A tale for our times

This week's Orange Prize winner is the latest success from a trailblazing independent publisher. Boyd Tonkin discovers the story behind Serpent's Tail
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Every small, radical publisher wants to be labelled "cutting edge". In Serpent's Tail's case, the epithet means a little more than usual. A few years ago, the fearless independent house responsible in Britain for both the Nobel and Orange prize winners published an eye-popping book of "body art". Strictly for the strong of stomach, its photographs depicted soft tissue inscribed, invaded and generally stitched up to a degree that the surgeons of Nip/Tuck might envy. At the time, Serpent's Tail employed the sharpest and funniest publicist in the business (now a writer herself). She cheerfully told me that scarification, tattooing and piercing did for the firm more or less what huntin', shootin' and fishin' did for tweedier corners of the trade.

Over the past few months, Serpent's Tail has certainly managed to slice up its larger, blander rivals in the book business good and proper. In October, its author Elfriede Jelinek unexpectedly took the Nobel Prize. In the 14 years prior to the Austrian feminist's victory, the firm had sold around 4,000 copies of her darkly erotic, incendiary works; in the next month, it sold 50,000. Last week, another literary bombshell detonated as the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare took the inaugural Man Booker International Prize ahead of safe American bets such as Philip Roth and John Updike; again, Serpent's Tail publishes some of his work in the UK (although, this time, not alone).

Then, on Tuesday evening, long odds were overturned once again as the American expat Lionel Shriver (publisher: Serpent's Tail) won the Orange Prize, and £30,000, with her elegant and ruthless dissection of mangled motherhood and ruined childhood, We Need to Talk About Kevin. The publisher had a second title competing on the shortlist of six: Joolz Denby's biker-chick odyssey Billie Morgan. Denby's legible skin boasts tattoos of roses, mermaids, the Virgin Mary and even lines of Dylan Thomas, not to mention some 20 separate piercings. Is it, some may wonder, a house rule?

Figuratively, if not literally, the books that Serpent's Tail publishes in modest numbers (around 35 to 40 per year) aim to strike hard, cut deep and leave a lasting impression. Taboo-busters, rule-breakers, risk-takers, Jelinek and Shriver perfectly match the profile that the company founded by Pete Ayrton in 1986 has created and confirmed over almost two decades. When Gore Vidal once drawled that everything changes except the avant-garde, he meant it as an insult. Inadvertently, the put-down also helps to explain the immensely strong "brand" that Serpent's Tail has built. Ayrton has stuck with his stable of literary, sexual and political heretics as corporate publishers have chopped and changed.

"We want to have a strong editorial identity," he told me in the wake of Shriver's Orange Prize victory. "We want to publish books that people either love or hate - but are not indifferent to." For Andrew Franklin of Profile Books, the independent which enjoyed an equally extraordinary success in non-fiction with Lynne Truss's punctuation manual Eats, Shoots and Leaves, the key to Ayrton's achievement is that "he's completely incorruptible". "He never changes his tack," explains Franklin. "He carries on doing what he has always done - publishing voices that can't necessarily be heard anywhere else." To do that in an increasingly cautious and risk-averse climate, "you've got to have great personal resources and confidence in your judgement. As he does".

Nicholas Royle, one of Serpent's Tail's many loyal authors, agrees. The novelist (whose most recent book is Antwerp) calls Ayrton "a wonderful contradiction. He's the most forward-thinking, unconservative publisher in the UK, prepared to take on avant-garde work that wouldn't get a look in anywhere else". However, Royle adds: "At the same time he's the closest we have to the old-fashioned kind of publisher that has almost completely vanished from the business. He buys books according to taste and preference, rather than allowing himself to be dictated to by sales and marketing people." Royle points out: "Ayrton is a writers' favourite as well, allowing authors to write what they want to write without forcing them down a particular road."

