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’.” – ReutersThe Star Online: Lifestyle
Something new. Something annoying. Something so rotten that it deserves the...BookBitch BookSlap
And the first unlucky recipient is.... Otto Penzler
Sexism at the Edgars? The Debate on Whether Women Mystery-Writers Are Worthy
April 28, 2005
By Gerald Bartell
Genteel? Or bloody? That distinction between two sub-genres of mystery books—“cozies” and “hard-boiled”—may determine who wins the Edgar Award for Best Novel tonight. And the outcome could go to the heart of a debate within the industry: Are female mystery-writers—most often the authors of the more non-threatening, proper cozies—even worthy of the award? Otto Penzler, dean of mystery-writing in America, says no.“The women who write [cozies] stop the action to go shopping, create a recipe, or take care of cats,” he says. “Cozies are not serious literature. They don’t deserve to win. Men take [writing] more seriously as art. Men labor over a book to make it literature...
Read the rest of the article here: THE BOOK STANDARD
. If you have the stomach for it.
Embarrassing Errors In Printed Matter Go to the Book Doc
Dunn & Co. Replaces Pages, Redoes Bindings by Hand, One Tome at a TimeJeffrey A. Trachtenberg
. Wall Street Journal
. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Jun 8, 2005
. pg. A.1
CLINTON, Mass. -- A publisher misspelled the word "Massachusetts" in the title of a guidebook, rendering it "Massatusetts." A bindery glue in a nursing handbook failed to hold, and the pages fell out. Thousands of copies of a quilting book printed overseas developed an awful smell while sitting in the hold of a ship during a dockworker's strike. A Chinese printer transformed "Grow Your Own Trees" into "Grow Your Own Tres."
All of these casualties found their way to a former cotton mill in this old industrial town, where a little business called Dunn & Co. has carved out an unusual niche it calls "book trauma."
Modern book publishers have high-tech distribution and just-in-time warehouses, but their wares remain old-fashioned products that roll off big printing presses. In writing and editing, mistakes can be taken care of with the click of a mouse, but books with problems must be fixed by hand, one at a time.
It is labor-intensive work few want to do. Some manufacturers and binderies do small repair jobs, but primarily as a courtesy to their customers. "I can't think of any other companies that do what [Dunn does]," says John Edwards, chief executive officer of Edwards Brothers Inc., a book manufacturer in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"If a book isn't ready for prime time, you call Dunn to fix it," says Andrew Weber, senior vice president of operations and technology at Bertelsmann AG's Random House Inc.
Dunn's caseload offers a window into a world of books gone wrong. A few years ago, John Wiley & Sons Inc. slipped up by providing the wrong academic credentials for an author on the title page of a new college textbook. "We put the books on hold at the warehouse, called Dunn and asked how fast they could pick them up, rip out the title pages, and tip in new ones," says Elizabeth Doble, vice president of production and manufacturing. Dunn fixed the problem by manually removing each title page with a sharp blade, and then inserting a newly printed, corrected page.
When the spine of a book called "Heaven & Earth: Unseen by the Naked Eye" wouldn't tear off, Dunn bought cans of compacted air, turned them upside down, and used the cold accelerant to freeze the glue so the spine would be easy to remove.
Esther Margolis, president of a small, independent New York publisher called Newmarket Press, a unit of Newmarket Publishing & Communications Corp., says she relied on Dunn to remove a printed exchange between an editor and an author that was inadvertently included in a finished book. "It was cheaper than reprinting, and quicker," she says. Dunn removed the page, printed a new one, and glued it in by hand. "Readers were never able to tell," says Ms. Margolis.
A salesman for a Buffalo, N.Y., phone book sold a full-page ad to an escort service, and it was printed in nearly 800,000 copies of the directory. Dunn was enlisted to replace the offending pages, which it did by hand. Dunn did the same service for a medical textbook that labeled a cancerous tumor benign.
Sometimes Dunn rescues publishers from their own miscalculations about how many books to publish. In October 2002, Random House's Villard imprint published "Mysterious Stranger" by magician David Blaine. The stacks that didn't sell were sent to Dunn, which converted them into paperbacks by tearing off the spine and hardcover "boards" and then gluing on a new cover. Every month Dunn transforms an estimated 600,000 hardcover books that way.
Founded in 1976 by David Dunn, a former book manufacturing executive, the company originally focused on book binding. In 1983, after several accounts went out of business, Mr. Dunn began targeting publishers' mistakes. The company employs about 125 people full time, including three of Mr. Dunn's nephews, a brother-in-law, Mr. Dunn's sister, his wife, his three daughters and their three husbands. The business generates about $7 million in revenue and grows an estimated 5% annually.
Its Web site features a hospital door with the words "Emergency Entrance" emblazoned on it. Viewers who click on the doors are then directed to a menu of specialists described as "book physicians." The list includes Head Book Nurse, Head Book Trauma Surgeon and Medical Book Billing.
It performed one operation earlier this year when Syracuse University Press sent 800 copies of Ghada Samman's novel "The Night of the First Billion" to Dunn. The problem: The last line of the book was inadvertently left out. "Nobody caught the mistake until it was too late," says Mary Peterson Moore, the press's manager of design and production. Inside Dunn's factory, a skilled worker used a blade to cut out the offending page. She then ran a line of glue to the area where the page had been excised. The new page was then set into the glue, and the book closed. The operation left no scar.