More mini-books to come as rival publishers copy Penguin

The new format set the book trade in a spin, writes Sophie Walker
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The Independent Online
THE mini-book, the cheap pocket paperback with which Penguin stunned the book trade this summer, is here to stay. Penguin looks set to launch another series before Christmas and several other publishers are planning to join the fray.

The small, 60p volumes, launched as a one-off to mark Penguin's 60th anniversary, took the book world by storm, selling an astonishing 4.4 million copies over nine weeks and swamping the bestseller lists.

So great was their success that other publishers denounced them as an unfair intrusion in the market. Now Penguin plans a follow-up. Trevor Glover, Penguin's UK chief, confirmed that a similar scheme was in the offing by Christmas. "There will be another sally forth," he said. "Our plans are well advanced but we are not quite ready to reveal any further details."

Rival Faber plans to jump on the bandwagon with a collection of cut-price poetry next spring. Publishing director Joanna Mackie said 10 titles priced under pounds 1 would launch its series.

Faber publishes an impressive list of 20th-century poets, including TS Eliot and Sylvia Plath, and its collection of poems by WH Auden reached number one in the paperback general list last February.

"The Penguin 60s introduced more people to the concept of reading and buying books," explained Ms Mackie. "It has brought about some revolutionary thinking in the trade."

It is hardly surprising that the idea is being followed up. By 23 July, just two weeks after their launch, Penguin 60s filled all of the top 10 places in the non-fiction bestseller list and had a similar grip on fiction. Albert Camus and Marcus Aurelius have never been so popular.

Most of the publishing world was horrified. Big names such as Jeffrey Archer, Jackie Collins and Stephen King were edged out of the fiction lists and their disgruntled publishers complained that Penguin's promotion was being taken too seriously, and that their more conventional bestsellers were being denied prominence. Ian Chapman, managing director of Macmillan books, was among the angriest, arguing that the mini-books should never even have been counted in the bestseller lists. "These books are pamphlets," he said.

According to Steve Butler, research manager at Bookwatch, which compiles the bestseller list, the anger was misplaced. "Sales of full-price paperbacks were up on last year as a whole and it seems likely that the Penguins boosted paperback fiction. More people were going into book shops, which sold more books, whatever the price."

The issue may further divide publishers already at odds over the beleaguered Net Book Agreement, an arrangement whereby publishers and retailers agree to a minimum book price. Barbara Boote, editorial director for Little, Brown, was of the opinion that "these things erode the NBA, and as supporters of the agreement, we'd rather not copy Penguin."

However, Hodder Headline has been selling titles at non-net prices since the beginning of the year, and it is considering the impact of the 60p paperbacks.

The company's managing director, Martin Neild, agreed that the format was "clearly something that has to be a serious possibility. We have been selling hardbacks at pounds 10 for some time now and we look at anything making use of price as a marketing weapon."

A spokesperson for Reed Books thought Penguin's success opened the doors for further innovative price promotion.

Reed is well-known for its dislike of the NBA, and has been selling books outside the NBA for more than four years. Helen Fraser, publishing director, said: "All the publishers were amazed and impressed by the sales that Penguin achieved. They have alerted people to the fact that there is a market for books at low prices."

At Penguin, Mr Glover did not think the series would become a regular feature, but he was firm about its purpose. "The Penguin 60s are both profitable and praiseworthy. This is about proper publishing."

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