Jamie Byng of Canongate Books in Edinburgh (whose stable includes the Booker-winning Life of Pi by Yann Martel) read and admired Ayrton's list as a model of adventurous, cosmopolitan publishing even before he went into the business. He was "utterly over the moon" at the Orange Prize ceremony and hopes it will give new heat to the whole independent sector. "Pete's success is a reminder that you should stick your neck out and publish what you believe in with passion and commitment," says Byng. "Then anything can happen, and frequently it does."

Shriver's disturbing, twisted but brilliantly written fairy tale of the Bad Mother and her homicidal son prompted a torrent of rejections from major publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. Ayrton heard the author speaking on Woman's Hour after her US publication by a small house there, and was impressed by her "lucid and trenchant" arguments. Simultaneously, the book reached him for consideration after its rejection by timid conglomerates - a consistent pattern behind the success of both Serpent's Tail and other independent houses. "It was serendipity," he reports. "Very shortly after hearing the programme, the book landed on my desk."

Shriver's triumph might have startled the punters, but it didn't quite emerge out of nowhere. We Need to Talk About Kevin had built up a formidable word-of-mouth reputation (that holy grail of modern publishing) while the often-maligned chain booksellers had chosen to stock and support it. As often, a coup by a small publisher looks on close inspection not so much a case of David vs Goliath as David working with Goliath. "The chains have always been supportive and always need books by small publishers," says Ayrton. "We're here to make a bit of difference."

Ayrton started making a difference to the British book scene when, as an editor at the left-wing Pluto Press in the early 1980s, he began publishing sprightly crime novels among the ponderous neo-Marxist tracts. Born in 1943, he had a Russian mother and German stepfather, and shuttled in childhood between New York, Paris and Stowe school in Buckinghamshire. After studying PPE at * * Oxford, lecturing in philosophy at London University, and working as a translator, he made the leap into small-scale, radical-fringe publishing and brought an international, boundary-scorning outlook to bear on everything he did.

First at Pluto, then (after 1986) at Serpent's Tail, he proved that crime writing could form part of a "wider political perspective. Political novels nowadays get written as crime novels". In the era of Ian Rankin, it sounds obvious; 20 years ago, it certainly wasn't. Serpent's Tail broke the radical thrillers of both Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos (and then lost them both to bigger, richer outfits, as often - and inevitably - happens to its alumni). It also introduced to Britain the exploits of the laid-back Barcelona bon vivant and detective Pepe Carvalho, written by Manuel Vazquez Montalban.

Both within crime writing and general "literary" fiction, much of the firm's early renown came from novels in translation. "When you're starting out, you're in no position to compete for home-grown writers," Ayrton recalls. However, the notorious reluctance of many British publishers to take translation seriously meant that the rights to some of the great names of global fiction were going for a song. Among others, Serpent's Tail brought to these shores the Japanese Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe and the Spanish experimental novelist and social critic, Juan Goytisolo. In 1999, it introduced the contemporary French lord of misrule, Michel Houellebecq, to Britain with Whatever. Again, Houellebecq would move to plusher pastures soon.

Ayrton accepts with a stoical shrug the loss of his prize catches to corporate predators. "It can be unwelcome and painful, but you learn to live with it," he says. "It happens to music labels and art galleries as well. It's part of capitalism." No small house can forbid a gifted but struggling novelist to pocket the tempting cheque on offer from a major firm. "In that situation, the only thing one can hope for is to remain friends and on good terms, so then one can benefit from selling the backlist." Serpent's Tail has done exactly that with authors such as Mosley and Pelecanos.

These days, the traffic between giants and minnows in publishing flows in both directions. Serpent's Tail, like several of its similarly-sized peers, has profited recently from the ruthlessness of gimmick-driven conglomerates in letting go fine mid-career novelists whose sales failed to hit the mark. Both Shriver and Denby, for instance, had migrated from other publishers. "Many wonderful authors with track-records and lots of skill are becoming available," says Ayrton. "I wonder if the larger houses, with their obsessive concentration on youth, are making a serious mistake. They are handing us very experienced, professional writers."

