Tiny Penguins vie with video

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THEY'RE small enough to fit in your pocket, cheaper than the train fare home, and the latest marketing gimmick to rescue publishing from the doldrums. From next month, you can pick up a Penguin small-format paperback for just 60p.

It's been 60 years since publisher Allen Lane revolutionised the book trade by publishing 10 paperbacks at sixpence each.

Now, to mark its anniversary, Penguin is launching a collection of miniature books by authors ranging from Martin Amis to Oscar Wilde for only 60p.

The company - confident that the price and small format will prove popular - has printed more than 7 million copies of its first 60 small-format titles. Excerpts from the classics together with contemporary writers will be on sale.

This latest publishing gimmick to attract elusive readers seduced by television, videos and computer games was inspired by a trip to Spain earlier this year by Penguin's chief executive, Peter Mayer, and editor-in-chief, Peter Carson.Millions of small-format books are on sale in bookshops and newsagents across that country.

The new line-up is "a mixture of short stories, novellas, short essays and original works that are not reproduced in this form anywhere else", said Trevor Glover, managing director of Penguin UK. "They are extraordinarily portable - they fit into the top pocket of a shirt."

Penguin's launch of small- format books comes at a time when publishers are being severely squeezed after a drop in sales during the recession. Attempts to woo back readers have included intense promotion of high- profile authors and reduced prices of hardback fiction.

But perhaps the most innovative publishing venture of the decade was Wordsworth Editions' mass-produced classics costing pounds 1 each. Hard-up students and impulse buyers have snapped them up since their launch three years ago.

"We have sold 30 million since then," said Clive Reynard, chief editor and company secretary of Wordsworth. "Penguin and Oxford University Press did not take us seriously and thought we were a flash in the pan. When Penguin saw they were going to work, they produced their own version at pounds 1 in January 1994 - which meant we got away without any competition for a year and seven months."

Oxford University Press has since produced the World Classics range, with prices from pounds 1.99, while Everyman's bid to attract readers is the sale of hand-sewn, high-quality hardback classics. "We're offering permanency, elegance and beauty," said Everyman's David Campbell. "You don't give Wordsworth Classics as a present, you won't keep them for over 20 years. We see ourselves as the Rolls-Royce of publishing."

But Wordsworth's Reynard remains exultant in Penguin's anniversary year: "Wordsworth is the champion for the reading man on the Clapham omnibus ....It has been said that Wordsworth are the Penguin of the 1990s. Allen Lane would be very at home in Wordsworth."

Penguin is in an equally feisty mood. "Wordsworth does not have anything unique. It cannot compare to Allen Lane's achievement," said Glover. "But with the 60s, we are hoping someone will read Jan Morris or Patrick McGrath and think, 'that made my flesh creep, I'll read some more'."

Books, Sunday Review