On 18 January of this year, Penguin's Chief Exec Peter Mayer and Editor- in-Chief Peter Carson came back from a Madrid trip with a stack of the small, cheap books you can find on sale in newsagents and shops all over Spain. "We were talking to the head of one of our Spanish publishing companies," says Mayer, "and he showed us these little books and mentioned they'd sold over four million in five months. We both realised this is something we could do in the UK."
Second bright idea: to tie it all in with the year's celebrations. Could the whole thing be turned around - books selected, type set, covers designed, marketing organised - in time for the anniversary in July?
Four and a half months later, Mayer was at the printers watching the first books come off the presses. A total printing of more than 7 million, between 100,000 and 150,000 copies per title, this is the largest print order ever placed in Europe, according to Penguin estimates.
The whole scheme has been made possible through some adroit financial calculations. Huge unit sales would be needed to turn a margin of around 13p per book into anything like lottery money, so putting together a tempting presentation for Britain's least seducible booksellers was essential. Peter Mayer went to see W H Smith and came away smiling with an order for 1,250,000 copies. Even more important is the fact that the books are pre-sold non-net - in other words, not on the usual sale-or-return basis. "Whatever happens, we aren't going to get those copies coming back to us, which makes it slightly more economically viable," says Tony Lacey, who is a little coy about the implications of flouting the Net Book Agreement in this way: "Oh, we think this is a rather special case."
The Penguin 60s are being launched across the Atlantic (price 95 cents); only 10 titles are common to both lists, "so you're looking at 100 titles in all," says Mayer, still reeling from it all. The American edition brings the total print order up to 12 million, of which around a million are destined for sale in Canada and Europe. Penguin Australia has also expressed an interest, but may be producing its own list of Australian writers.
Lacey won't countenance the idea of failure: "We wouldn't have made a move like this without trying to find out what people and booksellers want." Talking about the project with anyone from Penguin elicits a fervent chorus of "Have you seen them?" "They're delicious," says Mayer. "I don't believe there's anybody who will buy just one. I'm sure the booksellers will be doing deals like, buy 10 for pounds 5."
Despite the hype and enthusiasm, all this is not as wildly innovative as it sounds. "The Italians did a series called Mille Lire with very big success, and the Germans have been doing small-format books for a very long time, so I wouldn't want to claim credit for the idea," agrees Mayer with commendable modesty. Indeed, Penguin themselves already do small- format books in the Syrens series: short, esoteric works at a decidedly less keen price of pounds 2.99. "Not the same thing at all," snorts Peter Carson. "Syrens are very sharply defined and intellectual, for want of a better word. They're on better quality paper, and are mostly new translations or new works."
Many of the Penguin 60s, in contrast, are extracts from Penguin books, for example Dirk Bogarde's From Le Pigeonnier , culled from his latest book of memoirs, A Short Walk From Harrods. Others are simply short story samplers: Katherine Mansfield, M R James, William Boyd. "Someone looking at them will say, I've never read any Montaigne; at 60p I'll try it," says Penguin's Fanny Blake, the editor responsible for, among others, the Dick Francis, Alisdair Grey and Miss Read mini-books. "While someone enjoying them would probably go on to buy the full-length version, the 60s books are self-contained; they don't end on a cliff-hanger, now read on..." Of the 60, Paul Theroux's Down the Yangtze River is not available in any other format, while Sara Paretsky's three stories are previously unpublished.
Penguin clearly have high hopes for this new venture. Any ideas of resting on the laurels which 1400 classics titles represent were bruised by Wordsworth's rude incursion into the classics market; at a mere pounds 1, their brutally undercut budget editions forced Penguin to create a two-tier classics division.
"We waited slightly too long before getting involved with that," concedes Mayer. "Anyone can just cherry-pick the most popular titles; our commitment to the classics is total, and very deep. We consider the popular classics to be all of a piece with the more esoteric titles. Some we only sell 300 to 400 a year of. Some we have to subsidise. We thought Wordsworth was a short term thing, but when it turned out otherwise we got involved with producing our own cheaper classics."
It was a defensive move, albeit one which netted them 7 million sales last year. Now, following Wordsworth's one-quid threat with a 60p snip is an elegant riposte, and one which returns Penguin smartly to its origins. "It's all part of Allen Lane's vision of making books more widely available. It's a way of refocusing our aims," says Mayer, nobly. One thing's certain: if W H Smith's got over a million of the things on its hands, it's going to make damn sure we buy them.Reuse content