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. Continue reading