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Learning in Leeds: A Small Press Can be a Warm Place

by Shivanee Ramlochan

The bookshelves here are a revelation.

I’ve worked professionally as a book reviewer for five years, and I’ve been a casual, enthusiastic book blogger longer than that. Peepal Tree’s books have been known to me long before Jeremy or Hannah knew my name, but it’s a different feeling altogether to see them in their place of origin.

Writers resident in the Caribbean might have lofty ideas about what Peepal Tree looks like. It’s best to strip away preconceptions when approaching 17 Kings Ave. Glass revolving doors? Think industrial barebones. A concierge and a perky receptionist? Nope. Filtered cucumber water? Try strong, black coffee instead.

Even if I’d hinged my hopes on being a publishing intern surrounded by polished, monochromatic excellence (which I never did!) the books would have saved me. I’m literally able to walk through Peepal Tree’s back catalogue here. Descending into the office’s dimly-lit cellar is like being transported thirty years into the literature of the past: down there, with only dehumidifiers for company, I can find books that were first published before I could read.     

This, a cellar of lovingly-kept books, is not something you’re likely to locate in a large publisher’s emporium. To paraphrase “Book Returns in the Digital Age”, written by Laura Dawson in October for Publishers Weekly, pulping (destroying) is the end of a book’s physical story, and is almost inevitable if a title “still doesn’t sell after a publisher-determined period of time.” Despite this, though they’ve demonstrably less space for archives, many a small publisher – Peepal Tree among them – will not enthusiastically turn to pulping, even as a last resort.

Pragmatic reasons are at the heart of this, alongside possibly sentimental ones. For one thing, small presses have found it advantageous and economically feasible to do modest initial print runs, then print on demand as stock is ordered. For another, several small presses are actually the products of individuals, not conglomerates. It’s therefore more straightforward for an indie publisher to find storage space in her basement for fifty copies of Powerful Prose That Simply Won’t Sell Well, than it is for a publishing magnate to allocate warehouses for forgotten fiction, no matter how fantastic.

You could argue that many small presses have survived through sheer bloody-mindedness, that they haven’t known where to draw the line, which has ironically stood them in good stead. Yet where is that line? Where might you draw it, if you were an indie publisher just getting your feet wet, contemplating expensive subscriptions to editorial software, already resigned to not paying yourself a proper salary for months, years -- for as long as it takes before your books start to sell?

You might draw the line at complete financial insolvency. You might resign yourself to seasons of flogging your catalogue out to distributors, investors, bookstores: anyone who’ll pony up. You might do well to tell yourself that it’s the books that will save you. From what I’ve seen here at Peepal Tree, the goal is not so much to draw hard lines as it is to create circles of inclusion.

Since I’ve been here, more than one writer has dropped in for feedback and advice on polishing their manuscripts. They share work with Jeremy that is either close to publication or a long time away from earning its ISBN. Sometimes, their editing conversations span story arcs and vast movements of plot, pacing and narrative. Other times, the discussion over a single punctuation mark can prompt an animated parlay. I’ll wager that at no time does any visiting writer feel unwelcome, or passingly considered. I get the strong sense that this is one, vital way Peepal Tree have kept the bottom line at bay for thirty years and more: they draw big, looping circles of inclusion, ones that house the writer’s needs – small and herculean – at heart.

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