Stig Abell does not particularly have the look of a Times Literary Supplement editor—or, at the very least, his dress sense does not exude a mothball-clouded fustiness one might associate with the 10 men who preceded him in the role. On the day we meet with Fourth Estate and William Collins exective publisher David Roth-Ey to discuss TLS Books—the new William Collins and TLS joint imprint—Abell is clad in a rather discreditable T-shirt that is less literary tastemaker, more Metallica roadie. A week later, when a photographer is dispatched to take pictures of Roth-Ey and Abell, the latter is again wearing a T-shirt, this time slightly more presentable.
But a point of difference was the very idea behind Abell’s appointment in 2016 to run the TLS. His previous job was as managing editor of the Sun, and initally the idea of someone from a red top—especially one noted for punny headlines and "Page 3"—leading one of the English language’s most prestigious books periodicals sent some TLS subscribers, and literary London, into a tizzy. Yet the title sorely needed a shake-up: subscriptions had shrunk and it seemed woefully dowdy and out of step.
Over the past two and a half years, Abell has helped drag the TLS into the 21st century. He revamped its website, launched a podcast, hired a social media editor and, crucially, added additional pages for more commentary and features. He has won kudos from the readership and it has worked out well for the bean counters: the most recent ABC figures show circulation at just over 46,000 in the past half-year, up from around 30,000 when he arrived.
Stig Abell left and David Roth-Ey at News UK’s London HQ
A next step in the evolution is TLS Books, which will bring out its first titles in November. Abell says: "We want to publish books that—and this is what we are trying to do with the paper—are zeitgeisty intellectual content that people want to read. My theory is that as the world gets ever more facile, Facebook-y and filled with crap, people want to turn to these types of books for moments of pause, repose, expertise and brilliance—and beauty, which I think is often lost in the conversation."
There will be two strands to the list: 10,000-word "provocative and evocative" essays from a range of writers, sold in a gift-book format, and bulkier classics whose starting point is the TLS’ 117-year-old archive. It will later look to add Stoner-type out-of-print titles suggested by writers. The launch list balances the heritage and the TLS’ newer direction. The two essays are edgy and somewhat unexpected: Lee Child’s Hero, in which the thriller writer will examine the true nature of heroism; while the piece by TLS regular Charlotte Shane—perhaps best known for her 2014 sex worker memoir, Prostitution Laundry—will "connect sex, capitalism, love and feminism" in Love’s Work. The essays will sometimes appear intially in the magazine, and sometimes in book form first.
Almost inevitably, the classics side is kicked off by Virginia Woolf, who contributed to the TLS for most of her adult life. On Reading and Re-Reading will be a selection of Woolf’s TLS criticism over the years, many of the pieces little-known outside Woolvian scholarship circles.
The TLS and William Collins are, of course, Rupert Murdoch-owned entities, both based in News UK’s London HQ. Roth-Ey says the new imprint is a "triumph of corporate synergy" with an admirable amount of deadpan, amused irony. He adds: "Seriously, it initially came out of conversations we had because we’re in the same building. At first we were thinking that there is this archive and maybe we should dust it off. But when we came together we thought, ‘Wait a second, the TLS has been reinvigorated, this is an opportunity to take it up another notch with potentially agenda-setting features which live on as books.’
"And strategically it works: the TLS is looking to broaden its reach, and we can get the TLS brand in bookshops where they haven’t been—at least in book form— before, and where some of their competitors, like the New York Review of Books, have been. And we have the breadth to do it globally: in the UK, the US and in translation."
A broad church
The imprint will be led editorially by the TLS, with the magazine’s features editor, Roz Dineen, doing the bulk of commissioning, while William Collins will handle the publishing operations. Abell says: "The ideas will first start here with us, but it will be a democratic process. We’re not entirely foolish, I don’t know that much about the book trade and will listen to the experts [at William Collins] about where a book will fit in the market."
Roth-Ey is quite bullish, arguing that the time is particuarly ripe for this kind of zeitgeisty "till-point ‘idea’ books", noting the success Fourth Estate has had with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s slim volume We Should All be Feminists (126,000 units sold through BookScan UK), which the author based on a TED Talk.
The discussion of Adichie leads Abell to talk about the overall make-up of TLS Books going forward. He says: "We want to aim it equally to men and women. When I took over at the TLS there was an 80 to 20 ratio of male to female reviewers. Last year it was 51 to 49. My view—and this is not a particularly new or subtle one—is that the more voices you have in the paper, the more readers you will have. That’s what we are going to do with this imprint: we are going to have ideas of diversity and gender balance high up the agenda. We’re doing it because we’re looking for an wide audience and we want to have broad enough array of voices for people to recognise themselves."