The magic of the marginal

The magic of the marginal

Serpent’s Tail turns 35 this year. And while it is surely time for us to accept that we are no longer the moody teenager of British publishing, I like to think we have managed to hold on to our edge while continuing to grow and find success by doing things a little bit differently to everyone else. But what does that mean, and how have we done it?

The market has changed enormously since Pete Ayrton launched the list in 1986. Much more power is consolidated in the hands of the big publishers and retailers, but at the same time more space has opened up for experimentation, and for reaching readers in new ways. The past decade has seen the emergence of a wide range of exciting and dynamic independent publishers, such as Fitzcarraldo, Influx, Jacaranda, Galley Beggar, Tilted Axis and many more, who have found success by giving their publishing distinctive curatorial focus and building dedicated followings. When you start small, you can champion the books you love, focus on owning that space in the market, and then hopefully build from there. But when – like us - you’ve expanded, but are still not a ‘big publisher’, how do you continue to stand out while staying true to your founding principles?

When I joined Serpent’s Tail in 2012, I was full of admiration for their instinctive grasp of the fact that readers are more open-minded than bigger publishers might realise. I wanted to take what Serpent’s Tail was already really good at – finding brilliant books that might seem somehow outside the mainstream – and take these books to a wider readership. It was the opposite of going more commercial or selling out; it was about being more ambitious about thinking about who would want to read books that don’t ‘fit’, staying true to our radical heart but enlarging the idea of what radical might mean, and continuing to broaden the range of books we publish, to encompass the truly experimental and the page-turningly commercial. It is our belief that there’s no such thing as marginal literature, that good writing deserves a platform whoever it is by, and that being curious about the world is a quality our readers share.

When we are acquiring books at Serpent’s Tail, rather than asking ourselves ‘what other books is this book like’ (the dreaded comp titles), we ask ourselves, ‘why is this book not like those other books?'. We are most excited by the books we cannot easily categorise, and these are also usually the books we are least likely to be outbid on by other, bigger publishers.

I read a great interview recently with Sarah McGrath, the Editor in Chief at the amazing Riverhead imprint in the US, and she described what she’s looking for when she’s acquiring as: "Books that are not just one thing, not just for one readership, but can make many different groups of people feel that that book speaks to them." 

This is precisely our goal too, and is perfectly expressed in our recent publication of the Women’s Prize longlisted Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters and the Rathbones Folio Prize-winning In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. We acquired Carmen’s debut short story collection Her Body and Other Parties early, before it had become a bestseller in the US, and we knew immediately that we were working with a remarkable writer with a terrific future ahead of her. In the Dream House is an utterly uncategorisable and truly groundbreaking memoir about her experience of domestic abuse in a lesbian relationship and how we tell our own stories – especially when they’ve never been told before. It’s been thrilling to see her once-in-a-lifetime talent recognised by the Rathbones Folio Prize judges. 

Meanwhile Detransition, Baby is a wonderful novel about trans and cis women working out if they could be parents together, and is dedicated to divorced cis women. It takes a subject people care about, and dignifies the characters with the right to be represented and explored on their own terms, without judgement. It welcomes in the reader whatever their identity, and we know that trans and cis women have read this book and felt seen and understood, seen what they share, and what they can learn from their differences.

It’s not the literary definition of something that gives it purpose, but its potential to have an impact on the person reading it. We are happy to take on debut writers and invest in developing their work with them if it isn’t yet ready to be published, and we have found that building those relationships with writers at the beginning of their careers can form the basis for happily publishing many books together. Equally, we love finding and resurrecting the work of older writers who have fallen out of favour with bigger publishers because of chequered sales track records. We understand that readers don’t care about sales track records and which books commanded the biggest advances – they are open to reading anything, by anyone, if you work hard enough to persuade them why they should. We also know that the trade expect our books to be different, and are willing to trust us when we make a passionate case for them.

Five years ago, we spent Serpent’s Tail’s 30th in a sweaty industrial bunker behind Angel station, celebrating with our book friends and family. This year – like everyone else – we’re celebrating our birthday from home (more quietly than we’d like). But we will still be toasting our authors, our colleagues on the thriving independent publishing scene, and readers - as curious and open to new writing as they’ve ever been.

Hannah Westland is the publisher of Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books. Follow her on Twitter here and listen to an interview on Literary Friction earlier this month.