Publishing in the Cracks

• June 2011

In the introduction to Rooplall Monar’s Backdam People, our very first book, published in 1986, I apologized for the neocoloniality of reexporting Guyana back to itself and for including an introduction that was redundant to the Guyanese reader. These concerns were sincere, and though I no longer feel the need to apologize, the political/cultural motivations and the awareness of the relationship between writing, readership and place remain part of what we are about.

In twenty-five years of publishing, motivations have inevitably been more various, and by no means have all of them been concerned with the Caribbean, publishing or a political/aesthetic agenda. I’m not going to write about the human relationships, the crises, and the pig-headed refusal to accept the possibility of financial defeat that at times were what drove Peepal Tree, except to say that what is written below about the politics of Caribbean publishing in Leeds in the North of England is far from the whole story.

Our goals have remained fairly stable, but our practice has evolved to meet the changes in the environment I think we have been operating in. These changes—encompassing the economics of publishing and bookselling, and the orientations of writers, readers, and academic institutions—have been substantial in the United Kingdom and North America, and somewhat less marked in the Caribbean, collectively our territory.

The goal of Peepal Tree Press has always been to publish the kinds of Caribbean and Black British writing that makes a difference for the reader and to reach as large a readership as possible without distorting the integrity of the writing to meet the demands of the wider literary market. This is writing that is intended in the first place for a Caribbean or Black British readership, but offered to interested others with the confidence that good writing never excludes. This may be a stubbornly backward-looking goal in the context of global postmodernity—but it’s one that I think can connect to other efforts to build in and widen the cracks in globalized late capitalism and resist its homogenizing cultural power.

The specific history of Caribbean publishing manifests very clearly the wider tendencies of global conglomeration in the trade. At the peak of the 1950–60s explosion of anglophone Caribbean fiction, with the exception of a handful of titles published by the Jamaican Pioneer Press, almost all of these (around 110 works of original Caribbean fiction) were published by no less than twenty-four different middle-sized literary publishers in the UK, such as Michael Joseph, Secker and Warburg, Andre Deutch, and Faber. By the late 1980s, of these only Faber survived as a genuine independent. (Some kept their names as imprints inside the conglomerates.) The fate of Andre Deutch (publishers of V. S. and Shiva Naipaul, Earl Lovelace, Michael Anthony) is symptomatic. It was bought up by Carlton Communications (a media giant that owned a large chunk of the UK’s independent television network) because it had a sports list and a contract with Manchester United, and asset-stripped. It then disappeared. Our publishing of the Caribbean Modern Classics series has, for instance, frequently involved detective work involving two or three stages of swallowings-up to check where rights may lie. Harper Collins and Random House are the usual answers.1

This passage of the publishing industry into finance capitalist hands that began in the 1970s (by 2005 almost 50 percent of UK publishing sales were made by five conglomerates) had the consequence of creating rising expectations about the kind of return on investments demanded by shareholders: from 2 to 3 percent in the old gentlemanly days to 7 to 15 percent now. For a small minority of authors, the competition among the conglomerates for control of the potentially most profitable literary properties has undoubtedly been enriching, but what it produced was a gambling model in which many more books fail than will make profits. The consequence is that few books will be taken on unless the authors are promotable and sales in the minimum of the five-to-twenty-thousand+ region can be expected. For Caribbean authors, with very few exceptions (Lovelace and Derek Walcott—both Faber), this means a physical presence in the UK or North America and the willingness/ability to be packaged in such a way that books will reach a mainstream audience. Even for those meeting the first criteria, inadequate sales result in speedy career-death. A number of books of great quality have come to Peepal Tree from authors who have previously held mainstream publishing contracts.

Even for us the issue of the author’s location is not irrelevant, and a statistical trawl through our own list shows a slight predominance of the diasporic over Caribbean-based authors (55/45). This concerns me because the perspectives of diasporic-based and the Caribbean-based writers are not interchangeable, and in contexts where writers in the diaspora tend to be much better supported by writer development programs and reading circuits, I think there is an increasing onus for us to have our eyes open for writers who have talent but may not have had the opportunities to develop their literary craft.

The other consequence of the monopoly trends in publishing (and the parallel changes in the book trade) is the need for rapidity of turnover and the consequent decreasing shelf-life of books. The ignominy of being returned for pulping is no doubt the deserved fate of many celebrity-focused books, but short shelf-life also affects high-quality literary fiction with moderate sales, where five years seems to be the maximum term before rights are returned to authors. In the UK, Faber has at least kept faith with the new work of Lovelace and Walcott, but it has allowed many of Walcott’s and Wilson Harris’s older books to go out of print. A dozen or so books have come our way when rights have been returned to authors—and are among our better sellers.

Our policy is to keep books in print. A few mistaken enthusiasms have been allowed to fade away, but in general the political and cultural motives for keeping a living body of work accessible has also made modest commercial sense because of the rising contribution of backlist titles to revenue. I think, too, that bringing the new and the recuperated into a potential relationship for readers offers the possibility of enhanced pertinence and reward.

