers of fiction, and with the CaribLit group now hosted by the Bocas Litfest in Trinidad (and funded at various points by the Commonwealth Foundation and supported by the British Council) – as well as managing a variety of English and Yorkshire-based writer and reader developments activities run under the Inscribe badge. Our main contribution to the CaribLit project has been to set up a joint imprint, Peekash Press, with Akashic Books in New York, USA. Peekash is devoted to unpublished Caribbean-based writers, with the intention that its editorial management should pass into Caribbean-based hands.
Peepal Tree Press has gone through half-a-dozen incarnations. We still run on a shoestring but have survived in that way for 30 years. We are committed to developing and changing into the future.