Verso Books

Verso Books is the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world, publishing one hundred books a year.

We spoke to Rowan Wilson, UK Director, about Verso’s illustrious history of trailblazing publishing, his anniversary year highlights, being a theory nerd and Verso’s spirit animal.  Read on to find out more…

Congratulations on turning 50 this year! Tell us about some of the highlights you have planned in the run up to Christmas.

Thank you! We are super excited about our Pandemic Pamphlets, a series of books that tackle some of the key political issues surrounding the virus, including Grace Blakeley’s vital assessment of the consequences of the situation for the economy and Andreas Malm’s startling exploration of the relationship between the virus and climate change. We have Tom Hazeldine’s timely history of the UK’s north-south divide, The Northern Question. The new Verso fiction imprint goes from strength to strength, with two new titles from Vigdis Hjorth and Jenny Hval, previous bestselling authors for Verso. Plus, there’s the legendary Stella Dadzie’s history of women’s role in resisting slavery in the Caribbean, A Kick in the Belly. A great Xmas gift book is the Verso Book of Feminism, following on from our hit the Verso Book of Dissent. Aaron Benanav’s re-appraisal of our fear of robots in the world of work, Automation and the Future of Work, will get a lot of interest. Plus, Matt Beaumont’s follow up to Nightwalking, The Walker, will be perfect for all of us who have been forced to get around on their own two feet rather than using public transport. It’s a tough time for generating publicity, with the profusion of delayed books being published this autumn, but I’m delighted to say that our publicity team have managed to pull out all the stops and are getting stellar coverage for this autumn’s books – we certainly didn’t expect to have an author on ITV’s Lorraine! (Go Stella Dadzie!)

Your list is packed full of big names like Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler and Walter Rodney and it’s obvious that you work very closely with your authors. How do you go about choosing which ones to publish?

It’s a long and complex process. We have a team of experienced editors who are dedicated to working out what are the key topics that a left publisher needs to be exploring and responding to. In addition, they have a detailed knowledge of who are the best writers in these areas. They will work with an author on a proposal that is then considered by the house. Plus we have a meticulous costing process where we establish the sales potential of every title.

Everyone at Verso is politically engaged and able to give their feedback on titles, and this often makes a huge difference to how we work on a book. For example, I would say that Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes, on sex workers’ rights, which has become a bestseller, hugely benefited from the commitment of staff not just on the editorial side.

Of course, publishing on contemporary politics is a gamble for any publishing house. What may be a burning issue in one year may have moved off the front pages of the newspapers by the time we come to publish, so it’s also a process of working out what will remain a concern from the time we commission a book, to when the book is written and then published. In some ways, this can be depressing: for example, if you’ll excuse the pun, the burning issue where we have made so little progress is climate change, and so Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin’s new book will remain relevant for some time.

We try to remain light on our feet so that we can respond to the big issues that quickly explode, and our Pandemic Pamphlets series is an example of how we are able to do this: we began commissioning them in April, the authors wrote at rapid speed, our editors and production team edited and manufactured the books in record time, so that we were able to publish the first in September – just 6 months!

Many large publishers have imitated the kind of publishing that Verso has originated over its illustrious history: do you question their motives or say, the more the merrier?

Absolutely, the more the merrier! If I can blow our trumpet a little, I would say that our success has prompted many larger publishers to explore radical voices over the past decade. But not only that, the move within political discourse to be open to more diverse voices, the resurgence of the feminist movement and Black Lives Matter – all have been a sign that neoliberalism’s standard trope of ‘There is No Alternative’ no longer holds much water. Readers are searching for alternative voices.

Of course, since punk, it has been an age old complaint that musicians get a taste of success on indie labels and then ‘graduate’ to the big multinationals, but Verso has always punched above its weight, and we can do as well as one of the big publishers. Because of the length and history of our publishing, and because of our dynamic marketing team, we have a high profile as a publisher: many of our readers seek out Verso titles because we are known for the quality and perspective of our publishing.

Verso books are very popular with gallery bookshops. Why do you think that is and what was the first title that struck a chord with art accounts?

I love gallery bookshops – one of the most frustrating aspects of lockdown shopping is not being able to browse some of my favourite gallery shops, such as the ICA, the Tate and the Whitechapel. You can find books there that you won’t find anywhere else, such as the amazing Sternberg or Semiotext(e). We find that art account readers are prepared to dive a little deeper into the realms of theory, and are some of the most politically engaged, so will tackle some of our more challenging titles. It also gives us an opportunity to create some really exciting covers, with designers whose chief concern seems to be how to ‘deconstruct’ the very idea of the book cover! Our readers love them! So books like Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism have been a success in these shops.

Which book from the Verso stable has been the most memorable for you? 

There are too many! We have such a long history, and so many of our books that we first published in the 1970s remain bestsellers for us today. I first encountered Verso as a theory nerd at university, picking up classics of twentieth century philosophy by the likes of Adorno, Fredric Jameson, Judith Butler and Guy Debord. As well as reissuing these in our Radical Thinkers series, packaging and pricing them to make them accessible to today’s readers, I’m really excited by the books introducing these writers to a more general readership. Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss on the Frankfurt School and Peter Salmon’s An Event, Perhaps, his biography of Derrida are, I hope, ‘gateway drugs’ to these fascinating figures.

Owen Jones’ Chavs was a tremendously exciting book to publish – it was so thrilling to see it take off. Owen was a complete unknown at the time and he and everyone at Verso, especially the publicist, worked so hard for it to be a success. For me, this was a really important book for the national conversation because at the time class had completely slipped off the agenda. I remember Owen giving David Starkey a very hard time on Newsnight!

I would also say The End of Policing. This has been a key book for our US colleagues this year, and has sold well in the UK, with all the vital discussions about the role of law enforcement, following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after another cycle of horrific killings of black men and women by the police.

And a personal favourite would be Laura Grace Ford’s Savage Messiah that I commissioned some years ago. I was drawn to the East End of London by all those writers, from Maureen Duffy to Iain Sinclair, who find a resonance in the deep history of a city that you feel through your feet, so to find a writer and artist with such a distinctive vision in the male dominated world of psychogeography was great.

Which five Verso titles should every aspiring radical bookshop stock?
  • Chavs – Owen Jones:  one of our biggest bestsellers.
  • The Verso Book of Feminism – edited by Jessie Kindig: A wonderful way to explore the many varied paths of feminism over the millennia.
  • A People’s History of the World – Chris Harman: does exactly what it says on the tin!
  • Red Rosa – Kate Evans: a gripping, bestselling graphic biography of one of the leading 20th century revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg.
  • Imagined Communities – Ben Anderson: the foundational text on the history and meaning of nationalism – still one of our bestsellers, 40 years after we first published it.

If Verso was an animal, which would it be?

An old mole 😉


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