A Tale of Two Publishers

I read with interest this weekend that Briton Pete Ayrton has sold his 20-year-old Serpent’s Tail publishing house to fellow independent publisher Andrew Franklin of Profile Books.

This is a little alarming for me, as I have followed many of the authors Ayrton and Serpent’s Tail championed over the years, from Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos, to David Peace (Nineteen Eighty) and Derek Raymond (He Died with His Eyes Open). In fact, while I was in Dublin over this past holiday, it was thanks to Serpent’s Tail that I discovered French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, whose novel The Prone Gunman Ayrton’s house recently reissued in translation. Pelecanos told me once: “I owe ST publisher Pete Ayrton (and his staff) a tremendous amount of debt. Pete was the first in the world to publish me in paperback, and what happened in the UK because of the Serpent’s Tail effort got me going everywhere else. I’ve been blessed to be with both [Orion and Serpent’s Tail] houses. And both have shown this Greek boy a good time on my frequent visits to the UK.”

Profile Books tends to focus on non-fiction works, hosting a handful of rather high-profile bestsellers, such as Lynn Truss’ love affair with punctuation, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, and a couple of New Scientist hits, Does Anything Eat Wasps?, and its followup, Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?–which, incidentally, was the second-best-selling book in Britain over the holidays. Serpent’s Tail is no slouch on the charts, either; it’s had its fair share of high-profile bestsellers, including Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M.

Of this publishing house sale, Joel Rickett of The Guardian reports:

Between them [Serpent’s Tail and Profile] have been responsible for some of the most popular and successful books over the last few years, providing everything from grammatical polemics to Christmas bestsellers.

But even this stellar success cannot stand in the way of a fiercely competitive industry which has led to two of Britain’s best known independent publishers merging in a bid to protect themselves from book industry pressure. …

Franklin said the deal gave Profile a ready-made fiction list and would push turnover above £10m. Crucially, the deal enables Serpent’s Tail to join the Independent Alliance, a collective sales force for some of the UK’s most distinguished houses including Faber & Faber, Canongate, Atlantic, and Short Books.

The alliance has attempted to extend its reach to independent bookshops by offering them special deals. But Ayrton said that while there were similarities between small publishers and bookshops, Serpent’s Tail relied on the wide stockholding of Waterstone’s, Borders and Amazon.

This merger is also reported excitedly by Publishing News, in which Ayrton and Franklin reveal something of their future plans:

Andrew Franklin, Managing Director of Profile, said, that Serpent’s Tail will remain a “self-contained imprint” under the new arrangement. “Pete Ayrton is a great friend of long standing. In fact, when I was thinking of setting up Profile he was the first person I went to see. He is one of the most admired publishers in London with a list of breath-taking quality. His commitment to the imagination, to international fiction, to reading beyond the mainstream, is unwavering. This is one of the great international lists of the world and taking it on is both thrilling and daunting. We are very excited to be publishing fiction–and of such exceptional quality–but we are doing this only because Pete is staying on and will continue editing and publishing his authors exactly as before.”

Pete Ayrton, publisher of Serpent’s Tail, added: “The concentration in the retail sector is making the survival of small publishers more and more precarious. The acquisition of Serpent’s Tail by Profile, a publishing house known for its idiosyncratic brilliance and consistent profitability, guarantees that Serpent’s Tail remains within the independent sector. It also means I can devote myself to publishing and editing–a dream come true. Twenty years is long enough to be on your own: I look forward to working with everyone at Profile.”

To give you more insight into the world of British book publishing, check out a list of the 50 movers-and-shakers in the industry, as chosen last March by The Guardian’s Robert McCrum. Ayrton appears on that list at No. 15.

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Continuing with book-related notes from The Guardian: Joel Rickett offers some positive news in his latest publishing industry column, reporting that this last holiday season’s UK book sales were up 6 percent over the same time in 2005. The downside? “The highly commercial nature of the top sellers points to the burgeoning influence of the supermarkets, which piled books alongside mince pies,” Rickett writes. “Tesco even targeted ‘heavy readers’ through advertisements in broadsheet literary supplements, while Waterstone’s started its own campaign in the Sun. The high street shops had a decent final week, particularly after Amazon’s final order deadline lapsed.”

News Reporter

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