In depth: Summersdale

If there is a book that encapsulates the Summersdale ethos, it might be Bake for Britain, launched in March during the crest of the baking popularity wave. Summersdale produced the cookery title from idea to print in an astonishing eight weeks, with the recipes initially generated from an office baking competition.

Alastair Williams, m.d. and co-founder of the Chichester-based independent, says: “One thing about Summersdale is that we’ve never been afraid of experimenting and producing in-house content. We didn’t have a background in publishing [when we started] 21 years ago and we’re still a youngish company. We can be nimble and very reactive, whereas the big conglomerate supertankers often have meetings upon sub-meetings to get something done.”

There are certainly a lot of things being done at the moment at Summersdale, with the company continuing to expand out of its core humour, gift and travel ranges to other non-fiction categories such as health, pets, true crime and even a foray into local interest publishing. Highlights for 2013 include Mob Daughter, the memoir of growing up in a Mafia family by Karen Gravano, daughter of feared New York hitman Sammy “The Bull” Gravano and star of the US reality show “Mob Wives”; Kate Allan’s Oscar the Bionic Cat is a “Marley and Me”-esque tale of a Jersey moggie who gets special prosthetic legs after a run-in with a combine harvester; while The Mystery of Thin is Times columnist Emma Woolf’s (great-niece of Virginia) look at our obsession with weight loss.

Breaking tradition
Of course, a company whose bestselling title through BookScan is The Little Book of Essential Foreign Swear Words is not about to go all serious just yet. “Our bedrock is our travel writing list, it’s what we’re passionate about, what we were founded on,” says sales and marketing director Nicky Douglas. “But the humour list is what keeps us smiling.”

And the list has kept the company buoyant financially even as the high street bookshop numbers have shrunk. Douglas explains: “The difference between Summersdale and a lot of publishers is that we are not reliant on the traditional bookshop market. With our gift and humour lists, we have many eggs in a lot of different baskets with all sorts of retailers, such as the gift trade, garden centres and non-book high street stores.”

Indeed, two years ago Summersdale got its global hit F in Exams—a compendium of howlingly bad test paper mistakes—into Boots, the only book product the chemist stocked at the time.

Summersdale has had the odd foray into fiction with what Williams calls “books that fall through the cracks”. For example, under its travel list it publishes James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, the classic novel of a group of Westerners finding the idyllic Shangri-la after they crash land in Tibet (and which Summersdale sells 20,000 copies a year to the Shangri-la hotel chain). There is no plan to fully expand into fiction, however. Williams says: “You need really deep pockets; its a crowded market with high risks.”

Ultimately, though, Williams thinks Summersdale has “something for everybody, whether you’re an erudite Latin speaker or down with the kids and want a book about street slang. Sometimes that’s hard to get right in the catalogue, because you have a reissue of Foul Mouthed Pets with [Latin phrase guide] Ad Hoc, Ad Lib, Ad Nauseam. Or Student Grub next to a book on anorexia. But that’s the way it is . . .”