As a publishing brand, Severn House has spent 50 years somewhat incognito. By and large it hasn’t landed books on bestseller lists, won prizes, or garnered much media coverage. The company specializes in hardcover genre fiction—fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, romance—primarily targeted to libraries. Furthermore, fully 70% of its sales are not in its home market in the U.K. but in the U.S. The model seems very counterintuitive, but it works.

“Libraries have always been our main market,” says Joanne Grant, publisher of Severn House. “It’s what sets us aside from regular trade publishers. It’s especially important at the moment to have a publisher aimed at libraries—there is a cost-of-living crisis and people need their reading fixes. It’s a public service!”

There are other rewards in catering to libraries. “It makes us freer in what we publish,” Grant adds. “We’re not chasing the big mass market bestsellers. We can listen to our authors, who listen to their readers and to librarians. You can get such a homogenized impression of what is popular when you look at the bestseller lists, when there are so many other kinds of books that are being enjoyed. Our books can find niches within niches.” Among the highlights of the 2024 list are a new entry in Simon Brett’s Decluttering mystery series; new titles in Barbara Hambly’s series starring freed slave Benjamin January; Leslie Karst’s A Molten Death, set in Hawaii and starring a lesbian sleuthing couple; and A.J. Steiger’s Eye of a Little God, a horror and dark fantasy novel with LGBTQ themes.

Staff retention and author care are further sources of satisfaction. Grant is a relative newcomer to the 11-strong team, having joined in 2021. Sales director Michelle Duff, who handles Severn House’s relationship with U.S. distributor Publishers Group West, has been with the company for 25 years, and art director Piers Tilbury is about to hit the same anniversary.

Authors, too, have stuck around, as Slatter points out. Among them Simon Brett—a recipient of the U.K. Crime Writers’ Association’s highest honor, the Diamond Dagger—has been a stalwart, and romance writer Sally Spencer (the pen name of Alan Rustage) wrote more than 50 novels for Severn House before retiring last year.

There have been adjustments since Edwin Buckhalter founded Severn House in 1974. Buckhalter notes that then, many bestselling authors were available in mass market but not in hardcover, which limited their appeal to libraries. While Penguin brought about the paperback revolution, Severn House staged a countermovement by reprinting into hardcover.

Today, Severn House has evolved, and it publishes large print, trade paperback, and e-books. It adds 80–100 new titles to its list each year. The e-books are on the expensive side: $24.99 is the standard price for titles that are $29.99 in hardcover. Most e-book sales are through Amazon, and Grant says consumers searching for its titles tend to be fans, happy to pay for their fixes.

Buckhalter retired in 2017, selling his company to Canongate—another counterintuitive move. Severn House is a publisher of popular fiction for libraries; Canongate is a fellow independent, but known for upmarket fiction and nonfiction for the trade. Grant reports to Canongate COO Kate Gibb. “They’re very invested in what we do,” Grant says. “But they’re also very keen to say, ‘It’s your company—go and do your thing and tell us how we can support you.’ ”

Perhaps Canongate’s subtle influence can be observed in Severn House’s increasingly flexible approach to its list. It has struck deals, for example, with e-book specialists Joffe Books and Canelo, which has brought out e-book editions of select Severn House titles. In the U.S., the publisher has bought rights to the first 14 volumes of Candace Robb’s Owen Archer series and plans to reissue many of them as competitively priced paperbacks and e-books. Grant hints that Severn House may be about to trial more flexibility in pricing. “We’re not afraid to make leaps when opportunities arise,” she adds.

She recognizes that Severn House must adapt in order to continue to thrive. “We need to remain relevant to the library market while evolving to make sure that we’re picking up sales in other avenues, so we can continue to be a vibrant publisher,” she says.

Nicholas Clee is joint editor of BookBrunch, a U.K. publishing trade magazine.

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