The context for selling books has changed no less than publishing. When we began, there was no Amazon or easily used software for online selling, but we did make significant sales in the UK to the sixty or seventy radical or alternative bookshops that specialized in left-political, feminist, gay and lesbian, ecological, black, and third world and culturally radical titles (only four such shops survive). Even when the Waterstones chain began to compete with them (by carrying the same range as well as more mainstream stock in more reader-seductive settings) and the alternatives began to collapse, for a time our book trade sales held up. In the early 1990s over 40 percent of our UK sales went to Waterstones. Now it is less than 4 percent. In the interim came Epos (monitoring of sales through bar-coding), centralized buying, and the reduction of Waterstones’ range by two-thirds. We used to be offered occasional window display space by supportive local managers; now, publishers have to pay for display and front-shop table space. Epos meant shops could measure how rapidly each inch of shelf-space turned over. Our books sold (we had reorders), but did not sell swiftly enough. Only substantial promotional investment (point of sale and to the trade) could achieve that, and as our very supportive American distributors indicate when we fill in the online listings for new titles, only an expenditure of over $20,000 per title will “impress” bookshops.

More recently, of course, even the book chains have been under intense pressure from Amazon and online selling and e-books, and from the supermarkets, with the consequent demise of Borders in the UK and its vulnerable position in the US and the precarious situation of Waterstones as part of the ailing HMV chain. The indirect effect for publishers has been the demand for ever deeper discounts. When we began, 33 percent was the standard for all bookshops; now it is between 45 and 50 percent. Even with distribution and repping costs, we used to expect back between 40 and 45 percent of cover price. Now, we frequently get only a 27 percent return on cover price. Since printing costs range between 12 percent and 20 percent of cover price, and we pay royalties of between 10 and 12.5 percent on revenues, the math is unpromising. Reluctantly we have been forced to increase cover prices to take this level of discounting into account, even though this carries price levels well above those for trade paperbacks. We offer all Caribbean booksellers a 50 percent discount, so theoretically there is some scope for price reductions, though I suspect it rarely happens.

While the United States has led the way in terms of heavy discounting (one of our bugbears is the way chains such as Barnes and Noble deliberately over-order titles in order to trigger higher discounts—then rapidly return books to the distributor, for which the publisher pays a distribution percentage on both outward and inward movement), what sustains US sales is the continuing presence of significant numbers of independent, college-oriented bookstores and rising levels of course adoptions, so although rising unit sales don’t convert into pro-rata increased revenue, North America has become, along with the Caribbean, our most important sales territory. Except for the specialist New Beacon Bookshop, sales of Caribbean books to the UK market are now increasingly through direct, website, and event purchases.

By contrast with the United Kingdom at least, the situation in the Caribbean has improved over the past twenty-five years. When we began, it was difficult to get foreign exchange out of Guyana; we were hit by several massive currency devaluations and being unable to get reliable information on a shop’s credit-worthiness had painful consequences on some occasions. Undoubtedly the coming into existence of the University of the West Indies Press and Ian Randle Publishers has hugely expanded the market for Caribbean books in the region, and this has been to our benefit—though I’m aware that the decline in Caribbean-oriented courses in the US and the UK has made life more difficult for those Caribbean-based publishers.

The situation with regard to Caribbean bookselling is variable. Over the past seven or eight years, Trinidad has hugely expanded as a market, with at least half a dozen shops and chains selling to an obviously expanding urban middle-class readership; Jamaica (with Novelty Trading and Bookophilia as the stars) is belatedly improving; Barbados remains largely in the hands of Christian booksellers with a determined resistance to “bad words”; and bookselling in Guyana (the noble struggle of Lloyd Austin excepted) has been largely killed by emigration and the street piracy of educational books.

But what is common to all territories (and even including the UWI bookshops) is a reluctance to think that customers will be interested in any books except those by national authors. Trinidad’s bookshops sell backlist Trinidadian titles in respectable quantities but won’t look at, for instance, new Jamaican titles. We fear that our own experience as website booksellers fails to provide much counter-evidence, and that buying patterns tend to follow not only literary nationalisms but gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. However, the recent Bocas Litfest in Trinidad showed clearly that when writers from around the Caribbean were able to present their work in person, there were enthusiastic buyers for their books.

These are the contexts within which we shape our practice, by both virtue and necessity.

For instance, generating investment or working capital has always been difficult. In practice it has come from three sources: personal borrowings made by remortgaging our house; a three-year investment program from the Arts Council of England back in 1991 that allowed Peepal Tree (still then a one-person operation, with an ancient offset litho press and an even more ancient folding machine) to move out of our house and garage into separate premises and to buy slightly less-ancient printing equipment; and the generous assistance of a number of Caribbean friends who bought shares in Peepal Tree in 1994 to bail us out when a painful saga of failed partnerships, debt, and an over-attentive bank threatened our existence. None of these capital sums were very large, but then we have never wanted to be in a position where levels of repayment or the different objectives of lenders could demand different goals.

