Pete Ayrton finds a cutting edge with new imprint Small Axes

Pete Ayrton finds a cutting edge with new imprint Small Axes

In an interview with Australian journal Scan back in 2004, publisher Pete Ayrton said that he would be worried if Serpent’s Tail—the press he founded in 1986 to publish fiction neglected by the mainstream—got shortlisted for a major literary prize, as it would suggest it had lost its edge. Known for pushing boundaries and discovering ground-breaking fiction, Ayrton is bringing that same energy to indie publisher HopeRoad, which was founded by Rosemarie Hudson in 2010, with a new imprint called Small Axes.

Named after Bob Marley song "Small Axe", which details how a small axe can cut a big tree down, Small Axes has big ambitions. "We’re hoping to republish neglected authors of a previous generation that have gone out of print. As part of reassessing the canon, we feel it’s important to bring some of these writers back into print and into the public view," Ayrton says. "There are a lot of very good independents publishing the new generation of writers, but I think the previous generation tends to get forgotten a bit."

Nowhere else
The press will launch in July with Indian writer Kamala Markandaya’s The Nowhere Man, which was first published in 1972. "She lived in London for a long time towards the end of her life, and wrote many great books mainly set in India, although The Nowhere Man is set in London. It’s about everyday racism and harassment on a south London Street, so it’s unfortunately a topical and relevant book today." Next, in November, comes Terrorism Explained to Our Kids by Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, another book that speaks to the times we are in.

The press will publish a "manageable" four books a year. Ayrton says: "It’s a question of being able to do the best for every book and it not getting lost in a larger publishing programme." He adds: "It means one can give every book as much attention as possible. And also you’re asking the same people to review the books and you can’t call in favours too often, I suppose. Four times a year is probably enough!"

Focus on anthologies
Ayrton also compiles and edits series of anthologies, and has recently published works on the Spanish Civil War, the First World War and the Russian Revolution: “I’m thinking of doing another one, but I don’t want it to be on war. I’ve done enough wars—I’m warred out.” Ayrton thinks his next anthology will be a collection of writing on the subject of work and leisure, particularly with an exploration of the effects of automation. "People are going to have to work less but it’s not going to be easy because company owners don’t want to pay people a living wage to work less, so there’s a big problem with automation."

Discussing automation in the publishing industry, Ayrton says traditionally people in the trade have worked long hours, and that it is part of an ethos that people are expected to stay late or work overtime and not get paid more. "It’s difficult because employers and publishers are always saying that [they’re] not profitable [enough to pay better], which when you look at some of the company results, you think that maybe they’re being economical with the truth—for example, Waterstones saying it can’t pay the [Real] Living Wage."

Ayrton goes on to add that the industry as a whole has "relied for too long on people’s enthusiasm". He says: "People want to work in publishing so, in a way, the publishers have taken advantage of that. Until quite recently interns were not paid. Now, I assume most, if not all, interns are paid but it’s been quite a struggle [to get to this point]."

Ayrton started his career as a translator, then became an editor at Pluto Press, and then founded Serpent’s Tail in 1986. Three years later the press was named Small Publisher of the Year by the Sunday Times. It started off publishing translated fiction. "At the time there was much less fiction in translation being published and when we started it was more a freakish thing to do," Ayrton says. "I think over the years we’ve published a lot of wonderful fiction and non-fiction, but obviously we were known for translated fiction."

Nowadays the publication of translated fiction is more widespread. Ayrton cites a new generation of "brilliant indie publishers" publishing fiction in translation, such as Charco Press and Les Fugitives. "Fiction in translation is still a very small part of the market but it’s certainly holding its own. I think that the political situation with the whole debate over Brexit and everything has meant a growing interest in what’s happening abroad in Europe from European writers, and also writers from further afield."

Competitive market
Ayrton adds: "It’s hard going because a lot of the big publishers are publishing very good books and good fiction in translation, so it’s not as if they’re not waking up and seeing the opportunities. I think it’s too easy to dismiss the conglomerates as just a bunch of old fogies. There are a lot of very smart, able editors who are publishing really good stuff."

In 2006, Ayrton sold Serpent’s Tail to fellow indie Profile Books, founded by ex-Penguin director Andrew Franklin. Ayrton says he’s confident in the "very able and competent" people now running the press. "I’m glad to have found a solution where I could leave and wasn’t at all worried that they wouldn’t continue to publish what we set out to do. I think that after 30 years you need a rest and a change.”