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Bestsellers and Backlists: Interview with Pete Ayrton, Serpent's Tail

by Noel King

Pete Ayrton was interviewed by Noel King for Scan Magazine.

Pete Ayrton was born in London in 1943. He studied at Oxford and London and in the 1970s lectured in philosophy at London University. He then started to work in publishing as a translator from French and Italian. After working as Editor at Pluto Press, London from 1981 to 1986, he set up the independent publishing house Serpent's Tail in 1986 with a commitment to publish cutting-edge writing from the UK, USA and in translation. In 1989, Serpent's Tail was awarded the London Sunday Times "Small Publisher of the Year" award.

Over the years, Serpent's Tail has successfully introduced writers as diverse as African-American Walter Mosley, the leading US crime writer of his generation, Neil Bartlett, an award winning gay writer, and Matthew Collin, whose Altered State, published in 1997, became the definitive book on the culture of ecstasy and house music.

Serpent's Tail modelled its publishing of new works in paperback rather than hardcover (hence the term "paperback originals") on long-established publishing practices of presses in Spain, Italy and France. In its first year Serpent's Tail published twelve books, six of which were translations. It now publishes forty books a year, including fifteen reprints. Writers translated into English by Serpent's Tail include Elfriede Jelinek, Juan Goytisolo, Paola Capriolo, Gianni Celati, Mehdi Charef, Andrée Chedid, Pier Vittorio Tondelli and the 1994 Nobel Prize-winner, Kenzaburo Oe.

Following the success of the publication of Walter Mosley, Serpent's Tail has continued to develop a literary crime list. Some of the crime writers discovered by Serpent's Tail include David Peace, featured in the 2003 Granta Best Young British Writers issue, Stella Duffy, Manuel Vazquez Montalban, the wonderful Spanish writer who died earlier this year, and US writer, George P. Pelecanos. From the outset Serpent's Tail wanted to publish voices neglected by the mainstream publishers. This commitment has been sustained and deepened over the eighteen years of the life of the Press.

In the following short interview occasional references are made to two previous occasions on which Noel King has interviewed Peter Ayrton. The first interview was published in Australian Book Review (April, 1993) and the second appeared in jacket 4, and is available at:

SCAN: Can you bring me up to date on developments with Serpent's Tail since our last interview five or so years ago? I have a sense of what you have added to your list from looking at your catalogue, but what books are doing well for you at the moment?

PA: The main thing for us in the last two or three years has been the publication of Catherine Millet's The Sexual Life of Catherine M. It's been extremely profitable and has got rid of the overdraft for the time being, and it's enabled us to go back into publishing more literary translations, which we had started to do less of, and it is also helping us to continue to develop new writers ? which is something I feel strongly about, that we have a responsibility to do that. It's difficult because obviously you have to publish a few books by a writer to establish him or her. So it's always a difficult commitment to take a new writer on because you know that since they are very unlikely to be successful with their first book, it will take a while for them to become established.

SCAN:How difficult is independent publishing at the moment as compared with the two previous times we've chatted?

PA: Well, obviously, having a best seller helps a lot! But in terms of getting the books into bookstores, it's not getting any easier. The chains in the UK are discounting new books ferociously and they're doing these three-for-the-price-of-two promotions. And the chains are less and less likely to take a punt on an unknown writer. So much of how they order a book, and how many they take, depends on the track record and the sales of the previous titles of the author.

SCAN: When we last spoke we talked a bit about the impact of such things as a literary prize culture in the UK, and the fact that certain bookstores like Waterstone's had become groovier places to be, with author readings accompanied by wine becoming increasingly regular events. Is that sort of notion of a "literary social event" still having an impact on UK publishing? How does Serpent's Tail fit into that, and how are you positioned in relation to some other presses? For example, I imagine Bloomsbury is laughing ever since they published the Harry Potter books; profits from that will cross-subsidise other ventures for years to come. And obviously some presses have authors who win major prizes and presumably that brings some flow-on attention to their other books and to other books published by that press.

PA: I often say slightly wryly that I'd be worried if we got short-listed for a major literary prize because I think that would suggest we'd lost our edge! The literary prize culture is quite mainstream, as are most literary festivals, and to an extent the buying policies of the chains reflect this. On the other hand the chains have to have a range and I think our books are displayed quite prominently in Borders and Waterstones and Ottakar's. Most of these stores feel they can't just have the bestsellers and the prize-winners and so to a certain extent they need us in order to have that wider range. That's not true of W. H. Smith but we've never sold books there so it's not a loss.