But the core truth about publishing Caribbean fiction and poetry, as a generic commitment, is that thus far (and the disappearance of others from the field rather confirms this fact), it has required some form of subsidy. For many years this came from the commercial printing business that Peepal Tree ran; then from subsidizing the cost of printing our own books with elements of voluntary labor (mine); and over the past five years from public subsidy via the Arts Council of England, as a regularly funded organization. Indeed, we were given an increase in funding explicitly so we didn’t have to run the print business, and another increase to allow us to cease printing for ourselves—a labor I had always regarded as a necessary evil. (Occasionally it was possible to think that there was something virtuously artisanal about actually making the books, but when machines broke down it became very difficult to see oneself as a latter-day William Blake.) While I regret the loss of self-dependence, that level of self-exploitation couldn’t continue. We want Peepal Tree to continue after I retire (not for some years yet, but I am sixty-five this year) and it would hardly be a recruiting point to say to a prospective successor, “And by the way, you have to print and bind the books as well as edit them.”

We have just been through and survived a major Arts Council review of funded organizations (in which 25 percent of previously funded organizations lost all funding). In the process we looked hard at whether we could have survived if we had been among that unfortunate group. The answer was yes—just—though there would have been a substantial reduction in output and the need to prune possible loss-making titles (sometimes the books to which we have the greatest attachment), and we would have had to sell our premises and return to a home-based cottage (well, suburban semi-detached) mode of existence. Collectively our books make a profit over the costs of their production, but they meet only a proportion of overheads and salaries—hence the need for subsidy. But this is a changing situation in which year-on-year increasing backlist sales help to close the gap between self-generated income and expenditure.

This is important because subsidy from the Arts Council is not without its costs—it is, after all, public money. Up to this point the relationship has not impinged on any publishing decisions, but this may not remain true in the future. There is a strategic priority for supporting poetry, a heavy emphasis on talent development (and this means in England), and a stronger emphasis on public benefit (again in England). Our ability to quietly support Caribbean writers and readers may become more difficult, and this is at a point when I would really like to extend our Caribbean connections. Clearly one of our objectives has to be to reach a position where we don’t need to apply for ACE funding.

At a recent lecture given by Jayne Cortez in Leeds, at an event celebrating the life and work of the late John La Rose (publisher, poet, community activist, and radical thinker), I listened to some talented young black musicians complaining that they were being prevented from making the kind of music they wanted if they pursued the goal of mainstream success. Sadly, this bargain seemed news to them. A return to a discussion of the relationship between cultural autonomy and absorption into what the market defines as mainstream is long overdue for both Black British music and Black British writing. We have always been clear where we stood. It was for Caribbean or black British writers to define what writing about the Caribbean or writing as a black Briton (man, woman, lesbian or gay) involved. I think that over twenty-five years we have developed a strong sense of whether the books we were offered had to be written, or whether they were created to meet some perceived gap in the market. Selling the Caribbean exotic to an international readership is not we are about, though if that is what authors want to do, good luck to them. Of course, the fact that a book needed to be written and that it is directed toward a Caribbean readership does not guarantee that the writing will be any good, but that is a different story. (A distinctive vision, a distinctive voice, and a serious engagement with language and form are the minimums we look for.)

Surviving twenty-five years is a cause for celebration, though I hope we are very far from complacent. No publisher, even one who is committed to working in the cracks of capitalism, committed to books that are a great deal more than commodities, can afford, for instance, to ignore the new technologies that variously offer to supplant or stand beside the printed book. We have polled a significant number of our readers to find that a clear majority are committed to the book as a physical artifact, but that a significant minority want us to offer e-books—which we undoubtedly will. Even so, for us, for most of our readers, and certainly for virtually all our writers, the production of the book as a physical and designed artifact is a signal of commitment to its value. In any case, new digital printing technologies make the issue of tying up capital in print altogether less of a problem.

We want to find ways of reaching more readers and selling more books, not least out of a sense of obligation to the effort their writers have put in but without compromising the integrity and autonomy of the writing. Here at least, within the cracks in Amazon’s or Google’s pursuit of global dominance, it remains possible to use the capacity of the Internet to build a very different kind of community.

 

Jeremy Poynting is the founding and managing editor of Peepal Tree Press, which, over twenty-five years, has become the largest publisher of new Caribbean writing and reviver of classic texts. He is a graduate of the University of Leeds, completing a PhD on literature and cultural pluralism in the Caribbean in 1985. Before devoting himself to publishing full-time, he worked in further education for many years.

 


1 In the 1980s Caribbean publishing passed into the hands of the educational conglomerates Heinemann, Longman and Macmillan, each with a Caribbean writers’ series. Heinemann became part of the Octopus Publishing Group in 1985, which was bought by Reed International (now Reed Elsevier) in 1987. Heinemann’s educational unit became part of Harcourt Education when Reed Elsevier purchased the company in 2001. Now the residues of both the Heinemann and Longman Caribbean writers’ series belong to the Pearson Education empire. Except for a handful of books that evidently still sell in schools and are taught in higher education, and the occasional schools-oriented title, none of these series has any substantial existence. (Faber’s excursion into a Caribbean series between 1998 and 2001 was even briefer.)

 

Related Articles