Before we have recovered from the stocking-filler silly season, publishers put out their spring catalogues. From the hundreds of new books for 1996
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The Independent Culture
1995 was a year in which publishing had to rethink itself. The selling-off of companies large and small, new technology, redundancies, free-for-all pricing policies - all this was enough to make the most robust company feel the cold winds of change. Some responded creatively: Penguin's brainchild, the "60s", were a success story of the year, and are now ably copied by Orion with their good-looking 60p Phoenixes in the same format, boasting authors from Thomas More to Alina Reyes, Vikram Seth to Charles Darwin. Others took the supermarket route, putting huge resources behind their sure-fire sellers and their faith in the idea that none of us can live long without our Delia Smith or John le Carre - the pile-'em-high- and-sell-'em-cheap mentality dreaded by anyone committed to good new work.

Truth is, though, that no one knows what the end of the Net Book Agreement is going to mean, except that 1996 is bound to be lively. One eminent Edinburgh bookseller told me a couple of months ago that he was relieved to be retiring this year; some literary publishers seem to think it won't make such a lot of difference to them, while others predict a doom-filled 12 months with independent bookshops and smaller publishers crushed in the rush.

But publishing, as Dr Johnson said of second marriages, is a triumph of hope over experience, and all good publishers are incorrigible optimists. The spring lists for 1996 certainly look bright and bullish, with only a few companies noticeably reducing the number of books they are putting out. The year kicks off to a flying start with excellent January fiction: to name only a few, Graham Swift's Last Orders (Picador), Julian Barnes's short stories in Cross Channel (Cape), and, for Miss Smilla's thousands of admirers, Peter Hoeg's first book, so far unpublished here (see our review on page 24). Cape also launch newcomer James Hawes (White Merc with Fins) and Mother of Pearl, a first novel by Mary Morrissy, who has won impressive acclaim internationally although she has published just one book of stories until now. Granta's only new book in 1996 (we have to wait until 1997 for its re-launch list) is All Souls' Rising by American novelist Madison Smartt Bell, and there is a new novel, Children of Darkness and Light, from Whitbread prizewinner Nicholas Mosley (Secker & Warburg).

At the risk of over-emphasising the already-garlanded, it is always fascinating to see how prizewinners follow up their success (you can be sure that thought has been keeping the authors awake at night, too). This season brings a new Roddy Doyle, the first since his Booker smash Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha: Cape will publish The Woman Who Walked Into Doors in April, the same month as Ben Okri's Dangerous Love (Phoenix House); in May we can look forward to A S Byatt's Babel Tower (Chatto) and Penelope Lively's Heatwave (Viking). Talking of prizewinners, May also brings Seamus Heaney's first new collection of poems for five years - called The Spirit Level, published by Faber - and I for one can't wait.

Bloomsbury has a lively fiction list, with new novels from the excellent Ahdaf Soueif (Sandpiper, February), the very good Rupert Thomson (The Insult, February) and Lesley Glaister (The Private Parts of Women, March), and from Jay McInerney (The Last of the Savages, June), one of the few fashionable young Americans of recent years to show real staying-power. It is always an event when John Updike brings out a new book, and In the Beauty of the Lilies (Hamish Hamilton, April) should be no exception.

Picador are making a big fuss of John Lanchester's first novel, The Debt to Pleasure (March), and understandably so; Lanchester's reputation goes a long way before him. In the same month, Penguin launches another gimmick, which I suppose they hope will prove as popular as the 60s: the new novel by Stephen King (The Green Mile) is to be published in six monthly instalments, at pounds 1.50 each. If, like most of us, you prefer your King in one big moreish read, for plane journeys, beaches or winter afternoons, the instalment plan seems just the wrong idea - but I hope that in a year's time I'll be eating my words.

