Penguin turns a new page

Publishing wars: The company which launched the paperback is now at the centre of a controversy over its 60p series
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The Independent Online
When publisher Allen Lane conceived the idea of the orange-jacketed paperback selling at sixpence in 1935, Penguin Books was born. Books suddenly became a mass medium in Britain, and no less a figure than George Orwell said: "Penguin books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them".

It was not long before other publishing houses did indeed respond to Penguin's initiative by selling paperback classics at affordable prices. By the Nineties, publishing had become a highly competitive industry, and Penguin appeared to be an institution unprepared for the modern age.

But to mark its 60th anniversary this year, Penguin has managed to make the other publishing houses sit up and take notice by catapulting its books on to the best-seller lists. It called its Penguin 60s series - 60 books on sale at 60p - "the most amazing publishing initiative of the year" and even its rivals have been quick to agree. Jamie-Hodder Williams, head of marketing at Hodder & Stoughton, had barbed praise for the Penguin initiative. "It's a creative way of getting people into bookshops

Authors ranging from Edith Wharton to Camille Paglia have helpedto sell books and highlight the diversity of the Penguin catalogue. John Carey, professor of English literature at Oxford University, was full of praise. "It was very imaginative. I was in Copenhagen last week and even there the bookshops had displays of Penguin 60s series. I hope it whets the appetite of people who need their appetite whetted."

Penguin has raised its profile with this idea. Other publishers, however, are critical of Penguin's domination of the paperback best-seller lists. Ian Chapman, of Macmillan, which also owns Pan, Picador and Sidgwick & Jackson, said: "We publish Jackie Collins's Hollywood Kids. For the third week, it only scraped into the top 15 and as I know its true place is in the top five, it's annoying. These best-seller lists are incredibly important for morale, incredibly important for an author and they can have a big influence on unit sales. Given the state of trade at the moment, we need all the help we can get. I'm disappointed."

The lists have also thrown criticism on to Bookwatch, the publication that compiles them. Adam Westcott, the head of marketing at Reed publishing - which owns Methuen, Secker & Warburg and Heinemann - worked at Bookwatch from 1989 to 1991. He said: "I know from my experience that their best- seller lists are selective. They don't count books sold at supermarkets, railway stations and airports. They don't include back lists. We sell over 100,000 copies of To Kill a Mockingbird every year and that doesn't make the list. These lists are not objective and scientific. They therefore shouldn't have included all the Penguin 60s series."

Eddie Bell, the chairman of Harper-Collins, added: "The Bookwatch chart is a bit of a lottery but including these books doesn't prove much. If James Herbert sells 300,000 books at pounds 5.99, you've got to sell a lot of 60p books to catch up. Putting all these books on the lists doesn't help new authors."

Bookwatch's Steve Butler was unrepentant about the decision to include the "cheapie" range of paperbacks. "What are books for if they're not for selling? People like Sigmund Freud and Conan Doyle have never been near a best-seller list before. People moan about these books having old authors but nobody complained when Middlemarch was top of the best-seller list last year and it was 140 years old." Marcus Aurelius's top 10 status is particularly surprising. The Roman Emperor wrote his stoic reflections 1,800 years ago.

Even Penguin's publishing director, Tony Lacey, has mixed feelings about his company's current hegemony. "We've sold about six and a half million in the UK alone. It's great we've taken over the list. But in my view they should be stopped after a limited time. It has been a literary phenomenon and in two weeks' time, they should take it off the charts."