Hot books for cool readers: Serpent's Tail at 25 is still the publisher with bite

Boyd Tonkin meets its founder, Pete Ayrton

Alot happened in Britain during 1986, and by no means every turning-point pivoted on the agenda of High Thatcherism that now fills the history books. I may be prejudiced, since in that year I landed my first full-time job as a journalist – counter-intuitively, on a magazine that coined handsome profits from public-sector advertising - but the Iron Lady's heyday bred a culture of dissent or experiment that proved more durable than her command. Thatcherites, no doubt, would claim that she herself had cleared this space for change. As the Big Bang strangled the traditional City in its old school tie and Rupert Murdoch caned the print unions in the fierce Wapping dispute, even the crazy dream of a new quality newspaper came to fruition. It might have been called "The Examiner"; in the end, its triumvirate of founders settled on The Independent.

In that year, I wrote a freelance article about publishing that entailed a visit to the launch party of a star-spangled new venture: Bloomsbury, another beneficiary of a robust investment climate that for a while encouraged bold punts on fresh ideas. At a long-defunct Soho wine bar, I spotted Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie - in the flesh! I danced with a publisher's daughter (she's now an agent) and can even remember the track: Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang".

Bloomsbury, of course, flourished and still does, with Harry Potter and a mighty reference division in its quiver now along with a world-beating roster of novelists. But most dreams never do come true. Many of the hopeful literati of 1986 would surrender to corporate control as globalised behemoths came to dominate the book trade. For them, authors and publishers, the formula-led and accountancy-driven era that followed might have taken Cooke's yearning high tenor as its soundtrack: "That's the sound of the men, working on the chain gang..."

Yet one start-up from that season of Big Bangs has stuck to its initial brief with a barnacle-like tenacity. The publisher Serpent's Tail, created by Pete Ayrton in 1986, joined up with its fellow-independent Profile in 2007 after two decades of total autonomy. It still issues a list of fiction and non-fiction that – from hard-boiled noir to gems in translation and left-field cultural reportage – often defines the meaning of "cool". Ayrton remains a legend, a model; a kind of icon.

Publisher Philip Gywn Jones (now of Portobello Books) reports that "Famously, when Penguin were looking for a new head for Hamish Hamilton back in the 1990s, they announced they wanted someone 'in a leather jacket'. What they had in mind was not James Dean but Pete Ayrton, who, metaphorically if not literally, seems to me the most leather-jacketed guy... in UK publishing, and to have been it for longest, with undimming style. That style has taken him into some esoteric, dark, even difficult corners, single-mindedly in search of writing that is challenging, daring, original: avant-garde is the old word for it."

Yet, given the vicissitudes of time and taste, the sort of edgy Serpent's Tail title that begins as a cult sensation can eventually travel far and wide. Look no further than the current Cannes film festival. One movie much cited as a contender for the Palme d'Or is Lynne Ramsay's version of We Need To Talk About Kevin: Lionel Shriver's incendiary, Orange Prize-winning novel of accursed motherhood, and a textbook instance of Serpent's Tail having backed a surprise bestseller that tamer houses found way too hot to handle.

Also in Cannes competition is the eagerly-awaited new offering from Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In. This darker-than-black fable of a plastic surgeon seeking vengeance derives from a French novel by Thierry Jonquet, Tarantula: one of the imprint's spine-shivering, or flesh-creeping, noir translations that in Serpent's Tail's case make that stale epithet "cutting-edge" more than a reviewer's cliché. The publisher already has Cannes form. Among three Nobel literature laureates hosted by Serpent's Tail is the convention-flaying Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek (the others are Herta Müller and Kenzaburo Oe). In 2001, Michael Haneke's film of her masochistic masterwork, The Piano Teacher, took the Grand Prix.

"Books never die," chuckles Ayrton himself as we talk at a football-themed café in Clerkenwell, around the corner from the ex-warehouse office that Serpent's Tail shares with Profile. Not many people manage so consistently to sound both lugubrious and light-hearted, but Ayrton – the uncrushable Eeyore of radical publishing – somehow achieves it. He adds that "The most perverse books are the ones that comes back to Cannes! If you had told me that The Piano Teacher would win... at Cannes, I would have said you were having me on."

Born in 1943, with a Russian mother and German stepfather, Ayrton had a border-crossing upbringing that took in New York, Paris and Stowe school. He studied PPE at Oxford, taught philosophy at London University, worked as a translator and then – as an editor with the left-wing Pluto Press – managed to insert some lively crime fiction into its theory-laden catalogue.

Then came the birth of Serpent's Tail, which hit the friendly ground of mid-1980s "alternative culture" at a spanking pace. From the off, its well-designed and strongly-flavoured list both fed and stoked an appetite for – to use a choice term of the time - "transgressive" writing. The books were devoured by cosmopolitan hipsters who, as Mrs T scolded, Nigel Lawson smirked and Geoffrey Howe bleated, cherished the art of rebellion.

Much of the counter-cultural rhetoric of the 1980s now makes one wince or cringe – especially since, in the light of later history, it feels as much of an adjunct to Thatcherism in its scorn for an enfeebled British liberalism as a protest against it. It's the best books that survive: above all, those that Ayrton chose with a rare and uncompromising faith in his own iconoclastic judgement. For Amanda Hopkinson, a regular Serpent's Tail translator over the years and now Professor of Literary Translation at UEA, "Pete Ayrton is perhaps one of the few persons happy to have his name taken as a byword for noir. Noir in all its literary forms: from sinister to subversive, horrific to humorous, profoundly misanthropic to frivolously mischievous. The heterogeneity of Pete's reading habit crosses linguistic boundaries with equal ingenuity."