PA: What is a typical working year for you in terms of work-travel abroad? You go twice to New York to connect with reps and check out bookstores. Do you go to Europe to seek out books for translation?

PA: Well that's quite important for us. I read books in French and Italian and if we want to buy something hot we have to read it and buy the rights before it becomes something that is being talked about. That was what happened with The Sexual Life of Catherine M, and with our new book, 100 Strokes of the Hairbrush Before Going to Bed, a Sicilian sexual coming of age novel we are publishing this summer. That was also the case with Michel Houellbecq whose first novel, Whatever, we published when he was unknown. So obviously if you want to publish these books you have to get in there quickly. By the time the book has gone to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and become a success it's too late.

SCAN: How large an enterprise is Serpent's Tail these days?

PA: We don't have very big overheads. Only five people work for Serpent's Tail. And over the years the backlist helps because even when an author moves on, like George Pelecanos, the more his new publisher, Orion, promotes him, the better it is for us and our backlist which contains five of his novels. It's the same sort of thing with David Peace who is now being published by Faber.

SCAN: In the past you have said that it's a hard-sell to persuade people to read crime novels in translation; why is that?

PA: There are particular problems about crime in translation; a lot of crime books have a lot of street slang and that's always a serious problem for the translator. In a way it's easier to translate literary fiction than it is genre fiction. The other problem is that there are so many good American and British crime writers that the market isn't desperately crying out for translated works.

SCAN: One wonderful crime writer you have translated is Manuel Montalban who sadly died in a Thai airport while changing planes on his way back to Europe after a recent visit to Australia and New Zealand. You've published several of his books, most recently The Buenos Aires Quartet, in which Pepe heads off to Argentina. There are several other books in that series still not translated, from the first to the last. Do you have plans to bring out more?

PA: It's great really that we are slowly establishing the Pepe series and actually selling Montalban's books. It's a long process. Word of mouth helps when people talk to their friends and everything, and it's been helped by having some of the books published by Duffy and Snellgrove. It helps here to have an Australian publisher, I should think. And what a great character Pepe is! Montalban loved food, sex and radical politics, so he had his priorities in life right! And these are only his crime novels we're discussing; he wrote other novels, non-fiction books and had a weekly column for El Pais. His literary production was phenomenal. Yes, we'll be doing the first one in the Pepe series, I Killed Kennedy, and at least two others, The Man of My Life, and Tattoos, at the rate of one a year. The remaining books in the series are uneven but those three are very good.

SCAN: I see that you have continued to develop your "Midnight Classics" list and that you have added titles by Newton Thornburg, whose Cutter and Bone - one of three of his books that you publish - was the novel from which Ivan Passer's wonderful film, Cutter's Way, was adapted; and you also have some Gavin Lambert novels, such as Inside Daisy Clover. How does this sort of backlist help you, and how do you come to select particular titles for republishing?

PA: Well, the books are still in copyright. If you have thirty or forty established backlist titles ticking over every year it makes a lot of difference. Noir classics by writers like David Goodis and Horace McCoy are great backlist titles. They are not books that sell in large quantities when you first publish them but they trickle along nicely, especially in the States where they get quite a lot of course adoption. And a backlist like that helps to relieve the anxiety that one always feels when publishing new books, never knowing how they well they are going to do.

The non-fiction list is very important too. It helps to be able to publish books by people like Lester Bangs and David Toop, C. L. R. James and Eric Davis - whose TechGnosis we are publishing. Davis has a strong internet presence and that activity helps a great deal; it means he doesn't need the approval of print-based literary critics or cultural gatekeepers. I always think it's a very good thing if you can avoid being processed by cultural gatekeepers!

SCAN: Even so you haven't been outside all literary accolades; Walter Mosley's first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress won the John Creasey Award, Pagan Kennedy was short-listed for the Orange Prize, and other Serpent's Tail books have been helped on occasion by favourable reviews, and fortuitous overlaps with Hollywood films!

PA: Yes, Lydia Davis is a favourite of McSweeneys and her sales increased dramatically when they "adopted" her. Louis Saunders received a very favourable review in The New York Times, and that helped his sales. And after the film Almost Famous came out our Lester Bangs books sold very well indeed!

Serpent's Tail Press website.