Caribbean literature’s favorite Englishman: Jeremy Poynting


The Guardian focuses on Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press and his recent workshop “Preparing for Publication,” on April 29, the day before the Bocas 2015 Lit Fest officially kicked off.

[Jeremy] Poynting is an Englishman, whose accent reveals his Yorkshire roots: he started publishing from his garage in Leeds. Now, as Bocas Lit Fest organiser Nicholas Laughlin pointed out, Poynting has published more Caribbean literature than anyone else anywhere, ever. On the bookstalls upstairs, many of the new books by T&T writers—Sharon Millar, Rhoda Bharath, Laughlin—had been issued by his Peepal Tree Press.

So 60 people signed up for Poynting’s workshop on Preparing for Publication, in the audiovisual room of the National Library, on April 29, the day before Bocas 2015 officially kicked off.

Some left disappointed, however, if they hoped Poynting would reveal the secret of how to become a bestselling writer. Attorney Robin Montano asked several times what made a book “commercially viable;” but that’s not a question Poynting was interested in.

Another participant wanted to know if he thought the current massive international success of Jamaican novelist Marlon James would help other Caribbean writers. Poynting was vague, but seemed to think not, and wasn’t exercised over that anyway.

That became apparent as he explained the philosophy of Peepal Tree, which has published over 300 books and lasted three decades, but which despite those successes is wildly different from the average publisher.

For instance, Poynting enthused about the Jamaican poet Tony McNeill, who published only three books in his lifetime, but whose brilliance and influence are recognised by his peers and successors. Many of McNeill’s poems are unpublished, and Poynting is hoping to put out his collected works. It may sell only 150 copies—“He’s a difficult poet,” Poynting acknowledges—but he’s fine with that.

An ordinary, commercially-minded publisher would not be. Poynting mentioned David Dabydeen, the Guyanese writer and academic long established in the UK, whose early books Peepal Tree published. His work might sell 700-1,000 copies a year—enough to satisfy Poynting, but not enough for Dabydeen’s later publisher, Cape, who dropped him.

Peepal Tree gets some funding from the Arts Council of England, but runs on a shoestring budget, with two full-time staff. That means it “can take literary, but not economic risks.” The company might sell a pre-ordered print run of 500-700 copies of a book; after that, thanks to rapid digital publishing, they can print more if and when they’re needed. Peepal Tree has little cash for promoting its writers, and rarely pays them an advance. Even then the maximum is three figures.

But it can publish work by new writers, or reissue classics—such as the novels of Edgar Mittelholzer—and that’s what makes Poynting happy: developing good Caribbean writing and making it available to an audience, no matter how small.

“I don’t make any money, but I have a good life,” he said, smiling. [. . .]

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