Other new features of the book-trade landscape may make the rocky path of publishing independence just a little smoother. "For independent publishers," says Ayrton, "what's absolutely crucial is their ability to sell their backlist." More accurate EPOS (electronic point-of-sale) data may kill some careers, but rescue others, as the performance of older as well as recent books comes into sharper focus. Online retailing, notably via Amazon ("Our fastest-growing account" for Serpent's Tail), offers smaller firms equal access to a cyber-shop without walls or limits.

For the moment, it remains a lightly-built, cleverly-steered bark riding the storms of modern publishing, and subject, like its bulkier competitors, to the whims of the marketplace. Unsurprisingly, not everything it does in these conditions counts as high literature. In addition to the often august, but occasionally meretricious, crime list, the firm has developed a sideline in what you might call upmarket Euro-porn.

It did orgasmically well with Cathérine Millet's curiously cold "memoir" of her anonymous couplings in Paris, The Sexual Life of Cathérine M. More recently an Italian mini-sensation called One Hundred Strokes of the Brush before Bed by one "Melissa P" rustled up some spanking business. Here again, the bigger houses have played catch-up, with every multinational behemoth now ready to indulge in a little designer orgy so long as it comes with a classy Continental name attached.

In general, the Serpent's Tail non-fiction list has rather lagged behind the novels in lustre and impact. Even here, though, the publisher can boast a team made up of singular and idiosyncratic talents. Ayrton re-published the greatest book about cricket ever written - Beyond a Boundary by the West Indian revolutionary intellectual, CLR James. As an added bonus, it came with a solemn but unintentionally hilarious preface on the rules of cricket, no doubt meant for American academic readers. The firm's forays into pop culture have been consistently original, from David Toop's mind-stretching explorations of the wilder shores of pop to a just-published investigation of Gypsy music by Garth Cartwright: Princes Amongst Men. With Pandora's Handbag by the late and much-missed Elizabeth Young, it gathered a precious harvest of articles by one of the brightest, wisest critics of our time.

Besides, that "cutting edge" in fiction can sometimes hurt - just as it's intended to. In Sniper by Pavel Hak, a trademark Serpent's Tail title published this spring, the Czech writer dives into the horrors of rape, mutilation and massacre during the Balkan wars. The novella drips with a savage explicitness that left this reader, at least, with very mixed feelings. Then, last week, details of the Serbian-directed genocide of Bosnians at Srebrenica returned to our screens - except that British TV channels refused to show most of the incriminating video evidence. If literary fiction can't appeal to our conscience and humanity with a directness and ferocity denied to the mainstream media, why bother with it?

Ayrton has no plans to change this challenging course, either by softening the Serpent's Tail line or rashly expanding in the wake of prize success. Andrew Franklin reports that, when Eats, Shoots & Leaves first took off, his father advised him that "The only thing worse for a small publisher than not having a bestseller is having a bestseller. That can be true." Franklin warns that: "There's great danger of being hubristic. It's like winning the lottery. You should go back to driving the bus the next day."

The Serpent's Tail bus, packed with its usual load of rebels and radicals, will roll on at its customary pace. For Ayrton: "What matters in independent publishing is that you have to give every book some kind of individual attention. The more books you do, the thinner that gets spread." Neither will a few excited headlines change its direction. "There's a sort of cycle of being hip and in fashion," he reflects. "You have to ride your luck and hope that you remain in fashion, as a desirable object. But, fundamentally, it's the individual titles that make all the difference. The book-buying public is rarely, in any numbers, aware of the imprint or the publisher."

A decade hence, studs, rings and tattoos may have lost some of their allure for writers and even publishers. But it still seems probable that thrill-seeking readers will turn to Serpent's Tail for piercing and penetrative prose.