Friday, June 10, 2005

Risk-taking start-up company goes one up over publishing giants

From his tiny London office, Peter Ayrton is quietly snapping up books rejected by the world’s publishing giants and turning them into major success stories.

His Serpent’s Tail Publishing has now set the literary world abuzz by recently scooping two of the coveted spots on the shortlist for the Orange Prize, the English-speaking world’s top award for fiction by women.

That is a third of the shortlist, an impressive record for a company with four employees and a self-proclaimed commitment to “extravagant, outlaw voices neglected by the mainstream”.

But if editors at big publishing houses envy Serpent’s Tail’s Orange Prize shortlist success, Ayrton said they have no one to blame but themselves.

“People don’t sell us rights without having tried the big houses first. So most of these books have been turned down by quite a few editors before they come to us,” he said.

“The big publishers are cutting back on the number of titles they publish. They are counting more and more on big books that their marketing people think can sell a shed-load of copies. They’ve become more conservative, which is good news for us.”

Take We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver’s shortlisted novel, which is about a teenage mass murderer, described acidly through the eyes of his mother, who despises him, and suspects that he is evil from the moment he is born.

“A lot of women editors at big houses turned down Kevin because of what they perceived to be its narrator’s negative spin on motherhood. And that’s not their job,” said Ayrton.

With wicked satire of suburbia and an unflinchingly grim look at parenthood, Kevin became a lightning rod for debate, and a word-of-mouth hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I’ve been with Lionel Shriver to darkest Essex in the middle of winter with reading groups of 50-60 women. You should have heard the questions. They all had strong feelings about this book.”

So did critics. The New York Times called it “a fearless whack at the shibboleths of family”.

Now, some publishing giants that turned it down have been on the phone to Ayrton trying to buy the rights.

That Kevin ended up with a tiny publisher like Serpent’s Tail is a sign of the industry’s increasing impatience with authors who may take a few books to find an audience, said Liz Thomson, editor of trade journal Publishing News.

Kevin is Shriver’s seventh novel, and her earlier books were published by major houses such as HarperCollins and Faber and Faber. Although her previous sales were disappointing, once upon a time one of those big name publishers might have stuck by her.

Ayrton’s other Orange Prize candidate is Billie Morgan, a murder story about, and by Joolz Denby, a female ex-member of a motorcycle gang in tough working-class northern England.

Both books, with their body counts, give the lie to a media stereotype of women’s literature as tame, Ayrton explained. And they defy a cultural obsession with glamorous young female writers, promoted by major publishers looking for the next hit.

“There is a preconception that what women writers do best is write mostly about domestic issues,” he said. “I think the Orange Prize judges deliberately turned away from youth and ‘babes’.” – Reuters

The Star Online: Lifestyle

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