But the faith in the fringe that can lead to a jackpot of award-winners will mean the odd misfire as well: "Not only has Pete had a phenomenal eye for picking winners, but he's taken chances and backed worthy - or experimental - losers too," Hopkinson says.

As the writer and editor Nicholas Royle puts it, "Serpent's Tail used to have a High Risk imprint, which is a bit like Mills & Boon announcing a dedicated romance list. There was a time when everything Serpent's Tail published seemed to be high-risk and many writers and readers loved them for it. In fact, they loved Pete Ayrton for it, because Serpent's Tail was Pete... It was personality-led publishing at its best."

Ayrton himself mentions other factors that lent his venture a fair wind. Bricks-and-mortar bookshops with independent purchase policies, for one: "It's true that all our books are on Amazon, but you can't browse on Amazon as you would in Waterstone's or Daunt's." The price-maintaining Net Book Agreement allowed indies – both publishers and retailers – to operate on a much more even playing-field than now. "Very few people argue for the revival of the NBA. Yet its abolition was a disaster for independent booksellers – and independent publishers."

Also, heavyweight taste-makers still stalked the literary earth – and the review pages. Titans such as Anthony Burgess and Susan Sontag gave an early boost to Serpent's Tail: "You need people like that to help – otherwise it's difficult to get noticed."

On its extensive honour-roll of discoveries Serpent's Tail can boast top-drawer crime writers such as Walter Mosley, David Peace and George Pelecanos – the last, more recently, a stalwart writer-producer for The Wire. As for the "literary" novelists who made their UK bow in the attention-grabbing colour blocks and stark lettering of a Serpent's Tail livery, they include Michel Houellebecq, Colm Tóibí* and Neil Bartlett. For Philip Gwyn Jones, "This has never been literature that the orthodox reader would devour... but like all original art it is in the imitations and interpretations that some of his publications have sponsored that the creative baton is passed on."

Take David Peace: once the trademark Serpent's Tail author of Northern noir with a narrative ingenuity and political bite that put him out on a limb; now, the originator of prime-time, big-budget, talking-point TV drama, thanks to the Red Riding quartet. More than ever, margins feed the mainstream.

One factor links many of these names, and others such as Lionel Shriver. When acclaim arrived, they moved up to the lusher terrain of higher-paying major publishers. Serpent's Tail has perhaps suffered more from this perennial curse of the courageous indie house than any of its rivals – even if, as with Shriver or Peace, it does retain some backlist rights. "You're in a difficult situation when you make a success of a writer, because it's sometimes impossible to keep them," says Ayrton, sounding as cheerfully fatalistic as only he can. "The big publishers are no mugs. You feel like a lower-league football team in that your best players get transferred to Man Utd or Arsenal. But independent publishers don't even get the transfer fee! You have to be stoical, otherwise what would you do: top yourself? Which is not a solution."

This predation by rapacious giants can apply to genres as well as talents. "The big publishers are very much on the ball," says Ayrton. "They're quick to spot trends – to see when something is working, and then cannibalise it." Serpent's Tail has always had to pay the bills as well as please the cognoscenti. One of its smartest crowd-pleasing gambits has taken the form of what Ayrton himself dubs "posh porn".

It published, for example, the art critic Cathérine Millet's rather glacial journal of her busy erotic routine, The Sexual Life of Cathérine M. "That was a book that was turned down by most major UK publishers. They quickly changed their tune when they saw the sales." Soon, every big house hosted its own boudoir of fast ladies.

So the conglomerates happily dabble in the counter-cultural waters now, while the notion of a unified "alternative" to mainstream publishing has vanished in a puff of aromatic smoke. "I think the problem is that it's now more difficult to establish an identity across a wide cultural range. If you choose a specific niche – translation, crime – that's probably a more rational strategy." Look at recent neonates with a strong brand, and they do specialise: Comma Press in short fiction; Peirene Press in translated novellas; Notting Hill Editions in essays.

Yet Serpent's Tail, now coiled inside Andrew Franklin's consistently profitable Profile Books, carries on undaunted with plans for around 30 titles every year. For Nicholas Royle, "There's still a lot of affection for Serpent's Tail, but is there the same love? Are they still taking risks? As an eternal optimist, I hope so."

After his quarter-century of hard pounding and frequent bull's-eyes, Ayrton now becomes "editor-at-large"; Sam Humphreys takes over the day-to-day running of the list. "It can be very difficult for independent publishers to let go," Ayrton reflects. "I think this is a great solution... There's a wonderful body of work that has been published over the past 25 years. It's a great thing for someone to inherit."

Just now, I'm reading a new addition to the Serpent's Tail catalogue of fiction in translation: Memoirs of a Porcupine by the Congo-born francophone novelist, Alain Mabanckou. His uproariously comic, savagely satirical African Psycho and Broken Glass also grace the list. When I mention how much I'm enjoying Mabanckou, publishing's unsinkable lord of misrule replies with the ultimate Serpent's Tail accolade: "He's wonderful. Such a naughty boy."

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