Rival versions of novels by Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens and others are now in the shops for just pounds 1. But the publishers deny that their arrival means previous prices were kept artificially high.
Eighteen months ago, Wordsworth Editions, a small publisher in Ware, Hertfordshire, launched its Wordsworth Classics range at pounds 1 each, compared to prices ranging from pounds 2.25 to pounds 15.99 in the Penguin Classics series.
Since then Wordsworth, founded by Michael Trayler and his wife, Helen, has sold 18 million copies worldwide and this year will make a profit of pounds 1.5m. The company, which has 10 full- time and five part-time employees, took business from its giant rival, Penguin.
Now Penguin has launched a Popular Classics range at an identical price, to exploit the gap in the market discovered by Wordsworth and to prevent any further loss of trade. By June, it will have 72 novels available.
Mr Trayler is flattered, but he is also annoyed at the decision by the best-known name in paperback publishing to issue the same titles as Wordsworth.
He said: ''It is unusual in the publishing trade to have identical titles at identical prices. I would have been very happy if they had chosen different titles, which would have been wonderful for bookshops and for the public.'
Wordsworth has cut prices by concentrating on popular titles where the copyright has expired, keeping overheads low, using modern technology and ordering big print runs. Detailed explanatory notes have been replaced by a brief introduction.
Mr Trayler is coy about Wordsworth's profit margins, but the wholesalers pay Wordsworth 50p to 55p a copy, leaving bookshops with a healthy return.
John Maxwell, managing director of Godfrey Cave, the Penguin division that publishes the pounds 1 series, denied that prices had been kept artificially high. 'They are not exactly the same, they do not contain the notes which Penguin Classics are famous for,' he said.
He admitted that the new series was a direct response to Wordsworth's success, but said Penguin was reacting to demand and not trying to deliver a knockout blow to its small rival.
Nick Clee, book news editor of Bookseller magazine, said: 'I see this mostly as competition for Wordsworth but it appears to be a move that Penguin has made reluctantly as Wordsworth Classics has been going for some time.'
In the first month, Penguin has sold about 90,000 copies of each of its first batch of 12 novels.
Wordsworth, which has 130 classic titles in its range, is pledging to keep its pounds 1 price tag at least until next year.
Whether both series can survive is questionable, but optimists say they are attracting new impulse buyers, thus expanding rather than redistributing the market for books.
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