I doubt I’m alone among British readers in having something of a special relationship with Penguin Books. I doubt I was the only person who felt betrayed by its merger, in 2013, with Random House. Penguin was, I felt, part of my cultural birthright, and it was not in Penguin’s gift to get into bed with another publisher, no matter how powerful or prestigious, no more than it would be for the BBC to merge with Sky.
Certainly, Penguin’s continued status as something like the country’s national publisher might well be down to its track record in simply producing excellent books, but it is surely also down to its careful stewardship of its own brand. One way it does this is through the production, every now and then, of an eye-catching series of miniature or pocket-sized books, the latest of which is a series of 50 “small-form paperbacks” published this month as Penguin Moderns, and priced at a modest £1 each.
I say “backlist”, as if the likes of Samuel Beckett, Kathy Acker and Clarice Lispector are “Penguin authors” in the way that, say, Ted Hughes is a “Faber author”. Or, for that matter, F Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Wollstonecraft or Marcus Aurelius. Penguin started out as a reprint publisher, after all, rather than the commissioner of original material, and it is on its classics lists that its reputation primarily rests.
It’s easy to see how, for someone of my generation or older, Penguin felt like a part of my inheritance. When I was a teenager, Young Adult fiction didn’t exist as a category, so when I was finished with children’s books I moved not onto contemporary novels, but onto classics (Dickens, Wilkie Collins) and modern classics (Kerouac and Orwell), all but all of them in either the orange or eau-de-nil spines of Penguin.
Nowadays plenty of publishers have a ‘classics’ imprint – or market books as such, as if that were the same thing. But Penguin is still the classics publisher par excellence, and keeping people buying classics has got to be an interesting challenge for a publisher, particularly those books that aren’t on the school or university syllabuses, and that haven’t dropped onto Andrew Davies’s desk for prestige film or television adaptation. These series of mini-books are part of how Penguin have done this.
And just look at them. Aren’t they lovely?
The first ones, so far as I know, were the Penguin 60s, published in 1995 to celebrate the publisher’s 60th anniversary, and costing 60p. Sixty classics and sixty more contemporary book-lets, most of them extracted from full-length books, rather than presenting full-length short works.
One way these small, inexpensive books work is as samplers. You buy them to introduce yourself to writers you are unfamiliar with, with the publisher hoping, presumably, that you might upgrade to the full-length work at some point. I don’t know how successful this strategy is in general. For myself, I can’t think of a single instance where a mini-Penguin has led me directly to ‘buy up’ in this way. At some point in the future, almost certainly. These were the first place I read Jean Rhys, James Baldwin, Sappho, Donald Barthelme and Montaigne.
Ah, Montaigne! It’s amusing to note, writing this, that I appear to have ‘sample- bought’ the great French essayist no fewer than three times: as a Penguin 60, a Little Black Classic and a Great Idea. (To be fair, Penguin almost entirely avoids replicating material across the three books.) These repeat purchases are evidence of… what, exactly? My forgetfulness? Penguin’s superlative marketing? Or simply that I’ve done my absolute damnedest to keep trying with an author I find frustratingly unreadable. I get him, I know how important he is in the history of literature, the development of the modern mind, the invention of the self: I love Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live. I just don’t think his essays are very… good. (And, yes, I did eventually buy the Complete Essays, though I bought them second-hand. And, no, I still don’t ‘get’ him.)
More important than any individual, direct upgrades from sampler to full-length work, I’d guess, is the is the way these series reinforce the idea that Penguin is the go-to publisher for classics: that their name is synonymous with publishing the widest range of literature from across the world and across the history of literature. (Do I instinctively turn to Penguin lists for contemporary fiction, as I do for classics? No, not really.)
But I don’t just buy mini-Penguins by writers I don’t know. I also buy them by writers I do. I’ve even been known to buy mini-Penguins containing writing I already own elsewhere. For it’s also worth saying that the delight of these books is their pocketability. They are something to shove in a jacket pocket before setting off for the tube or bus for an evening out, when I’m not taking a bag with me. A tiny book to read on the bus or tube is not just convenient, it’s a treat. A chance to dump whatever big/proper books you’re eye deep in at any given time for a little fling with Eudora Welty, or Nietzsche.
The most successful series, after the original Penguin 60s, has surely been the Great Ideas series of philosophical, historical and texts, started in 2004 and selling, in its first year, over 1.5 million copies. This is surely down in large part to the brilliant typographic cover designs, overseen and in some cases designed by David Pearson, reinforced by the deluxe feel of the books themselves, with their ‘debossed’ text printed into the pleasingly thick covers. (The other series are noticeably less sumptuously produced.) After all, at £4, and then £5, they didn’t feel quite so much like a pocket-money outlay as the 60s and other smaller format series.
Look at some of the other series that followed Great Ideas (Great Loves, Great Journeys, Great… Cooking, was it?) and you do get a whiff of bandwagon-jumping about them. Nor was I particularly taken with the Penguin 70s of 2005, though they were well priced at £1.50. Perhaps they were a bit thin in the spine, whereas the Great Ideas were usually thick enough to feel as substantial as their contents. They held no more than a Penguin 60, but were bigger in size, so felt less worthwhile.
But I love the true pocket-sized series, in all their versions: the two sets of Penguin 60s from 1995, the Modern Classics of 2011, the Little Black Classics of 2015, and now the Penguin Moderns of 2018. I love the size of them, and I love the price. 60p for the 60s, 80p, £1 or £2 for the Little Black Classics. I’ve even shelled out £3 for a few of the mini Modern Classics, though that felt a little high.
The new Penguin Moderns, however, are an absolute steal at £1. They’re surely a loss-leader, but what a way to keep readers thinking about these great writers: not just McCullers, Calvino and Dorothy Parker, but Audre Lorde, Fernando Pessoa and Leonora Carrington. And, er, Ryszard Kapuscinski. There are at least a dozen writers on the list of 50 that I’ve never read, and it feels like a worthwhile challenge to shell out for every single one of them. After all, what does £12 buy you, these days, in books? It buys you a fattish paperback (an anthology, perhaps) in its second edition, or a single poetry collection or indie novel in its first run.
At its best, a brand is something that the consumer doesn’t just buy, but buys into. Penguin is, naturally, invested in the idea of me buying and reading books, and lots of them, but not just any books: they’re choosy. And that’s the reason I go on buying them. The canon is in constant flux, of course – Great Ideas took flak for being overwhelmingly male, while Penguin Moderns do a little better at 16 out of 50 women writers – but Penguin’s genius is in convincing me that I, as a book-buyer, am part of that process of evolution and adaptation. By choosing who I buy in my local bookshop to slip into my back jeans pocket, I’m helping define the classics of the future.
Thanks to Penguin for the three Modern Classics shown above. All other books were bought by me.