Penguin seems to have fallen victim to the Birthday Curse: just as Virago appeared to begin its sad decline from the moment of its 20th birthday party, Penguin's much-trumpeted 60th, this year, was accompanied by news of large-scale redundancies. I was about to congratulate the ever-elegant Harvill Press on the first anniversary of their independence when I saw, in their new Harvill/Panther list, that they are in fact celebrating the 50th anniversary of their founding. I am heartily sick of publishers' birthdays, actually, but I will make an exception to send a birthday cake to Serpent's Tail, which notches up 10 years in March and is rightly proud of it.

These two independents, Harvill and Serpent's Tail, seem about as different as it's possible to be: Harvill sleek, restrained, devoted to fine writing with a classical slant; Serpent's Tail with its alternative image, strongly committed to "outlaws" who speak from an oblique angle to the mainstream. But both are firmly internationalist, producing between them a substantial number of interesting translations, and the healthy survival and numerous birthdays of both seem to indicate that, perhaps paradoxically, times are not too bad for small independent houses.

In both cases, a British novelist stands out from the list: in May Harvill publish Strandloper, a novel for adults by Alan Garner, whose children's books (The Owl Service etc) have given magic geography a good name; Serpent's Tail have Neil Bartlett's Mr Clive & Mr Page in April.

Another independent company which has not even reached its first birthday, Richard Cohen Books, leads its small list with a new appraisal of Victoria and Albert, by Richard Hough (February). John Murray reissues Stanley Weintraub's much-praised biography, Victoria, in paperback in March, and Princess Vicky (Victoria's eldest daughter) is Hannah Pakula's latest subject (Weidenfeld, February). The royal obsession continues unabated, and perhaps Flora Fraser's Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline (Macmillan, March) will take on added interest since it tells the story of what happened last time a royal heir became king while separated from his wife. For similar reasons, Diana Souhami's Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter (HarperCollins, April) will fascinate royal-watchers.

However, the royal book to beat all, this year, will surely be Ben Pimlott's The Queen (HarperCollins, March). At first it seems an extraordinary subject for Pimlott (a confirmed Labour supporter, biographer of Hugh Dalton and Harold Wilson), but if the book lives up to its claim to be the first to take Elizabeth II seriously as a subject of historical biography, the chemistry between author and subject should yield intriguing results.

Crowned heads apart, it doesn't seem to be a particularly rich season for biography. Ray Monk's Bertrand Russell (Cape, March) stands out from the pack: anyone who thought philosophy was beyond them but tried Monk's Wittgenstein anyway will remember it as an enlightening experience. A curious triple biography - or rather trio of biographies - is the ambitious new project of Sebastian (Birdsong) Faulks: The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives (Hutchinson, April) tells the stories of painter Christopher Wood, Spitfire pilot Richard Hilary and Cold War foreign correspondent Jeremy Wolfenden. I've never heard of the last two, but if Sebastian Faulks told me a story about a paper bag blowing across a road I know I would listen.

Another interesting variation on the usual biographical formula comes from Marsha Hunt, actress and singer turned successful novelist. Her latest book, Repossessing Ernestine (HarperCollins, February), is a roots-quest in the Deep South, a journey of rediscovery of her family, her full racial identity and especially the odd, sad life-story of the grandmother she had always believed dead.

A quest of another sort fuelled Robyn Davidson on her journey in Desert Places (Viking, May), as she traced the (now sadly curtailed) migration of nomads in India. For the battier shores of travel writing, look out for Redmond O'Hanlon's Congo Journey (Hamish Hamilton, June) - into the heart of Africa, in search of a dinosaur in a prehistoric lake, in the company of a frail and grumpy American academic. He lived to tell the tale, but the telling of it took some time.

Finally, a literary curio from Faber in March, a "new" book by Sylvia Plath. The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit is a children's book, written in 1959 and unearthed recently from among Plath's papers at the Lilly Library, Indiana University. The story of little Max Nix of Winkelburg, and how he comes by the whiskery mustard-yellow suit that is his heart's delight, is a cheery yarn that is - in so far as anything ever is - just a children's story. Fans determined to find a deeper resonance will probably have to content themselves with the title.