With the ambitious aim of publishing the type of risk-taking fiction that no one else in the UK dared to touch at the time, Pete Ayrton founded Serpent’s Tail in 1986. Three decades later, the team is looking back on a compelling variety of authors they have published – Americans like Kathy Acker, William Burroughs and Chester Himes, and numerous works in translation from the likes of Herta Müller, Robert Walser, Elfriede Jelinek and Kenzaburo Oe. Commissioning editor Nick Sheerin highlights Serpent’s Tail’s interest in homegrown talent, as well: ‘We have also launched the careers of young British and Irish writers like Colm Tóibín and David Peace’.
In 2007, Serpent’s Tail became a part of the independent non-fiction publisher Profile Books. ‘How has Serpent’s Tail changed since then?’, muses Sheerin. ‘Well, we’re still willing to take a chance on brave and ambitious books, but we now also have the clout to make real bestsellers of them.’ Sheerin started his fruitful career with Serpent’s Tail six years ago as editorial assistant, when Hannah Westland had just taken over as Publisher. ‘Basically the first thing Hannah did here was to acquire Sarah Perry, whose The Essex Serpent went on to become a huge bestseller. That’s the model: trust talent and publish the hell out of it.’
Serpent’s Tail’s main focus rests on new writers of contemporary and classic literary fiction, but the publisher is also always on the lookout for clever standalone thrillers and unusual literary non-fiction projects. Sheerin explains that although style and voice are naturally crucial for convincing fiction, ‘novels always have to have something to communicate beyond their own style.’ Quoting the philosopher Johan Cruyff, he remarks: ‘Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring’.
Beyond Serpent’s Tail’s aim to inspire their readers to think differently, Sheerin is always open to literary newcomers and surprises, tending to gravitate towards contemporary-set fiction with a ready sense of irony. He is, for instance, especially looking forward to publishing Marion Poschmann’s novel The Pine Islands in 2019, which was shortlisted for the German Book Prize. He also highlights Jarett Kobek, whom he describes as America’s last dissident writer, and whose novel will be published next spring: Only Americans Burn in Hell is ‘a savage satire of the modern world’ that adds immortal lesbian fairies to the mix.
In addition to their often experimental and daring publications, Sheerin runs the Serpent’s Tail Classics list, which is a mixture of gems from the Serpent’s Tail backlist and new acquisitions of rediscovered masterpieces.
Of the approximately twenty books published by Serpent’s Tail each year, two or three are usually translated works – and many of these come from the German language. Among the authors translated from German are the Nobel laureates Herta Müller and Elfriede Jelinek who, in recent years, have been joined by Clemens Setz, Heinz Helle and Florian Illies.
‘We always try to cast our net as broadly as possible to find the books that matter, and for us that means looking closely at what's happening in other languages too’, Sheerin explains. ‘Translated fiction has been an important part of our identity ever since we were founded, and that continues to be the case today.’
German-language titles in English translation with Serpent’s Tail include:
Marion Poschmann, The Pine Islands (tr. Jen Calleja, forthcoming)
Heinz Helle, Euphoria and Superabundance (tr. Kári Driscoll)
Clemens J. Setz, Indigo (tr. Ross Benjamin)
Florian Illies, 1913 (tr. Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Searle)
Marie Jalowicz-Simon, Gone to Ground (tr. Anthea Bell)
Numerous titles by Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek and Robert Walser.