Publishing Planets: Serpent’s Tail

IN CONSERVATION WITH: Hannah Westland, Publisher and Editor.

Serpent’s Tail, an impressive imprint of Profile Books, is constantly publishing quality books. One of its upcoming releases, Under the Blue (2021) by Oana Aristide, is a poignant novel, but its relevance has been threatened by the current state of global affairs. Amidst a deadly pandemic, does publishing a book about an even deadlier pandemic become a challenge? We spoke to Serpent’s Tail publisher Hannah Westland about this issue and what projects are on the go at Serpent’s Tail.

Hannah’s journey into publishing was smooth. Starting as an assistant at RCW Literary Agency, where she spent ten years, she eventually became an agent before moving to Serpent’s Tail as a publisher eight years ago. Serpent’s Tail, Hannah explained, “is an imprint that celebrates originality.” They publish a wide range of books, mainly fiction, in the English original and in translation.

But what books would pique the interest of Hannah and her team? Writers who “illuminate the present” or make the past feel immediate will land nicely in their publishing crosshairs, she explained.

“A Serpent’s Tail book will challenge you, entertain you, tell you something about the world, provoke change and leave you hungry for more. We publish writers who dare to think differently and help us look at the world anew.”

Intrigued by Hannah’s impressive experience, we were excited to hear about her career highlights. She picked out The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s “superb” second novel, “which subverted ideas about what a historical novel could and should be, and went on to be a huge bestseller.”

Hannah’s other highlights included:

“Working with Esi Edugyan, who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize twice for her novels Half Blood Blues and Washington Black. More recently, building a wider readership for Mary Gaitskill with our publication of her novella This is Pleasure and reissues of many of her earlier works.”

This experience working on an impressive variety of projects must have equipped Hannah and her team pretty well when 2020 hit. Given its prescient subject matter, the path to publication of Under the Blue could have been greatly threatened by the events of 2020 and COVID-19. Hannah explained that the book was acquired in Autumn 2019, and “at the time it blew me away as both a superb and enormously gripping literary/SF thriller, and an extraordinary act of imagination and philosophical enquiry.”

The world of Under the Blue, with its population-obliterating pandemic, to Hannah “seemed about as far away from a likely reality as possible.” Hannah thought its message about climate change would be at the forefront of readers’ response to it. Then of course, “everything changed.” The team faced the question of rushing the publication, or putting it off. “Would it be received as insensitive to be publishing on [a pandemic] so soon?” Hannah asked. They had lots of discussions, Hannah told us, inhouse and with Oana, concluding that the process should take as long as it takes. She explained:

“We agreed that Oana would write an afterword providing context to the strange experience of having written a book about a pandemic without knowing what was coming. When we sent proofs out to authors in the hope of getting advanced quotes for the book, we had an overwhelmingly positive response, with climate activists and crime and literary novelists immediately grasping the book’s strength and urgency.”

This feedback, Hannah said, “renewed our resolve” and gave the team hope that the response to the novel in March will be equally strong. This novel leads some of the current projects in the works at Serpent’s Tail, and we asked what else is cooking. “I’m currently editing a debut graphic novel called Alison by a wonderful artist and writer called Lizzy Stewart,” Hannah said, which is “all about a young working-class woman and the complex relationship she has with an older man.” She’s finding the process “stimulating and creative,” having never published a graphic novel at Serpent’s Tail.

Hannah also highlighted:

“Alice Ash’s weird and wonderful short story collection Paradise Block, Roisin Kiberd’s essays The Disconnect, on the dark corners of the internet, and a fantastic new historical novel called Libertie by American writer Kaitlyn Greenidge.”

Our deep thanks go to Hannah Westland, Publisher (and Editor of Under the Blue), for talking to us all about Serpent’s Tail and to Valentina Zanca for sending us an early copy of the brilliant Under the Blue.

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